Common Weightlifting Mistakes That Beginners Should Avoid

Olympic weightlifting is the effective ways to increase strength and build muscle. Olympic weightlifters use the snatch and the clean and jerk, and powerlifters work only the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Regardless of the movement, the goal is to get heavy; competitors get three attempts to hit their maximum weight for each lift.

We asked Chad Vaughn, two-time Olympian and American record holder in the clean and jerk, about the most common errors he sees as a weightlifting coach. Below, he shares the bad habits that make him cringe, and offers advice for new lifters.

A “Close Enough” Mentality on Form

The most common mistake is “getting ahead of themselves.” A prime example of this is failing to practice perfect form with lighter weights before going heavier.

For example, the snatch is performed by bringing the barbell from the ground to an overhead position in one fluid movement. But if you can’t maintain a flat back in the starting position, it’s detrimental to repetitively drill the lift — you start to build muscle memory with bad form. “The longer they do that,” says Vaughn, “the harder it’s going to be for them to go back and start over and make those changes.” So, if you’re that person who struggles to maintain a neutral spine when initiating a snatch, you’ll be far better off working to perfect that starting position than continuing to add weight to the bar.

The best thing you can do if you’re new to power- or Olympic lifting is ask a coach or experienced weightlifter to assess your form. He or she can recommend progressions for a lift, as well as accompanying accessory work to increase your range of motion and help you nail the setup, movement, and finish.

Going Heavy Every Day

Vaughn admits that even he’s guilty of this mistake. “It’s so easy to just say, ‘I feel ok. I’m going to keep going heavy,’ all the time.” But at some point this cavalier attitude will bite you, he says.

To ensure that you’re allowing your body adequate time to recover, Vaughn recommends starting with a conservative schedule — no more than three to four days of lifting a week — that follows a “heavy, heavy, light” weekly pattern. Heavy weeks include full lifts and loads that push up against your one-rep maximum weight. Light weeks should prioritize technique and speed work by keeping lifts at 70% of your maximum weight and drilling partial movements. More experienced lifters can also utilize this template to steadily increase strength and movement efficiency.

Not Eating Enough

Sports nutrition is a nuanced topic, and it’s easy to find competing philosophies. But Vaughn has noticed that a lot of lifters, regardless of which foods they’re eating, simply aren’t consuming enough of them.

“Yeah, we can get into the quality of food and certain types of food, but in the end if you’re not getting enough calories to sustain your workload, then that, to me, is the biggest mistake of all,” he says.

If you feel like your progress has stalled, try eating another 200 calories a day. But the best way to determine how much you need to eat to fuel your workouts and recovery is to visit a dietician who can test your resting metabolic rate (RMR). The test, which typically costs around $150, is fairly quick and easy — you sit in a chair and breathe into a disposable mouthpiece for about 15 minutes. While it might seem like a lot of money and effort for a simple read-out, knowing this number — and eating with it in mind — can make a big difference in the gains you see in the gym, and how you feel overall.

Too Much Volume

Vaughn has worked with some of the country’s most elite CrossFit athletes, so he’s no stranger to pushing through double-digit rep schemes against a running clock, or the satisfaction of red-lining during a WOD. The problem occurs when lifters get fatigued using heavy weights, and might not have the proper technique or adequate range of motion from the start.

“If you just want to breathe hard, there are plenty of things you can do,” says Vaughn. Jumping rope, hitting the track, or cranking out burpees are all less technical ways to rev your engine. But when it comes to grabbing a barbell, Vaughn’s recommendation is clear: “If you don’t have the movement down well, there’s no sense in getting bad repetitions over and over again. Slow down. Get a skill session in.”