Get Swole with the Olympic Lifts
Forget slow and steady progress — the Olympic lifts and their strength-building derivatives have the power to push your physique into anabolic overdrive.
By Jeb Roberts, MA
If you’ve watched a weightlifter compete at the Olympic Games, chances are you weren’t floored by his physique. Sure, we all marvel at the skill, precision and explosive strength required to hoist 450 pounds overhead in a single motion, but a weightlifter’s singlet-shrouded musculature might not inspire you to trade your preacher curls for power cleans. After all, a bodybuilder takes the stage to hit compulsory poses that systematically showcase every sinew of muscle, whereas a weightlifter hits the platform just long enough to chalk up and nail a single, swift lift. The two sports couldn’t be more dissimilar with respect to aesthetics, but a closer look at the physiques of most Olympic lifters reveals some fundamental characteristics — massive quads and dense upper backs in particular — that any bodybuilder would envy.
“It really depends on how a lifter trains,” says Greg Everett, owner of Catalyst Athletics in Sunnyvale, California, and author of one of the sport’s definitive texts, Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches (Catalyst Athletics, 2009). “There are some teams that place a big emphasis on strength training and what you could call bodybuilding, and these guys look like amateur bodybuilders.” Other lifters, like the Bulgarians, Everett points out, do almost no work aimed at building muscle. “They rely almost exclusively on the classic lifts and use very low volume,” he says, “and they still have huge backs and legs.”
The Big Two
The “classic lifts” Everett’s referring to are the two staples of Olympic weightlifting competition, the clean and jerk and the snatch. Both lifts are explosive, complicated movements, and both require profound strength. Each begins with the bar on the platform and finishes with the athlete often holding over 250% of his bodyweight overhead, but they differ mainly in the number of movements required to drive the massive weights upward.
The clean and jerk starts off like a deadlift but with two key differences: the lifter’s shoulders are directly above the bar rather than in front of it, and the lifter’s hips are parallel to the knees rather than slightly higher than them. From that starting position, the lifter uses momentum generated mainly by the legs, hips and lower back to propel the bar high enough to essentially “jump” underneath it, landing in the bottom of a front squat. After squatting the weight up with the bar resting on his front delts and his elbows pointing straight forward, the lifter then dips and drives the weight up just enough to get back under it, this time in a spilt stance with the arms locked out overhead. The lift is complete once the lifter rises out of the split stance by carefully walking each leg in toward a stable standing position.
The start of the snatch is similar to that of the clean, but the overhand grip will be far wider — long-limbed lifters may even hold the bar with their hands flush against the sleeves at either end — resulting in an even lower hip position relative to the knees. From there, the lifter uses the same leg, hip and lower-back drive — all while maintaining an upright torso — to propel the bar high enough to explosively jump beneath it with the arms locked out, and the lift is complete once the lifter rises out of the bottom position with what’s essentially an overhead squat. Whereas the clean and jerk incorporates two separate steps, the snatch is one fluid, lightning-quick movement.
Given the speed and power involved, these two lifts recruit a tremendous amount of type-2 muscle fibers, which are the type most associated with muscle growth. As for whether the classic Olympic lifts are the best means of encouraging growth, Everett is doubtful. “The snatch takes a second or so for the entire lift, so there’s less time under tension for you to derive typical hypertrophy from it. But that being said, the derivative movements that Olympic lifters use in their training are great tools for generating hypertrophy.”
Both the snatch and the clean and jerk are incredibly complex lifts, and anyone wishing to learn them should seek proper coaching — and a facility with the necessary equipment. But while the classic lifts might be the only ones you’ll see on a competition platform, most Olympic lifters develop the foundational strength and mobility required to perform those lifts using a number of accessory, or “derivative” movements, most of which will be useful additions to any bodybuilder’s stagnant toolkit. “Olympic lifters use lots of push variations and pull variations, as well as explosive presses, that can be used to build mass,” Everett says. Also essential to the weightlifter’s repertoire are the various squats they use, most notably the front squat, which is essential for hitting a heavy clean. Everett’s careful to point out that how Olympic lifters squat makes all the difference. “Weightlifters tend to have very good quad development, and that’s all based on the fact that they squat all the way down to the bottom. They’re not doing any kind of weird partial squatting,” he says.
Naturally, any talk of deep squatting will sound an alarm for some lifters, but Everett quickly dismisses any misguided assumptions about the safety of full-depth squatting. “If you look at the injury specifics, you can see that Olympic weightlifting has the second or third lowest injury rates of any sport,” he says, “so it’s fascinating that you have people who wouldn’t hesitate to go play basketball or football without concern for knee and ankle health, yet they refuse to squat. Or they may squat in a Smith machine and that’s it.”
Numerous studies back Everett on this point. A research paper titled “Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training” published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that Olympic weightlifting had the fewest injuries of any sport studied, including football, soccer, rugby, baseball and basketball, as well as general resistance training. Those statistics encompass not only the full-depth varieties of squats practiced by Olympic lifters, but also each of the classic and derivative lifts that contribute to their incredible strength and impressive physiques. Six derivative moves that will improve your Olympic lifts and overall muscularity include the following lifts.
While the barbell back squat remains the go-to move for total-body mass, deep Olympic-style front squats are the perfect remedy for bodybuilders with underdeveloped quads. “If you look at the old-school guys like Schwarzenegger and Dave Draper, you often see them doing front squats ass to ankles,” Everett says. “It’s not the only squat they used, but they definitely recognized its effectiveness.” Because of its extreme upright position, the Olympic front squat also builds tremendous core strength.
More a mobility movement than a mass builder, the overhead squat is an essential component of the snatch. “You can’t use it to move a lot of weight for high reps,” Everett says, “because your wrists and elbows are the limiting factors.” But while those limitations mean the overhead squat works your legs to a lesser degree, the added muscular stress placed on the core, traps and shoulders, all of which endure an extreme isometric contraction throughout the full range of motion, make the overhead squat an ideal full-body strength movement.
Whereas the clean involves pulling the bar from the floor — almost like an explosive deadlift — and receiving it in a front squat, the “power” version starts the same, but the bar is received with the lifter’s thighs well above parallel. There’s no squat involved. The heavy loads and explosive motion of the power clean make it a strength-training staple for sports like football, hockey and rugby. If you’re cleaning less than 135 pounds, start from the “hang” position (mid thigh) to accommodate the diameter of smaller plates.
Muscle Snatch (from Mid-Hang)
Though it allows less weight than just about any other Olympic accessory lift, the muscle snatch is one of the most effective ways to torch your traps, delts, forearms and even your biceps. But as with any of the complicated movements shown here, mastering the form with minimal weight is essential before you turn up the intensity.
If the squat is the ultimate mass builder for legs, the push press is its delt-building counterpart. Like the barbell military press, the push press lets you press significant weight overhead while severely taxing stabilizing muscle groups, but the addition of hip drive lets you press much heavier weights for a greater anabolic effect.
High Pull (from Mid-Hang)
If you’ve ever extended a set of heavy shrugs by incorporating a little help from your calves and hips, those last few “power shrugs” weren’t far off from the mid-hang high pull, which is one of the best movements for developing explosive power while hitting your traps and delts with heavy weights for high-volume rep counts.
Incorporating the Lifts
In case you’re concerned about Olympic movements interfering with your bodypart split, Everett insists that you can work them into your regular regimen. “You don’t need to fundamentally change what you’re doing,” he says. “But you’re obviously going to have to accommodate the additional volume, so if you’re already doing everything your ability to recover can handle, you’ll have to back off somewhere in order to introduce new lifts.”
Because you’ll need to give up certain exercises in order to add new movements, the most obvious switch will be the compound lifts you typically perform at the start of your workout. “You want to do complex, skill or speed-based exercises first, then move into other kinds of slower, strength-based movements, and then finish with more focused auxiliary work,” Everett says. To put it all together, consider augmenting your legs, shoulders and back days — the main targets of the Olympic derivatives — with the accompanying routines. Since these lifts can be surprisingly taxing even with minimal weight, be sure to warm up thoroughly and perform several empty-bar reps to drill the movements before loading the barbell. Also keep in mind that because the Olympic lifts and derivatives are ultimately aimed at building strength, you should never take a set of these lifts to failure. Use a weight that leaves you feeling fresh after the prescribed number of reps, and save muscle failure for the targeted exercises that follow the Olympic movements.