When weightlifting got started in the Olympic Games in 1896, there were no weight classes. The two lifts contested were the two-hand lift and the one-hand lift. From this brief description it is obvious that the winners were determined pretty much on the basis of absolute strength and that smaller competitors would have little chance of earning a medal. In order to enlarge the field and also enhance the stature of the sport by increasing the number of medals awarded, bodyweight classes were introduced in 1920. In this men only version of the sport, the number of bodyweight classes grew from 5 in 1932 to 10 in 1980. When the women’s division was added for 2000, the total number of bodyweight classes grew to 15, 8 for women and 7 for women. It is now possible for athletes from a wide range of bodyweights to compete in a more or less equal format.
What I’ve found distressing over the years is hearing about coaches and/or otherwise well intentioned parents who feel the need to fit junior lifters into a particular bodyweight class through drastic weight reduction. This approach is short sighted and certainly inconsistent with long term development and goals. We frequently hear of mature athletes drastically reducing bodyweight in order to weigh in a specific weight class at national and international levels. This scenario probably doesn’t take place too frequently and is certainly not one that should be repeated with young athletes that are already too thin for their heights.
Science and Practical Experience
Anyone interested in raising a domestic animal from a newborn to a fully mature, fully developed adult would never think of starving it and reducing its bodyweight 4% or more several times per year for several years. There is simply no scientific or empirical evidence to support this practice. Some of these reductions might be conducted at a particularly sensitive time during the animal’s development and provide long lasting detriment to its growth.
I personally know of some athletes in wrestling, judo and weightlifting who habitually cut weight to compete in a lower bodyweight class and ended up being much shorter as adults than their siblings who didn’t engage in such practices. The evidence supporting the periodic starvation of a young, developing organism is not available.
If the athlete is relatively slim, chances are that he or she is more proficient in the snatch than the clean & jerk. A bodyweight reduction prior to competition will probably result in a sub-normal performance in the clean & jerk.
Limb-length, Third Class Levers and Body Mass
The formula for the relationships of lever components is R*dr=E*de. This means that the resistance multiplied by the distance from the fulcrum to the resistance is equal to the force of the effort multiplied by the distance from the fulcrum to the effort.
For the lifter, this means that the longer your limbs (which are moved by a third class lever system), the more muscular force needed to move the limb. With all neuromuscular factors being equal, the longer the limb, the more muscular mass needed to move it.
To put it in a different perspective if you are a 69 kg lifter who is 170 cm tall and you are competing with another 69 kg lifter who is 160 cm tall and you are both equally skilled and well trained, the shorter lifter is going to lift more weight. To understand this more fully I’m including two empirically derived height/weight tables from my book Weightlifting Programming.
This first table is for male weightlifters with data provided by Robert Roman and interpolated by Shaun LeConte. This data was taken from elite level, mature weightlifters.
149 ± 3 cm
156.33 ± 2.5 cm
161.75 ± 2 cm
165 ± 2 cm
169 ± 2 cm
172.5 ± 2 cm
176 ± 2 cm
186 ± 6 cm
The second table is for elite female weightlifters at the 2009 Pan American championships as measured by Leslie Musser for her Master’s thesis.
These two tables should illustrate the fact that elite level weightlifters are heavier than non-weightlifters of comparable height. The conclusion should be obvious that weightlifters need more muscle mass than “civilians” if they are to be successful in their chosen sport.
While the weight classes were established to define the sport, athletes should not feel obligated to fit in to a specific class.
Today I had a new lifter tell me that she weighs 50 kg and should she reduce down to 48 or go up to 53 in her next meet. I told her that since she was training at 50, then she should just weigh 50. After all, the classes are there so she won’t have to compete against someone who is so large that their bodyweight provides an unfair advantage.
To sum things up, I think young athletes should train with the idea that they are in a developmental stage. If they are interested in achieving their potential they should be concerned with increasing bodyweight until it is within a reasonable range of the figures in the two accompanying tables. I would caution against young athletes making weight. The practice of reducing bodyweight should only be done rarely and only with physically mature athletes. My personal coaching approach is to have athletes just train properly, eat well and gain muscular bodyweight and not worry about the weight class until they are physically mature. At that time we will worry about dehydrating to make weight and that only twice a year for national and continental championships. Let’s grow some champions!