What Weight Class Should I Compete In for Olympic Weightlifting?
Ah. One of the many joys of competition. Choosing a weight class.
Not only are you going to go through at 4-12 weeks of intense training, but you have to make an important decision regarding which weight class you’d like to compete in.
If you are one of the lucky ones that exists on the tail end of both extremes (that is, the super heavyweights and tiny humans), then you need not ever worry about weight.
However, if you exist as an ‘in betweener’, then you have a choice to make.
And these choices are dependent on a few variables. Using these variables as the compass of our decision making will shed clarity on what to do and when to do it.
Age: Weightlifting is accessible for all ages, from kids, adults, to the masters division. Each age represents different physiological characteristics that need to be considered carefully before making a decision regarding weight class.
For those who have not entered or are still going through their pubescent stage, I strongly advise against any form of weight cutting or concerted efforts to keep the bodyweight low. As kids and teenagers grow, their frames naturally become longer, wider and denser. In order to facilitate this process, adequate nutrition and recovery is imperative. Routinely restricting energy intake can have catastrophic consequences on their growth. In young girls, the introduction of ovulation also poses another risk. Not only are they losing nutrients via their bleeding, but marry this with energy restriction and a rigorous training regime and you’ve caused easily preventable health issues.
For adults, although the majority will have finished their teenage pubescent stage, they are still maturing into their frame. Men especially, continue to develop physically well into their 20s. To maximise this continuing development, or at the very least not adversely affect it, eating into your weight class (granted you are underweight) or maintaining your weight is probably the best approach. From the age perspective, a large cut just can’t be justified (but can be from a competition standpoint, more on that later).
For Masters athletes (35+), muscle tends to stay as long as you train and recover adequately. Power however, tends to decrease with age. There’s not much we can do for a decrease in power, but we can do our best to maximise and/or retain the muscle we have. And this comes in the form of maintaining or increasing bodyweight. In other words – it’s likely against your best interests to cut weight.
Competitiveness: It is not uncommon for us to see weightlifters cut a large amount of weight to compete in a weight class lower. This is to maintain a competitive advantage over your opponents. However, the inverse can also occur. Lifters will force feed themselves because the weight class above has a weaker field – and you are more likely to place by being in one of those.
In the case of cutting weight, by training at 2-3% higher than the weight limit, lifters rely on cutting water weight to make the limit. In theory, losing 2-3% of your water should not affect strength performance. And if so, then the extra bodyweight (most of it, muscle) can be the difference between a first and second place total.
Conversely, if you gain weight in a short period of time, you will undeniably put on fat mass, which is not useful in the context of strength and power production. But I’ll just lose it after comp, right? Not so fast. Fat cells do not disappear. Once you create a new fat cell – it’s here to stay. And it is much easier to rejuvenate a fat cell than it is to create one. Gain weight in a small amount of time at your peril, but just know that it will not go away easy.
Are these approaches healthy? It’s hard to make the case that it is. Is it unhealthy? Likely. Perhaps a better question to ask is – is it really worth it?
The answer is nuanced, but probably. Not many weightlifters will do it because they think it’s the best thing for their health. They do it because it gives them the best competitive advantage – and their winning provides a reward exceeding the value of their immediate health.
It could mean financial support.
It could mean personal satisfaction.
It could mean social validation.
It could mean many, many things – each intrinsically vital to the individual.
The last variable I will discuss in this article is longevity. What is the ultimate goal of the lifter in front of you? Are they doing Olympic Weightlifting for the long run?
The growth of CrossFit has inspired millions of individuals to pick up the barbell. Whereas Olympic Weightlifting was once a sport reserved for athletes, the movements are entering the vernacular of everyday ‘gym talk.’
More and more people are choosing Olympic Weightlifting as the sport that keeps them healthy, much like running or bodybuilding. In using Olympic Weightlifting as a movement practice, longevity becomes the top priority.
And the answer really is a no-brainer – choose the weight class that you feel you are healthiest at. If you are reasonably lean, then there’s no need to worry about which weight class you are in. Just eat and train so long as it enhances your quality of life.