Weightlifting isn’t exactly a spectator’s sport. Olympic lifting competitions typically move at a near-glacial pace, with minutes of downtime furnishing seconds of exhilaration on the platform.
It’s the athletes who draw the crowds. Lifters who roar, howl, shout, and stomp. Who cry out in triumph after crushing a new personal record in the clean & jerk or are brought to tears by the gravity of the moment itself.
If you want to follow the sport, you need to know who to keep an eye on. Some of the most prominent athletes in weightlifting aren’t the ones lifting the heaviest weights, but there’s certainly no shame in letting the strongest lifters alive command your attention either.
Here are just 10 of the many, many individuals (in no particular order) who infuse excitement and energy into the sport of weightlifting every time they step out onto the stage.
The Most Fun Weightlifters to Watch
- Lesman Paredes
- Neisi Dajomes
- Milko Tokola
- Lasha Talakhadze
- Loredana Toma
- Mattie Rogers
- Tian Tao
- Sonny Webster
- Kuo Hsing-Chun
- Shi Zhiyong
Note: Many of the data and statistics for this article have been pulled from the International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) Athlete Database.
Colombian superstar Lesman Paredes began his career as a Junior athlete in 2014, making a big splash in the now-defunct 85- and 94-kilogram classes.
After a hiatus from IWF events in 2017, Paredes burst back onto the scene in early 2021, handily winning every IWF event he’s attended since.
Colombian weightlifters have a reputation for boisterous stage presence and absurd flexibility, both of which Paredes delivers on in spades. The 2021 96-kilogram World Champion is a true acrobat on stage, known for performing backflips, high vertical jumps, and some seriously heavy lifting to boot.
Paredes currently owns the World Record in the snatch with 187 kilograms (412.2 pounds), while his best clean & jerk stands at 213 kilos (or 469.5 pounds). Paredes hit both of those in December of 2021, indicating that he’s the man to beat in the heavier weight classes.
Weightlifting isn’t a fashion show, but that doesn’t stop Ecuadorian lifter — and Women’s 76-kilogram Olympic Champion — Neisi Dajomes from competing in style.
Often donning mismatched weightlifting shoes and her signature headwraps, Dajomes brings plenty of color and personality to the stage every time she appears. Don’t be fooled, though. She’s far from an “all show, no go” athlete.
At the Tokyo Olympic Games, Dajomes won a highly-competitive session by an absurd 14 kilograms, beating out silver medalist Kate Vibert (formerly Kate Nye) of the United States. Tokyo was also her fifth sequential overall win at an IWF competition in 2021, and Ecuador’s first female Olympic medal ever.
In fact, Dajomes competes — a lot. The 24-year-old has shown up at a ludicrous 38 IWF competitions since 2011, more than half of which she’s won.
In many ways, she’s the ideal weightlifter to follow. Competes often, performs well, and does so with flair. There’s not much more to ask for.
Finnish athlete Milko Tokola is the wildest weightlifter you’ve (probably) never heard of. Although he is presumed retired (his last IWF competition being the 2017 European Weightlifting Championships), Tokola brought a level of ferocity to his lifting that you truly have to see to believe.
Note: The following video is loud. Adjust your volume settings accordingly.
Despite not having ever made it to the podium at an international competition (though he did compete for Finland at the 2016 Rio Olympics), Tokola gained a small cult following in the sport for his savagery with the barbell.
His training footage online showcases all manner of bar slamming, chest-pounding, and growls that make the former-85-kilogram lifter feel much larger than life. He even occasionally faints from his own exertion.
If you want to see a weightlifter run red with rage, Tokola is the man to watch. He’s published much of his own training online, including some seriously impressive back squat workouts (see above).
No weightlifter on Earth needs less of an outside endorsement than Georgia’s Lasha Talakhadze. The super-heavyweight, two-time Olympic Champion has won every single competition he’s shown up to since 2013. Moreover, he comfortably maintains the World Records in both competition lifts and the Total.
Talakhadze is, in his own way, an Arthurian legend — a near-mythic figure moving objects that no other man living could so much as make budge.
Not only is he stronger than literally everyone else (ever), he’s precise — Talakhadze has missed a grand total of six lifts in the last decade at international competitions. He’s not someone you watch out of curiosity, but certainty.
The world of weightlifting watches Talakhadze not to see if he can push the limits of what a human can lift, but to see just how far he will move the needle.
Colloquially known as “the Tomanator”, Romania’s Loredana Toma has built herself a reputation as one of the sport’s most unflinchingly aggressive female athletes.
Although her best efforts (114 kilograms in the snatch and 136 in the clean & jerk in competition) fall a bit short of Deng Wei’s seemingly-unassailable World Records, Toma is one of the top dogs in the 64-kilogram weight class where she’s made a home since 2018.
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Toma is worth watching for her stage presence alone. She has a unique approach to lifting, being both rigid and fluid at the same time, and fiercely commits to saving every single lift she sends overhead.
The Romanian federation was saddled with a provisional drug-related suspension shortly before the Tokyo Olympics, which barred Toma from competing at any IWF-sanctioned event for a period of one year.
In the States, Mattie Rogers is a household name — and for good reason. Since her international debut in 2014 at the Pan-American Junior Championships, Rogers has consistently brought home medal after medal for Team USA.
From a spectator’s point of view, Rogers is compelling to watch for plenty of reasons. She’s strong, fast, flexible, and extremely motivated on the platform. You’ll never catch her sandbagging an attempt or chickening out of a big lift.
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By the numbers, she’s a three-time World silver medalist and a five-time Pan-American silver medalist (along with one overall win at 81 kilograms). Rogers’ efforts on the competition platform place her within striking distance of first place almost every time.
If you’re looking for an athlete who leaves her heart and soul on the platform at every single meet, you can’t go wrong with Rogers.
Tian Tao embodies Master Yoda’s old adage, “do or do not. There is no try.” The Chinese weightlifter is far from consistent, but his volatility on the platform is a big part of his allure.
If you were to look up Tao’s competition history, you’ll see two things — a lot of missed attempts, and a lot of gold medals. While China’s weightlifting team is infamous for its ruthless and medal-minded tactics in competition, Tao is far and away their biggest wildcard.
For example, during the Men’s 85-kilogram event at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Tao missed his first and second attempts at a 210-kilogram (462.9-pound) clean & jerk before pulling it together to hit 217 kilos, or 478.4 pounds on his final try, a new Olympic Record at the time.
Tao spun a similar tale at the 2019 World Weightlifting Championships, missing his first two snatches before securing 180 kilograms (396.8 pounds) overhead. He ended up winning the 96-kilogram division overall.
Despite his frequent missed lifts, Tao is also a clinician in the clean and boasts some of the strongest legs in the sport. He’s no safe bet, but he’s a lot of fun to bet on. Tao has noted that he plans on competing as an 89-kilogram lifter at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Not every weightlifter is famous for their successes on the competition platform. Great Britain’s Sonny Webster competed for his homeland at 24 IWF events between 2009 and 2017 before retiring following that year’s European Championships.
While Webster did have some strong results at the Youth and Junior Commonwealth Games, he never made the podium at a World Championships. Webster was a solid competitor in his own right, but his post-retirement claim to fame is on social media as a coach and (what can only be described as) a barbell acrobat.
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In displays of extreme mobility, strength, and uncanny confidence, Webster routinely strings together some of the most ludicrous barbell complexes you’ve ever seen.
From cleaning directly into a picture-perfect squat jerk, then launching his bar overhead with a thruster only to release his hands, drop down, and catch it again, Webster fearlessly dances with the barbell like a matador taunts a raging bull.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a strength athlete who is more careful, patient, and precise during their workouts than the Taiwanese powerhouse, Kuo Hsing-Chun.
The three-time Olympian (and Tokyo gold medalist) has calmly presided over the Women’s 58 and 59-kilogram divisions since as far back as 2012, winning five World Championships and five Asian Championships along the way.
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Where other weightlifters are sometimes brash and full of bravado, Hsing-Chun is restrained and modest.
She maintains a reputation as one of the most technically precise women weightlifters in the world, displaying a level of diligence to her form and posture that has resulted in multiple World Records in the snatch, clean & jerk, and Total (Hsing-Chun currently owns all three in her class).
As part of an All Things Gym documentary series in 2021, Hsing-Chun and her coach revealed that they train in accordance with the idea of “deliberate practice” — making every single repetition, be it with an empty barbell, an early warm-up, or the final attempt of a competition, as perfect as they can be.
Hsing-Chun’s performances on the platform and in the training hall make a good case for weightlifting being just as much an art form as it is a competitive sport.
Chinese weightlifter Shi Zhiyong has never been beaten in an international competition. While athletes like Turkey’s Daniyar Ismayilov have out-snatched him from time to time, no weightlifter in the 69-to-81-kilogram classes, where Zhiyong has competed since 2012, has bested him overall.
Does that level of consistent competence make him dull to watch? Not at all. In fact, Zhiyong commands the attention of the crowds in more ways than just putting new World Records (he currently owns all three in the 73-kilogram class) overhead.
Zhiyong’s calling card on the competition platform is his signature yelling — every time he yanks his barbell off the ground, he screams at the top of his lungs. It is equal parts humorous and terrifying and signals to his competitors that the gold medal has been (loudly) spoken for.
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No other weightlifter living — not Lasha Talakhadze, Ilya Ilyin, or even Zhiyong’s teammate Lu Xiaojun — has an unblemished international resume.
After clean & jerking 198 kilograms (436.5 pounds) to win the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Zhiyong famously raised his fists and questioned the stadium: “Is there no one else?”
How Weightlifting Competitions Work
You might find it difficult to follow the career of your new (or old) favorite athlete if you’re not sure how weightlifting competitions are organized.
While there is plenty of nuance and more than a handful of small technical rules that are only relevant to the lifters and their coaches, spectators should have a working knowledge of the sport itself if they want to appreciate what they see on the platform.
Weight Classes and Sessions
Competitors at weightlifting meets are divided up by sex and body weight. There are 10 weight classes for women and 10 for men at most sanctioned competitions, though the International Olympic Committee only recognizes a portion of each to take place at the Games:
- Men’s Weight Classes:55, 61, 67, 73, 81, 89, 96, 102, 109, 109+*
- Women’s Weight Classes:45, 49, 55, 59, 64, 71, 76, 81, 87, 87+*
Note: All categories listed are in kilograms. The bolded classes are confirmed as the Olympic categories for Paris 2024. The super-heavyweight divisions in Paris will be 102+ and 81+ for the men and women, respectively.
National and international competitions usually take between seven and 10 days, beginning with the lightest athletes of each sex and concluding with both super-heavyweight divisions.
Loading and Attempts
During each competitive session, the athletes appear in accordance with the weight they’ve selected as their first, second, or third attempts. Each lifter has three chances to lift, or “make”, the heaviest snatch or clean & jerk they can — their best results in each discipline are added together to determine their Total.
The snatch is tested first for all athletes. There is typically a 10 to 15-minute interim while the organizers clean and prepare the platform before the commencement of the clean & jerk portion that follows.
Notably, the weight on the barbell can only increase over the course of a session. Once an athlete announces they want to attempt a given weight, their subsequent attempts (if any) must be at that same weight or heavier.
This helps ensure the session proceeds smoothly and encourages the athletes to one-up each other.
Medals and Results
Once all athletes in a session have taken (or opted out of) all of their attempts, the session concludes. Athletes are ranked by their heaviest valid results in both lifts as well as the Total. Medals are awarded to the top three positions in both lifts, while the top three Totals are considered the “overall” winners.
The Olympic Games does not award medals for how the athletes perform in the two competition lifts. Olympians are judged and ranked only by their Totals.
In the event that two athletes lift the same weight in the snatch, clean & jerk, or Total, the higher-placing lifter is determined by who hit the weight in question first chronologically.
The Lifters Make the Lifting
It is nearly impossible to create a top-anything list that accounts for every factor that goes into the rigors of competitive sports. Do you measure merit by kilograms lifted, or by number of medals accrued, or by percentage of made lifts?
At the end of the day, it’s a zero sum game. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t athletes worth shining a light on. While plenty of the best weightlifters ever have carved their own names into the history books already, there are always some that fly under the radar who deserve their moment under the spotlight too.
After all, without the athletes, all you’ve got is a barbell on a platform. These 10 lifters, along with many more, are a true joy to watch and help make weightlifting what it is.
Featured Image: Shahjehan / Shutterstock