The sport of weightlifting consists of moving a barbell from the floor to completely overhead with extended arms. In competition a lifter must complete at least one of three attempts in two events, a total of six lifts for the day's competition. All lifts take place on a designated platform, with a 20kg bar (for men) or 15kg (or women, having a thinner diameter to accomodate smaller hands) knurled towards both ends and weighted with certified rubber or rubber/metal discs certified to be IWF standard. The reason for rubber rather than metal plates is that the weight is dropped, and needs to be able to withstand repeated impact against the ground without snapping the bar or cracking the plates. The bar has a section at each end with a stabilizing collar to hold the discs in place, which usually has well-lubricated ball or needle bearings inside to allow the bar to spin easily in the hands of the lifter as he or she completes the lift. All weights are given in kilograms, and the discs are color coded. Green is 10kg, yellow is 15kg, blue is 20kg and red is 25kg. Small fractional plates allow for increases of weight in finer amounts and because of their smaller diameter are sometimes simply metal plates - white 5kg plates, red 2.5kg plates, 1.5kg, 1kg and 0.5kg are also available and used.
When getting under the bar, there are two main schools of thought and/or techniques. The classic way is the "split", in which the lifter drops into a lunge position, forward leg bent at 90 degrees at the knee, and the other leg out behind the lifter, heel slightly raised. Many still favor this for the clean and jerk, but it is rare to see it in elite competition. The other technique is the "squat" in which the lifter sits quickly down into a low sitting position, reminiscent of the Slav or Chinese way of just sitting in place without a chair. It's one reason why folks from both cultures naturally have the ankle flexibility to excel at the sport. You will hear the terms "split snatch" and "squat jerk" to describe the way the lifter gets underneath a specific lift in the day's competition.
The first part of the competition is the "snatch", in which a lifter grabs the bar with a very wide grip, with chest out and arms at full extension rotated outward - and then quickly pushes his feet through the floor to stand, banging the weight off the thigh or hip before arching the body upwards into a tiptoe position to drive the barbell as high as possible into the air. The lifter completes the lift by diving underneath the barbell when the arms are parallel to the floor (the arms do not bend until a "shrugged" position leaves the lifter with no choice but to bend the arm to allow the barbell to keep moving) into a deep squatting position, stomping the floor hard to instinctively "lock" the body into a strong catching position with the arms perfectly straight out overhead. The lifter then stands with the barbell still completely overhead at full arm extension, and then drops the barbell back to the ground in a controlled manner when given the all clear by the three judges, who "score" the lift by lighting white or red lights.
If the lifter cannot get the barbell overhead or drops it, touches one or both knees or buttocks to the ground, presses the barbell out to extension with the arm muscles or leaves the platform area (sometimes the barbell is too far out in front and the lifter will run forward to compensate) - the lift is null and void signalled by two or three red lights. (The presence of one red light is not sufficient to void a lift). A lift can also be nullified if the lifter simply drops the barbell to the ground rather than bringing it downwards under control.
The highest kilogram weight lifted overhead in the three attempts is the one used in the final total. You may reattempt the same weight as a previous lift, or a higher weight, but not a lower one - which means that part of the competition is figuring out a safe starter weight, a weight you know is a doable maximal lift, and one which will set a record for you. And pray that you don't lose your balance in one of the lifts or otherwise get a technical disqualification.
If no snatch is completed in the three attempts, the lifter is considered to have "bombed out" and does not continue.
After a pause, the weight is stripped back down to the lowest requested starting weight, and the "clean and jerk" phase begins. Once again, the lifter has three attempts to get the bar completely overhead. Only this time the technique is to take a shoulder-width or so grip, push the feet through the floor to stand, and after banging the weight mid thigh diving underneath it much lower than the snatch, catching the weight on the shoulders with the elbows pointing outwards and the upper arms parallel to the floor. The lifter then stands with the weight, and then attempts the "jerk". This involves dipping with the hips and bending the knees and then using the muscles of the entire body to drive the weight upwards, and then getting underneath the bar with the arms at full extension before standing with it until the judges score the lift. Once again, if the knees or buttocks touch the platform, the lifter leaves the platform, the lifter doesn't get the weight overhead or drops it, or presses it upwards with the arms at any point rather than dropping underneath and locking the elbows before gravity catches up - red lights signal failure. The weight must then be brought downwards under control, not simply dropped.
If no clean and jerk is completed in the three attempts, the lifter is considered to have "bombed out" and is not counted in the final scoring.
The judges then take the mass of the heaviest snatch completed and the mass of the heaviest clean and jerk completed and arrive at a total. The lifter in a given weight class with the highest total wins. In the case of a tie, the lifter with the lower bodyweight wins.
Some believe that it is the purest strength sport - the entire body is used to bring the weight completely overhead at arm's length from the ground. Sleeves for the knees are permitted to warm and support the knee (but cannot have any metal or other bracing), but apart from that, specialized shoes with elevated heels and a wrestling style singlet and T-shirt are the only equipment you need. The singlet must be unadorned and the arms not covered so that you can judge whether the elbow is bent in any way and/or pressout occurs.
It is also a sport that explicitly caters to the religious needs of its athletes. When Atlanta area weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah, a devout Muslim, wanted to compete but wanted to know if there was a halal version of the required dress it was escalated from Georgia's organization to the US weightlifting federation all the way to the very top of the IWF. After consulting with Islamic religious authorities, technical judges in the sport and other involved adjudicators, they did come up with a variant of an acceptable equipment list that includes a head covering and arm and leg cover, being not entirely form fitting but not billowy enough to conceal the elbows and knees. It made both the technical judges and the Islamic authorities happy in terms of satisfying both the requirements of the sport but also the requirements of the religion.
It does not require benches, monolifts, squat stands (these are used in training however) or complex equipment like round stones or throwing weights or towing an airplane. As an Olympic sport it is WADA-certified drug tested, meaning that even though some athletes to try to cheat the system, it isn't a steroid freakshow like World's Strongest Man or certain powerlifting federations. There are no two-ply bench shirts, canvas squat suits or deadlifting erector shirts to assist the lifter in any way. It also means if you compete, you have to be very careful what you take. Benadryl is considered "doping".
Some believe that the fact that you need balance, technique, speed and a certain athleticism beyond brute strength - you cannot just pick the weight up and press it with your arms overhead - it isn't as pure a strength sport as powerlifting's emphasis on pure limit strength or strongman's varied lifts and medleys which tax the lifter in myriad ways.
The sport evolved into its final form in 1972. Prior to that there were three main lifts - the modern two of the snatch and the clean and jerk accompanied by the "press" - which really did allow you to use pure muscle power to push the weight overhead by sheer brawn and shoulder muscle strength. It was abandoned when too many lifters started cheating the movement, bending in the lower back to turn it into as much of a "standing bench press" as possible, risking serious injury to the lower back.
There were other lifts that used to be included, even back in the sport's original Olympic inception - there were two hand and one handed versions of the snatch and clean and jerk, and some totals were calculated in pounds before metric standardization. Prior to the Olympics various other lifts were included in informal competition as the sport evolved into its classic and finally more modern Olympic events. The bent press was a popular Victorian method to get a barbell overhead with one hand - consisting of a lifter getting a weight onto the shoulder and then bending sideways at the waist while keeping the wrist where it was at the shoulder, before standing back up upright. The reason the clean is called the clean is in opposition to "the continental" - which allowed for more weight as it allowed people to pull a weight onto the body and then shimmy it up the body by rolling it up the stomach and chest. This technique is seen in axle lifts in Strongman today.
When training most people simply wear a T-shirt and shorts, but the shoes are what really count, and are quite expensive as a result. A weightlifting shoe has a very thin sole towards the toe box, and is one inch high at the heel. This tilt of the ankle reduces the need for mobility of the ankle in terms of keeping the heels on the floor in the catching position, especially in the snatch. One or more straps fasten across the top of the shoe, making it exceedingly tight on the foot. The sole itself is in no way springy or Nike Air - wood and cork used to be used, but now composite materials are used, but are in essence very hard plastic with no "give". Adidas used to be the sine qua non of the shoe market, but Nike got into the arena with its Romaleos line. The arms race continues.
A typical weightlifting gym will have a selection of weightlifting bars - expensive barbells with good knurling and very spinny bearings, and a certain amount of "flex" or "life". Eleiko makes the very best of these, but competitiors who make decent bars have come up recently, making it possible to buy an okay one for about five hundred dollars. The rubber disc sets are quite expensive, leading to a not inconsiderable outlay for the gym owner. There will be competition sized platforms that one or more lifters can use to train in at once (discreetly rolling their barbell against the wall to clear the space for the other lifter(s), a set of "jerk boxes" consisting of twp wooden boxes at or about mid-arm height which are used so that when dropping the jerk it doesn't have to be "cleaned" back into position. There will also be an assortment of pairs of boxes to rest the barbell on for snatch and clean attempts from mid-calf, knee height, or mid-thigh height to train different parts of the lift.
The snatch and the clean and jerk are highly technical lifts and it is well advised to join a gym with a knowledgeable IWF certified coach. You cannot learn it by simply watching a YouTube video or two. Again, technique will be tailored to the individual limb lengths and flexibility level of each lifter, and various parts of the lift drilled over and over again with a length of light PVC tube in place of a bar until the muscle memory of the technique is second nature.
Apart from drilling the two competition lifts, there is a considerable amount of back squat, front squat, push press, snatch grip deadlift, high pull and other accessory variations to improve raw strength in the muscles used in weightlifting. You can typically tell a weightlifter by the tight abdominal core and granite-chiseled back, given the amount of pulling work and trapezius and spinal erector stabilizing work the body does.
Many people have been introduced to weightlifting by training for a sport - the "power clean" and "power snatch" are variations which are used for training weightlifters but also a staple of many a football strength program. The term refers to not diving completely under the bar, but simply crouching a bit and emphasizing pure power, allowing a bit of a press. It allows people in other sports to get some degree of explosive strength without having to drill a complex muscle task and needing to emphasize balance, technique and grace.
Crossfit, the infomercial cancer of the gym world, does use the snatch and clean and jerk in its "WOD"s (workout of the day). Many new weightlifters have crossed over into pure weightlifting from the idiocy and high injury potential of poor technique, or attempting to do as many snatches as possible in 60 seconds, or playing double dutch with thick naval mooring rope.
Surprisingly in the USA it's become a real hit with women. Women are taking to the sport in droves, and chances are in a weightlifting gym the women will outnumber the men, be more likely to be actively competing, and more likely to get regional medals. To my delight when in the Pensacola area last week it turns out that the local high school has a women's weightlifting team - a successful one with more members than the average soccer team. It is, however, very tricky to find a bona fide weightlifting gym - one with chalk (for the hands), sweat, blood, stale protein farts and wood and matting platforms. Many gym owners wring their hands, using the "get them locked into contracts on New Years" model and/or using machines to bodybuild because it's "safer". American lifter Glenn Pendlay took a risk on manufacturing equipment for the booming sport in South Carolina, but sadly MuscleDriver USA closed its doors having overestimated the speed with which the sport was growing, overextending itself as a result. Rogue Barbell continues to be a player in the US market for those who cannot afford the exchange rate and shipping to purchase Eleiko equipment.
Weightlifting gyms are exceedingly chill places. The chances of people being judgmental are near nil, the chances of getting pointers and encouragement are extremely high. I've seen an auditorium cheer a girthy 250lb man snatch 85lb, because of his size and lack of speed it was a record for him even though a 12 year old girl had snatched 90lb an hour before. Though chill, there is a certain etiquette in those places. Apart from the "put your weights back" and "don't leave equipment around if you aren't using it" common sense rules, you do NOT walk in front of someone or distractingly around or behind someone attempting any lift, especially a heavy or personal record attempt. Cheering on a heavy or personal record attempt is strongly encouraged. Talk and noise stops when someone attempts a lift, unless far enough away and quiet enough to not distract the person in question. Bars are to be de-chalked after use with provided wire brushes to get the chalk and skin out of the bits of knurling on the bars. Any blood must also be removed, no ifs ands or buts.
To my knowledge there has only been one recorded death from the sport, and that was in the 1980s when chroming weight plates and bars was the "in" thing. But because of a phenomenon called "hydrogen embrittlement" the bar corroded internally before the competition and the bar literally snapped in half from the stress of being suddenly jerked upwards with significant weight at each end. The lifter in question stabbed himself in the throat with the jagged ends because of the inherent momentum of the lift, and died. But honestly, the sport is quite safe. Getting "pinned" or "guillotined" by a heavy or slipped bench press doesn't happen and if you lose control of the barbell you can always simply drop it and hop out of its way. It's a safer sport than soccer.
If you can find one, and you've a hankering to get stronger but also develop balance, explosiveness and more, see if there is a gym in your area and give it a shot. The USWA would be happy to refer you.