Weightlifting’s Pioneers Used Techniques You’ll Never See Today

Weightlifting has come a long way since its Olympic debut in 1896. A quick scroll on Instagram will show athletes from around the world trying to perfect just two movements, the snatch and clean & jerk. Sure, there are power snatches and push jerks and accessory work, but ultimately, it’s all about dat snatch and dem clean & jerks.

But what about weightlifting of yore? Until the late 1920s, competitors were tested in one-handed lifts, and for decades after that, split versions of the two-handed snatch and clean & jerk were popular among many top competitors as opposed to the squat variants we see today. (Fun fact: Split snatches and cleans are technically still allowed in weightlifting competition, though it’s a rarity to see them on the international stage.)

Yep, weightlifting’s pioneers mastered the split snatch, the clean and press, and even the continental clean, and yet any recent video of those lifts brings out the haters:

Bro, you’re going to hurt yourself if you keep doing things wrong like that. Better get back to the PVC pipe and some empty bar drills to make sure you can walk when you’re 50.

Hey random commenter from Instagram, tell that to Norb Schemansky. Oh, don’t know who Norb Schemansky is? Well, dude, he was a legend that could out lift you, and at 92 years old, he probably still could. Here he is at the 1962 World Championships, in the white singlet, black undershirt, and glasses, split snatching 160kg (352lb.) Schemansky, along with his heavyweight competitors Yury Vlasov and Gary Gubner, can all be seen utilizing the split snatch, though Schemansky is among the most successful. 

And then there’s the clean and press, which was actually part of official weightlifting competitions up until 1972. Back then, lifters had to complete three lifts to hit a total: snatch, clean & jerk, and clean & press. Ultimately, the clean & press was removed from competition due to difficulties in judging proper technique, as well as discrepancies over what was and wasn’t considered a “press.”

A perfect example of why the press was ultimately eliminated from competition can be seen in the following two videos of behemoth men and exceptional weightlifters, Serge Redding and Vasily Alexeev. At the 1971 Worlds, Redding clean and pressed a new world record of 228kg/508lb.

The record held for all off three minutes, until Vasily Alexeev pressed 230kg/507lb. Alexeev’s lift does not come without controversy, as some claim that his “press” contained a definitive knee bend, and should not have counted.

We can’t talk about old school weightlifting without mentioning the Continental clean, which is sure to anger any armchair coach from the 21st century. The Continental clean’s end goal is the same as a traditional clean — just get the bar to your shoulders to set up for the overhead portion of the lift — but the continental version allows the lifter to rest the bar on the body before making the transition to the shoulders. The bar can rest on the hips or weight belt, allowing for grip adjustments and general preparation.

Schemansky demonstrates a Continental split clean below. At 200kg/441lbs, we told you this guy was legit!

It’s worth noting the Continental clean was outlawed in Olympic weightlifting in the first half of the 20th century, though it’s still seen in some strongman competitions, primarily with the axel bar (which has a much wider diameter that can’t be gripped as smoothly as a standard Olympic barbell).