What Makes a Good Olympic Weightlifter?
I can think of two ways to answer this question, and none of them are more valid than the other. The first, being that of the competitive lifter and second, that of the technician.
The Competitive Weightlifter
To become an outstanding competitive weightlifter, certain genetic characteristics must be present. The first, is absolute strength. Some people are just born stronger than others, no different than how some are born taller. The second, is limb length. It is no secret amongst the weightlifting circle that those with the heaviest clean and jerks are usually the ones that win.
But how do limb lengths affect the clean and jerk? The shorter your arms, the less distance the bar must travel overhead. It’s as simple as that. Those with long arms must move the bar a greater distance compared to those with short arms. Furthermore, the length of your femur (as well as your dorsiflexion range) determines how upright your torso can be during a front squat (and hence, the clean). For those who have long femurs (without the corresponding dorsiflexion), they rely on a more forward posture to front squat. There is nothing inherently wrong with this pattern, however for the purpose of cleaning, a more vertical posture is better. The vertical posture allows better stacking of the bar over the torso, which prevents rounding of the torso moreso than a forward leaning posture.
Lastly, coordination – that is, the speed at which an individual is able to pick up the skill. Like the previous two characteristics, coordination also appears to be something that everyone is born at differing levels with. Those who learn the skill quickly are able to begin loading early, but also, implement technical changes quicker than those who require more time. One of the fundamental challenges of Olympic Weightlifting is maintaining technical positions despite the load. Unfortunately, as weight becomes heavier, technical flaws are exposed. It is those who are initially able to learn quickly, who are also able to correct quickly.
Like martial arts, there is a certain finesse to Olympic Weightlifting. One can spend multiple hours perfecting the movement pattern with just a stick. There is a certain ‘swan-like’ beauty, that can only be achieved after hours of practice. Technicians have an appreciation for Olympic Weightlifting beyond that of lifting progressively heavier weight. There is something addictive in the pursuit of perfection for the technician, and because of this trait they are great to learn from, as they usually have mastery over the principles of weightlifting. These are usually the types that make great technical coaches.
However, the technician may not necessarily be the one who is able to lift the heaviest. For the reasons above, someone with great technique but lacking in strength and optimal limb lengths will not be able to lift the heaviest weight.
As much as technique is important, the crux of weightlifting is still strength and power.
There you have it, the ‘good’ Olympic Weightlifter can be classed in different ways. Not everyone chooses to do weightlifting for the sake of lifting heavy weight, and so they should not be assessed based off this metric alone. There is value to pursuing weightlifting no matter the reason, whether it be health, art or enjoyment.