What’s an Elite Weightlifter, and How Do You Define It?

The term ‘elite’ gets thrown around a lot in strength sports, and most of the time haphazardly without a clear cut definition. Although, in defense of the usage of the word, it’s tough to clearly define ‘elite’ because most coaches and athletes have their own definition for what it means to them.

In reality, most top-level coaches and athletes will have a common area where they’ll agree upon who’s ‘elite’ and who’s not, yet there’s still some variance. Today, we’re going to be looking at weightlifting as a whole, and what makes an athlete ‘elite’ from some of the nation’s best coaches.

“Elite is a comparison, and you can’t be elite by yourself. However you want to compare that’s fine, but elite has to come with a comparison.” – Sean Waxman

The coaches below shared their opinions, thoughts, and definitions on the topic. There’s some variance between each coach, but there are a couple consistent variables. The variables that remain consistent are: You have to have a form of comparison to call someone elite, and lifts/mindsets play into each coach’s definition of elite.

What’s an elite weightlifter?

Sean Waxman – Waxman’s Gym

“I think first and foremost that it revolves around achieving a certain standard. One great thing about weightlifting is that it’s performed the same way around the world no matter where you are. The rules are the same. Within those rules if you reach a certain level of achievement, then that will make you elite.”

“The argument could be said about, and I still like the Russian Classification system, but I think somewhere between a master of sport and international master of sport within that qualification is going to put someone in the elite category. Being elite in weightlifting has got to about result that’s the only thing that really matters. Potential is great and this and that, but until you achieve a certain number in your weight class, then it’s a pedantic conversation. It comes down to the numbers.”

“If you look at the classification system, then I think [as mentioned earlier] between master of sports and international masters of sport could be argued as elite.”

I then asked how these numbers could change with the recent IWF weight class restructuring, and Waxman said, “They’re probably not going to change all that much, but they will change a little with the new weight classes. I think if you’re finishing top ten in the world rankings, or top ten at the World Championships, pending upon your weight class can make you elite. It’s a good point to think about with the weight class change, and what’s going to happen, but I think top ten at Worlds is often the best barometer.” 

[Have a lift that’s lagging? Check out Sean Waxman’s weightlifting calculator to see where your progress stands!]

“If you want to look at something that’s not a moving target, then you can look at placement at Worlds, and if you want to look at something that’s a moving target, then you can look at the Russian Classification System. It’s all about the numbers. You also have to consider weight class variance, for example, let’s say you look at the top ten 56kg men at Worlds, there may not be ten close ‘elite’ 56kg athletes in the world, but if you look at, let’s say the 85kg weight class, then that’s a different story. You have to take all of that into consideration”

“I also think being ‘elite’ is like porn, you know it when you see it. There are a couple different ways you can look at ‘elite’ status, and it’s whatever floats your boat. Once we establish the new weight classes and they’ve been around for a while, then we’ll know better what’s elite.”

Travis Mash – Mash Elite Performance

“What constitutes being an elite strength athlete? I’m sure a lot of people have a lot of opinions about that question. I’m not big on absolutes, but here is what I think. When you are competing at a Senior International Level or Pro Level, then you are Elite. If you’re winning medals at Nationals, you are close, but not quite. The definition of “elite” is: a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.”

“Personally I always think on an International Level. When you are competing with the best in the world, you are a part of a select group that is superior to the rest. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. I love all my athletes. However this is a classification, so I like to be honest and real.”

Glenn Pendlay – American Weightlifting Coach

​”My initial thought is, if you make the world or Olympic team, then you are elite. Historically this has been the best 8 male lifters and the best 7 female lifters with no more than 2 in any single weight class. That number has changed slightly and might change more because of the IWF screwing with the number of weight classes, or limiting the number of lifters that can represent any individual country because of restrictions on team size. There are a couple of lifters that have never made a world team that are still pretty damn good, but I think making the world (or Olympic) team is a pretty good standard for calling athletes elite.​”

“I think limiting the number of people you think of as elite or call elite is necessary. After all, if everyone is elite, what the hell does elite even mean?”

Kevin Doherty – Hassle Free BBC

“Elite athletes not only have physical ability, but the mental acuity to be considered talented. Elite strength sports athletes not only possess great strength and speed which translates into power, but the mindset to push through numeric barriers that people may formulate in front of them.”

Stephen Powell – Palmetto Weightlifting

“What makes an athlete elite is they know there why. I have seen many athletes with exceptional talent never reach it because they allow temporary feelings dictate day-to-day training and how they handle the stresses of life outside the gym. An elite athlete makes the decision daily to live by the truth of who they are and why they pursue weightlifting (or any sport).”
“An elite athlete who knows there why will tell feelings of doubt and uncertainty to get lost as soon as they are felt. Set-backs will occur. Trials and adversity will come. Knowing the why will keep an athlete on the path toward their goals. Before they become the rare breed of elite they made up their mind long before to become so and behave as such. An athlete who doesn’t know there why is like a Ferrari with no wheels on it. No matter the physical potential you will remain stuck.”

Phil Sabatini – Head Coach East Coast Gold Weightlifting

“What’s an Elite Weightlifter: An elite weightlifter makes near maximal reps look the same as submaximal reps. An elite weightlifter’s training is compromised by fatigue, not position or technique. An elite weightlifter can psychologically and emotionally use their failures as motivation, not self-definition. An elite weightlifter doesn’t concern themselves with competitor’s successes or failures, as they have no bearing on personal performance. An elite weightlifter can self-correct and adjust to the daily variables that make training and competing inconsistent for others.”

Joe Micela – Owner Performance One Advanced Sports Training

“In either case of world or American weightlifting, there’s an ‘it’ factor in these athletes, they just pick up things faster. Their rate of improvement is by far better than other athletes. You can look at athletes like CJ Cummings and Harrison Maurus and how they’ve had their rates of improvement. That puts them aside of everybody else, and the other thing would be once an athlete reaches that higher echelon, consistency & longevity.” 


“You could look at Lydia Valentine who’s currently going into her fourth quad with the high level of consistency she’d had, and that’s a huge thing. Did the athlete win a national championship in America? Well that’s great, you won one, but did you win five? How close were you to the next competitor? You blew them out by 30 kilos.”

“I remember when I was training Sarah Robles, Nationals became easy for us because we didn’t have that much competition, so there were a couple Nationals where we went in and I told her you’re just going to power snatch and clean everything. We’d treat it like a heavy training day because she was so much further ahead of everyone else. There’s other athletes like that in the world. Did you win your continental championships [for us that’s the Pan Ams], did you win the Europeans? Some athletes at the world level would go ten years and never be defeated in their weight class and competitions, and that’s a huge thing.”

“It’s one thing to go one and done, but can you sustain that? To be considered elite, I look at it like that. Also, you have guys who win Nationals, but because of their weight class they never make a world team. We’ve had guys in the 56kg and 62kg weight class who won multiple Nationals, but never made a senior world team, and then if they did, they ended up getting 30th. Yeah, you may have been really good, but you’re not elite.”

“Another couple ways I look at it at a competition level are, did you lift in an A session, were you in medal contingency, were you battling? In reality, if you look at our current American landscape like that, then the guys we don’t. Cummings and Maurus are getting there, and Cummings has built himself a nice resume of accomplishments, plus his rate of improvement is there. Maurus doesn’t have the consistent list of medals just yet, but he’s very close and right there. Aside from that, you can’t say there’s another guy. Kendrick Farris was the next closest one due to his longevity and because he went to three Olympics, and on the women’s side there’s Sarah Robles [one of my former athletes].”

“No matter what you want to say about Sarah, she’s a two time Olympian, she’s a medalist, she’s a World Champion. When push came to shove she showed up at big meets, and since she’s been in the sport for the last ten years she’s only been defeated once by an American. That’s pretty damn impressive and elite. Can these other girls say that? Not yet, we need to see a little more high level consistency, and that’s not knocking any individual.”

Putting It All Together

Definitions of what ‘elite’ means will always have some level of variation, but one consistency of every definition is there has to be a comparison in place. After all, you can’t be an elite strength athlete if you’re in a class all by yourself. However you want to make that comparison and create your definition of elite is up to you, yet there has to be others for reference.

And at the end of the day, you may disagree with the coach’s thoughts above, but in order to create a substantial argument for what’s elite, then you have a solid definition in place.

Feature image courtesy @liftinglife’s Instagram page