Psychology of Strength in Weightlifting

Andrew Charniga

 Psychology of Strength in Weightlifting

Andrew Charniga

“In weightlifting, the sportsman’s concentration on the platform before lifting the weight is usually considered the fundamental phase.” Genov, F., 1969

A weightlifter needs to cultivate self – assuredness in tandem with muscles from practice of the classic exercises; likewise confidence in one’s abilities acquired from consistent success at lifting accessible weights; these psychologies cannot be underestimated. A critical aspect of a weightlifter’s ‘psychological strength’ is the unswerving confidence in his/her ability to raise the accessible weights selected in competitions; underpinned by the knowledge one has learned the correct technique and effort.     

Training as the Main Means of Developing Psychological Strength

An anecdote serves to illuminate the power, the consummate efficacy of a state of self – assuredness; a result of developing one’s ‘psychological strength’, i.e, confidence in one’s abilities ingrained from training; as told by Bill Starr in 1968. Starr was assistant editor of Strength and Health magazine at that time. From his detached viewpoint (a parallax view) at the Mexico City Olympics; Starr observed the American lifters were overly nervous; in some cases; did not even belong on the same platform as the Russians: “it appeared to me that even at their best few of our fellows belong on the same stage with the rest of the lifters in the world.”

Starr went on to offer a for instance: “Seltisky (Boris Selitsky, USSR) impressed me greatly. He moved extremely fast and reeked with self confidence.” B. Starr, S&H, 1969.

Is it coincidence the same man who “reeked with self confidence”  B. Selitsky (USSR); made significant alterations to his training beginning in 1967; the year leading up to the Mexico Olympiad? For instance:

“The emphasis of training was speed – strength instead of strength.  The number of lifts with 90% and more in the classic press, the snatch and the clean and jerk was increased to the optimum level;  the weight of the barbell in pulls and squats was reduced; the volume of press, snatch and clean and jerk lifts increased whereas the volume of pulls squats and other assistance exercises decreased.” R.A. Roman,

The guy Bill Starr observed to be “reeking with self confidence” in Mexico City made the following improvement in his competition results:

“B. Selitsky made the following result at the 1967 USSR Spartakiade: 145 + 142.5 + 175 = 462.5 kg. This was in July of 1967. But after one year and some odd months, in October of 1968 he became Olympic Champion in the 82.5 kg class with a result of 150 + 147.5 + 187.5 = 485 kg.” R.A. Roman,1971. Translated by Andrew Charniga.

For instance, there is an obvious contrast between Selitsky’s alterations of his training with  some popular training methods of today; featuring big weights in squats, pulls, deadlifts and so forth, i.e., more weight, ‘a bigger – muscles – beget – bigger – results mentality. By way of contrast,  Selitsky strengthened his body and especially his “psychology” by replacing an emphasis of training for strength to an emphasis on specificity: speed – strength; perfecting the skill to perform the classic exercises. 

An integral aspect of a strong psychology as illustrated by the example of Boris Selitsky’s performance in the 1968 Olympics was his certitude in his abilities; an outcome of the hard work, the disciplined training for the specificity of weightlifting competitions.

A lesson to be gained from the anecdote, is the low likelihood an athlete will lose focus easily, i.e., be unable to concentrate on the task at hand under the tense conditions of competitions, with multiple athletes lifting weights all in close proximity; if one is “reeking with self confidence”.

Contrast the performance of 1968 Olympic Champion Boris Selitsky (USSR) on the biggest stage in sport all the while “reeking with self confidence” with the excessively low realization of attempts at world and other international events (see 2022 WWC and 2023 European championships   

The Fundamental Phase of a Strong Psychology

Concentration: “The ability to focus effectively on the task at hand while ignoring distractions”. Moran, A., 2004

Soviet biomechanist D. Donskoi (1971) &  many sport psychologists of the western literature are in agreement the goal of training in sport exercises was to achieve an “automation over control of movement”; which in its turn reduces an athlete’s willful control of movement. Consequently, an athlete can switch his/her attention away from the movement itself to other objectives: speed of movement, relaxation of muscles’ and so forth.

“Depending on the level of technical mastery many of the features and details of a movement will no longer fall under volitional control and management, but instead, become automated.’ Donskoi, D., (1971)  

Donskoi’s solution for control of movement, in effect, to perfect coordination to a level of automation is a solution which can also be a problem.

Automation of sport technique, especially as it pertains to weightlifting, can create a problem with respect to continuity of focus; something which must be maintained from beginning to the end of competitions. This is all the more pertinent with the distractibility of today’s weightlifting’s competition protocols; and, exacerbated further by a host of today’s digital distractions.

A number of factors affect a weightlifter’s ability to achieve automation of technique. Foremost is the manner in which many lifters are taught technique; in many cases an illogical ‘step by step’, ‘mind over matter’ control of movement. A ‘step by step’ method (first pull, second pull, shrug shoulders and so forth) is an anti – automation of technique; the lifter is to think through each step which in its turn is a distraction because it is not possible to lift a maximum weight, all the while self-directing each step.

Making matters worse, another outcome of learning and training in this manner; are a coach’s typically last minute instructions before a lifter steps on the platform; things like ‘raise your elbows out to the side’, ‘shrug the shoulders’, and/or instructions to be willfully aggressive. Not only are last minute technique instructions a waste of time; they are distraction to the lifter’s focus. If those last minute technique instructions are indeed, important, they should already be so automatic as to make instruction from the coach at best superfluous. Elite lifters should already know how to lift the barbell; that is what makes them elite. An elite lifter’s period of concentration preceding an attempt in competition is (or, should be) devoted to a single, or a very limited range of cues; because the details of technique have been automated:

“Before I lift I shout Fung Song – Relax. I tell myself to relax so that I can lift the weights relaxing.” ZHOU Lulu, 2012 Olympic champion +75 kg (CHN)

Figure. Focus of attention on a single or a very limited range of technical cues before lifting a heavy weight is a common psychological trait of elite athletes in general, and weightlifters in particular; ZHOU Lulu, 2012 Olympic champion +75 kg (CHN) verbalized a single, key psychological cue to ‘relax muscles’. Highly automated motor skills eliminate the need to rehearse individual elements of technique. Charniga photo.

Coaches and athletes alike frequently do not adhere to even simple practices to assist lifters in maintaining focus in competitions; especially if the athletes are a product of the step by step methodology of learning technique, i.e., learning to lift exclusively through ‘act of will’; which tends to predominate in weightlifting training.  

For instance, sport psychologists would decry  excessive, unnecessary verbal instruction, especially the last minute, the hands on, pre – performance cues which are become commonplace in weightlifting competitions; as creating a state of “paralysis by analysis”:

“paralysis by analysis”, devotion of too much attention to the mechanics of well learned skills.” A. Moran, 2004

Figure. Intense concentration/focus on the task at hand can be reflected in a weightlifter’s ‘glazed expression’. It is difficult to achieve such a state of mind if the athlete is burdened with a “paralysis of analysis”. Charniga photo.

A “paralysis by analysis” is one of a number of reasons there are so many missed attempts in competitions where lifters are attempting accessible weights. That is to say, strength is not the issue, but a combination of faulty training and competition psychology; such as, unreasonable expectations the actions of the coach will have on the outcome.  

Psychological strength, in the context of weightlifting sport is closely connected with the ability to concentrate in competitions; to focus intently, on the task at hand, all the while blocking out superfluous details of one’s immediate surroundings; which can only serve to distract. For instance, an “intentionality” of focus is required:

“ a focused state of mind requires intentionality; skilled athletes can focus consciously on only one thought at a time;  optimally focused when the athlete is totally absorbed in the task at hand; a state of mind where there is no difference between what they are thinking and what they are doing.” A. Moran, 2004

Failure of coaches and athletes alike to adhere to some basic prerequisites to facilitate the athlete’s focus happens frequently in competitions as well in training. Consequently, the possibility of a “paralysis of analysis”; affecting both coach and athlete, arising from excessive attention to details: last minute instruction of technique; superfluous at a competition site.    

On the other hand, if automation of technique is indeed the goal; and, most agree it is; especially for weightlifting; since the classic exercises consist of fast, complex coordination movements; there is a potential to easily distract an elite athlete’s concentration. The reason stems from the fact the exercises have been performed so monotonously; reflexively automatic in training. An athlete whose technique is sound; whose technique has been correctly honed to perform  movements reflexively automatic; have to be cognizant of being easily distracted (Toner, et al, 2015). In this context, one’s attention can only be focused on the task of successfully lifting maximum weights and not on the individual elements of the technique. 

All of these considerations are crucial for what Genov (1969) called the “fundamental phase”, the period of concentration immediately preceding an attempt on the competition platform.  

A weightlifter’s ability to focus is laced with the challenges of time constraints and delays imposed by today’s competition protocols, digitally induced distractions, “paralysis by analysis” and others, effectively reducing attention span.

At the present time a weightlifter is allotted one minute after a call to the platform; and two minutes if a lifter follows him/herself in the order of lifting; to begin lifting the barbell. The one minute rule does not work out to an actual minute since a lifter is not permitted to ascend the ramp to the stage until after the clock has started. By the time an athlete reaches the barbell on the platform after stopping at the chalk container; 20 – 30 seconds of the lifter’s time allotment to begin lifting has expired. This usually leaves less than 30 seconds to adopt the stance and grasp the barbell. Hence, a precious few seconds remain to reach a desirable level of concentration; and, a lesser likelihood an athlete has sufficient time to attain: “a state of mind where there is no difference between what they are thinking and what they are doing”, A. Moran 2004.

Many lifters will instinctively glance at the clock one or more times, while in the starting position; conceivably losing focus in the process. Hence, another indication the one minute time allotment is insufficient and may lead to a lifter hurrying to start a lift; as well as potentially distracting the lifter’s concentration.

In this context, the question of how long does it take to reach the desired state of concentration/focus within the one and two minute time constraints? How long can this state be maintained? How easily is a lifter distracted? 

From videos of past, champions of different eras in the sport champions such as Vardanyan, Alexseyev, Kono, Pisarenko, and many others clearly allotted more time for psychological preparedness before attempting a lift on the competition platform; rather uncommon today. One of the main reasons must be today’s time constraints for the lifter to get to the barbell and begin lifting before he/she is timed out.

Based on analysis of 475 lifters competing at European, Olympic and world championships, USSR sport scientist F. Genov determined the following requisites of a weightlifter’s time of preparedness/concentration before attempts in competition. Time of preparedness/concentration was calculated once the sportsman stepped on the platform; up until beginning to lift a certain weight. Time of concentration was measured for all three lifts (press, snatch and clean an jerk). The results were as follows:

/ the time  of pre – lift concentration varies with the weight of the barbell and the exercise;

/  time of pre – lift concentration rises along with the weight of the barbell;

/ in some cases a missed lift was attributed to a shorter time of concentration; all the more so, in the midst of an intensely contested weight class;

/ world champion lifters are distinguished from lower qualified lifters by their ability to focus attention;

/ elite lifters can focus attention/concentrate for 40 – 70 seconds;

/ low class lifters can only manage about half the elite lifter’s 40 – 70 seconds span of concentration;

/ successful attempts are connected with rising time of concentration in response to the increasing weight of the barbell, i.e., the likelihood of making a successful lift rises along with an increasing time of concentration;

/ a direct dependence was found between the increasing weight of the barbell, rising time of concentration and a weightlifter’s improvements of results in competitions;

It is probably no coincidence similar differences in ability to focus/concentrate between elite and lesser athletes were obtained from study of wrestlers, another ancient, sister sport to weightlifting. Psychological abilities measured as mental toughness were found to be significantly higher in elite (international level) wrestlers than in lower level (national level) wrestlers (Bhardwaj, S, et al, 2014). Furthermore, pertinent to weightlifting, female wrestlers were found to “posses significantly higher level of concentration abilities” than their male counterparts (Bhardwaj, S, et al, 2014). This latter finding is all the more significant for weightlifting sport; as there is no relevant data of this kind on women weightlifters. The research of Genov (1969) predates the female weightlifter.    

Figure. Little scientific or empirical data is available of the female weightlifter’s psychological make up. Charniga photo.

Conclusions & another anecdote

/ adequate time and/or overall ability for mental preparation/concentration/focus before platform attempts in competition are significant, potential weak links in the training and performance of weightlifters in competitions. Time of mental preparation/concentrations has been found to rise in response to increasing weight of the barbell. The probability for success rises with the time of preparation as well as the weightlifter’s potential to improve his/her results;

/ the contribution of correct training, specifically suited to the demands of competitions, develops a strong psychology for weightlifting; it cannot be overstated;

/ the current competition protocols have set an arbitrary 1 minute rule for the weightlifter to begin a lift which is not an actual minute and should at least be returned to a previous 1.5 minute rule;

/ lifters and coaches must be prepared for the pressures and distractions inherent to competitions; concentration/focus can be not only be difficult, it can be fleeting.

A final anecdote illustrating the significance of a strong psychology developed from training

Rolf Milser (FGR) competing at 100 kg, announced his retirement from weightlifting prior to the competition of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. For some months in the lead up to the Games Milser had trained in Bulgaria. On the morning of his competition day Milser snatched 120 kg and clean and jerked 160 kg.

Two large video screens were introduced at this Games so the audience could watch the action in the warmup room; sans the boredom of watching a barbell on the platform waiting for an athlete to lift. As it turned out, Milser need to C&J 217.5 kg on his 3rd attempt, to win the gold. This would be his last attempt in competition and only chance of ever becoming an Olympic champion. A final final.

In the interim period, while everyone waited for Milser to step on the platform for this final final attempt; the announcer (Lyn Jones) whose back was to the warm up room video screens; launched into a drama filled prologue to inform the audience of the great tension involved; the immense pressure on the athlete to succeed, and so forth. To his surprise the audience began laughing as he spoke. Milser, who the audience could view  off stage, on the warmup room video screens; was not sweating bullets – he was nonchalantly brushing his hair. If anything, an American audience would have expected to see worry reflected on the athlete’s face; someone straining to cope the pressure of the moment; even a coach giving an impassioned ‘win one for the gipper’ motivational speech; hardly, a man nonchalantly grooming his hair for the cameras. 

Needless to say, Milser went to the platform; and, just as nonchalantly as he brushed his hair; he lifted the 217.5 kg for the gold.    


/ Charniga, A., “Weightlifting from a Parallax View”,

/ Charniga, A., “How is it Possible Weightlifters are Stronger”,

/ Charniga, A., “The secret to the weightlifter’s strength: speed of muscle relaxation”.

/ Charniga, A., “Power, Equilibrium and the Struggle with Horizontal Gravity”,

/ Charniga, A., “Distinctions Between Static (Powerlifting/Bodybuilding) and Dynamic Weightlifting/Ballistic) Expressions of Strength in Resistance Exercises”,

/ Zhekov, I. P., The Biomechanics of the Weightlifting Exercises, FIS, Moscow, 1976. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Vorobeyev, A.N., Weightlifting: Textbook for the institutes of Sport, Moscow, FIS, 1972; 1982; 1988; Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Donskoi, D. D., Biomekhanika: S Osnovami Sportivnoi Tekhniki (Biomechanics: with Fundamentals of Sport Technique); Fizkultura I Sport, Moscow, 1971

/ Genov, F., “The Length of the Weightlifter’s Psychological Preparedness on the Platform Depending on the Increasing Weight of the Barbell”, Tribuna Masterov, 1969. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Roman, R.A., “The training of B. Selitsky for the XIX Olympic Games, Weightlifting: Sbornik Statei; 58- 62:1970, Translated by Andrew Charniga.

/ Starr, B. Strength and Health Magazine, 1969.

/ Moran, A., “Attention and concentration in sport”, Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, ebook ISBN: 9780080547749; 2004

/ Toner, J., Montero, B., Moran, A., “The Perils of Automaticity”.

/ Brown, T., Carr, T., “Automaticity in skill acquisition: Mechanisms for reducing interference in concurrent performance”, Journal of experimental psychology: Human perception and performance., 1989, VPol.15, No. 4, 686 – 700.

/ Bhardwaj, S., et al, “A qualitative study of mental perseverance and mental concentration among elite and sub elite wrestlers”, European science journall 10:08: 2014; ISSN: 1857 – 7881