Weightlifting is a strength sport, involving two competition movements, the snatch and the clean-and-jerk.

The sport is unique because of the dynamic and explosive nature of its movements, characterized by the "dip-and-drive" motion of pulling oneself under a bar into a full squat, then immediately driving upwards once the weight is controlled overhead or racked upon the shoulders, and the short, explosive extension of the legs and hips to generate an immense amount of force upon a loaded barbell. Weightlifters are not only strong (capable of squatting - to the bottom - with several times their bodyweight and pulling that weight from the floor) and explosive, they also possess good hip and shoulder flexibility and are capable of producing complex motor patterns.

Weightlifters are generally regarded to be the most explosive athletes in the world. There are stories of weightlifters out-sprinting sprinters in 40 meter dashes and out-jumping jumpers in the vertical leap (which is not to say that weightlifters are necessarily good sprinters or jumpers, only that their bodies have been trained to generate large amounts of force in very short time periods; there is no 40 meter dash or standing vertical leap in competition). As such, weightlifting movements such as the power clean are often implemented in other sport-training to train the athlete to be more explosive, run faster, jump higher and farther, etc. Weightlifters typically possess favorable mechanical leverage (short arms and legs), a very strong squat (to the bottom, not just to parallel), and a very strong back.

Modern training always consists of the following three movements: snatch, clean-and-jerk, and front squat, often in that order. Various clubs and coaches of various nationalities advocate different movements to develop strength or the proper motor patterns, but the most prominent methods usually incorporate some form of twice-a-day training and extreme specificity (training only the movements with high correlation to the snatch and clean-and-jerk), the basis of which was pioneered by the former Bulgarian national team head coach Ivan Abadjiev. His training principles were based on the physiological theory of adaptation. There are some American critics who believe that adhering to a Bulgarian-type regimen is impossible without drugs (i.e. anabolics) due to the immense stress placed on the body and the lack of a true recovery or resting phase, and their criticism is well-founded in the high injury rate within the Bulgarian national team when it was under Abadjiev's coaching.

Other training methods exist, and it is worth noting that the above mentioned schedule is often reserved for those athletes with years of conditioning and experience (often beginning in late childhood). Countries such as Russia, China, and the US incorporate some form of periodization, which is a system that develops general fitness early on in the training cycle, then specific skills later on, so that an optimum balance of strength and skill can be achieved at the end of the training cycle, which is usually scheduled to coincide with a major contest such as a national meet or a world championship.

It has been decades since a male American lifter has touched an international medal in weightlifting, and the investigation into what the Americans are doing wrong in comparison to European and Asian countries continues. One well-founded argument is that because of the lack of popular support for weightlifting in the US and the prominence of professional sports such as basketball, football, etc., the talent pool for weightlifting is relatively small and often lacking since athletes are attracted to the benefits of financially successful careers elsewhere. In contrast, weightlifters and their coaches in nations such as China are often well-paid for being or producing world champions.

There is also of course the question of the prominence of drug-use in the sport. Time and time again, champions and teams have had their medals revoked due to positive drug tests at all levels of competition, and there is even talk of removing the sport entirely from the Olympics. Some Americans blame the inability of their weightlifters to medal on the relatively slack drug policies in international federations, but one feels naive in claiming that not a single US weightlifter uses anabolics or some other banned substance.

Despite what appears to be rampant drug-use at the top-levels of competition, there are small instances of hope for American weightlifting (in terms of performing well internationally). In the 2006 Arnold Classic weightlifting meet, 105kg Donny Shankle of the US defeated Dmitri Klokov of Russia, totaling 1kg higher. Klokov won in the weight class by lower bodyweight (he was in fact 9kg underweight), but Klokov was the 2005 World Champion, and it was the first time in many years that a male American lifter had out-lifted a World Champion. At the 2006 American Open, 85kg Kendrick Farris clean-and-jerked 198kg, a mere 20kg from the world record.

Weightlifting is often confused with powerlifting, which is a different sport involving the back squat (to parallel), bench press, and deadlift.

"Olympic weightlifting" is also kind of a misnomer because it implies that weightlifting is specifically/exclusively an Olympic event or that it originated with the Olympics when that is not the case, as national and international competitions exist and the sport has been in practice since before the revival of the Olympics in 1896.