How To Build Muscle for Olympic Weightlifting

Liam Rodgers

How to build muscle for Olympic weightlifting? And why does it matter? Olympic weightlifting is a strength sport - it's about building muscle, getting strong, and lifting weights.If you miss the strength and size training, you're going to fall behind. Today, we're teaching you how not to ruin your training, by promoting muscle growth for better results.

How to build muscle for Olympic weightlifting

How to build muscle for Olympic weightlifting? And why does it matter?

Olympic weightlifting is a strength sport - it's about building muscle, getting strong, and lifting weights.

If you miss the strength and size training, you're going to fall behind. Today, we're teaching you how not to ruin your training, by promoting muscle growth for better results.

And I think that's a good deal - so let's get started with a quick version for the busy lifters...

How To Build Muscle for Olympic Weightlifting: The Short version

Look, it's not hard to build muscle - it just takes time. Muscle growth is regulated by your training stimulus, your eating habits, and your other recovery - like sleep and supplementation.

The things you do determine what you get. Muscle building is slow but not complicated - the real problem is that Olympic weightlifters like doing Olympic lifts. It takes time and energy away from the snatch and clean to focus on your assistance exercises for long enough to build muscle properly.

You need to:

  1. Commit more time and energy to assistance exercises - and the "off-season" timeline
  2. Reduce training volume in the Olympic lifts
  3. Eat and sleep like you're on a Bodybuilding program
  4. Put proper balance into upper body and lower body muscle growth
  5. Stick with it when things get tough and your power training isn't going so well!

Building muscle for Olympic weightlifting is mostly a change in perspective: how you train, how you eat, how you sleep, and how you think about training. Moving from maximum force to maximum time under tension and higher rep ranges can be stark contrasts.

Change starts in your swede: elite weightlifters have more muscle mass, though, so you need to build muscle if you want the best lifts possible.

You don't get to be weak

Olympic weightlifters do not get to be weak. You can have all the technique in the world, but they don't hand out prizes for the prettiest 50kg snatch.

They hand out medals for lifting weights - heavy loads - and that requires strength. Strength and muscle mass come together, where bigger people are able to get stronger, and they get injured less.

Muscle growth around a joint is a big deal: it's a shock absorber for the joint, it provides proper alignment (if it's not massively imbalanced), and it provides better long-term strength gains. Any strength coach will tell you: being more muscular makes you more robust.

That's especially important around key joints - both in the upper body and lower body. The shoulders and elbows are a good example: a big strict press (military press) is a great way to protect your smaller joints from the heavy loads you want to throw overhead in a jerk.

Building muscle just requires you to perform normal strength training with some higher rep ranges. It's still strength, and while you might not see the immediate application, having a stronger bench press is never a disadvantage.

You don't need to be a bodybuilder, but muscle mass helps protect your joints - there's a balance in terms of time and training volume.

A Caveat: "Unnecessary Muscle Mass"

We aren't naming names, but you know it. You've heard that some Olympic weightlifters have "too much upper body muscle mass".

That doesn't exist. There's a limit to how much muscle growth you want, but it doesn't disadvantage you. Being stronger is required because the stress of weights goes up significantly, and your muscles, bones, and tendons need to scale with it.

This is why you need to increase muscle mass more as heavier lifter than a light weight. You're dealing with absolute loads that are much heavier on the same tissue structure as someone much smaller.

The loading and mechanical tension depend on big muscles: strong triceps, shoulders, and upper back muscles are key. They stabilise the bar in the split jerk and overhead squat.

There's a grain of truth in this weightlifting meme: don't train muscles like the biceps at the cost of the lower body, of the strict press muscles, or of the poverty of your mobility. Olympic lifts need pressing more than bicep curls, so stay "functional" with your assistance exercises.

(i.e. lots of rows and pull ups, instead of just curls. Military press and push press, not just bench press.)

Olympic lifting: a needs analysis

Where do Olympic weightlifters need to build muscle? What muscle growth is a smart use of your time? What are the key areas you need to build a training program around?

In the absolute simplest terms, there are 3 major categories:

  1. Pulling
  2. Squatting
  3. Overhead

Pulling Assistance Exercises: Driving Hip and Back Muscle Growth

Pulling is about incorporating less-specific, more generally useful strength training exercises for the hamstrings, glutes, and back. Romanian deadlifts are a perfect example, and one that comes straight from Nicu Vlad, one of the all-time greatest snatchers.

Romanian deadlifts are a great example because they help build muscle in the lower body, but they're also positionally useful. Efficient technique depends on good back position (staying over the bar with an arched back) and the same hinging pattern that Romanian deadlifts reinforce.

Other examples we like include:

  • Kettlebell swings
  • Snatch grip stiff-legged deadlift
  • Good mornings (especially with a pause)
  • Seated good mornings
Pulling exercises are the most specific form of muscle-building accessory. Pull more - you'll be glad when it comes to comp time and you're not shitting yourself about the clean.

Squatting Assistance Exercises

The Olympic lifts require explosive power and leg strength. The front and back squats are both important. The front squat is very specific, but the back squat is a bit more general; it's there to build muscle and leg strength that you can use in snatch and clean alike, and is important for explosive power in the jerk.

Sometimes, you want to back off the one rep max training and use higher rep ranges for back squat to build muscle. It's a simple change that can drive up performance in the Olympic lifts - it's always better to have stronger legs and more surplus.

No elite Olympic lifters have weak legs - some are stronger, and some are less strong. They all squat more than you or I, and that's why bringing up the front and back squats at top priority is going to be key at least semi-regularly.

Other types of squats and leg weight training are still important. Assistance exercises are varied but offer tons of great choices for building muscle:

  • Bulgarian split squat
  • Leg press (single- and two-leg versions)
  • Full range Kossack squats
  • Lunges and side lunges
  • Step ups

These are a few favs, but you're looking at dozens or hundreds of options. Use higher rep ranges and try to lift more weight over time - it's that simple. You can add power training later so it carries over to more explosive movements like the Olympic lifts.

You won't get slow just by doing more assistance exercises and muscle growth training. Getting slow happens when you stop all power training, which you don't need to do.

Overhead Assistance Exercises: Military Press and Bench Pressing

Overhead stability is probably the most overlooked area for accessory exercises and upper body weight training for Olympic lifters. Your ability to get into a strong front squat, overhead squat, or jerk position all depend on the muscles of the upper body.

More muscle growth here makes you healthier and more stable in the Olympic lifts. It's a foundation for putting heavy weights over your head.

You build muscle relatively slowly in these areas - especially because you don't want to stimulate muscle growth at the cost of day to day performance. You're a little bit limited on just how much volume you can do, because you want to be able to hit a nice overhead position next time you snatch and clean and jerk.

There are a lot of great assistance exercises you can use to build muscle for overhead stability:

  • Strict press, either standing or seated
  • Dumbbell presses, standing or seated
  • Bench press - specifically for building muscle in the triceps
  • Push presses with a higher rep range
  • Dips - both bench and bar dips

But, equally, your overhead strength and stability requires other types of pulling exercises in the upper body to strengthen the other side of the upper body:

  • Pull ups
  • Chin ups
  • Barbell rows
  • Face pulls
  • Inverted rows
  • Whatever Klokov is doing in this video...

Build muscle everywhere - on both sides of any joint or important area. It's a simple way to get better.

It's not enough to have a big shoulder press: you need to apply it to the overhead squat. Build surplus, then polish it up.

Core Muscle Growth for Olympic Weightlifters

You need to train your core. I don't care what your friend said, just squatting and lifting won't produce enough trunk muscle growth for lifting heavy weights. It's also not going to train the odd, rotational and lateral demands that we put on the core.

Add core training - just adding more core assistance exercises into your training program can help. The core needs a higher rep range, in particular, and some core workouts look like endurance training.

Muscle building here keeps your spine and lower back healthy, improves your transfer of explosive power, and stops you getting bent over so easily in a tough snatch pull or front squat.

Building muscle here is a slow process and you just need to keep chipping away at it - there are many options - including tons of body weight training choices:

  • Sit ups and crunches (including the cable crunch)
  • Lying or hanging leg raises
  • Planks - weighted, unweighted, and side planks
  • Core exercise machines
  • Gymnastic body weight exercises - like the hollow hold

(We don't have a photo of any of us doing Core, as it's disgusting and we have all-on just doing it)

Just go and look at what typical bodybuilding programs do to build muscle in the core - that's probably good enough for you. I also like some heavy weights on the core, every so often, as a way to get the best transfer over to the Olympic lifts and heavy front squat sessions.

Step one is just make sure you're training core regularly - at least 2 times a week.

Building upper body muscle for Olympic Weightlifting

Olympic weightlifting training programs typically neglect upper body muscle growth. Even well-developed systems can overlook these key muscle groups and their strength's role in the Olympic lifts.

We've seen elite athletes from countless countries who are limited by these structural developments. Meanwhile, other countries prioritise them early and their athletes have a great time at the elite level because they're already strong: Poland, Russia, and Japan are all great examples.

These athletes have the advantage of not having to put time in to get better at something that is elementary for some countries. Needless to say, Britain isn't exactly at the front of either of these categories.

Oliver Orok (NGR, 100KG) | The most muscular weightlifter of all time | Commonwealth Games 1982 - YouTube

The upper body has a wide variety of roles and they go beyond just holding the bar. Here are a few, just so you know where you'll actually improve:

  • Overhead stability in the overhead squat, as well as the clean and jerk
  • Turnover in the snatch and clean - putting the bar where it needs to go
  • Sweeping the bar back to the hips in the second pull, especially in the snatch
  • Maintaining proper bar-proximity through the lift
  • Setting up properly in the snatch and clean, setting the shoulders

These are non-trivial improvements that add up over time. The fact they're all over your Olympic sport should indicate that you need to work on it. Muscle growth in the upper body is a huge part of your overall physical development and you can't really justify knowingly neglecting balanced development.

Olympic lifting might depend on explosive power training in the lower body, but neglecting upper body muscle growth is a rapid route to huge weaknesses. Typically, these result in back and wrist injuries, rounded back cleans, and bad turnovers. We'd know.

Basic muscle growth principles for weightlifting

How to build a simple weightlifting bodybuilding program

An Olympic weightlifting program needs to incorporate bodybuilding as a separate influence but one that deserves real effort. It has to re-strike the balance between Olympic lift volume and assistance exercises.

1. Commit to building muscle

You need to change your short-term goals to support long-term development. Building muscle is an investment in your Olympic lifts, even if it means you snatch and clean far less often - or to lower weights - in the meantime.

This can sting. Muscle building is just dull, repetitive weight training over time - even if the reward of looking better is quite affirming. Power training with the classic lifts is way more fun, especially if you're technically-minded.

This is a type of mental toughness people overlook: the willingness to forego power training to prioritise building muscle, and the confidence to know you'll be okay. Olympic weightlifting asks a lot of your mental game, and this is no exception.

Take your muscle growth phase seriously - as seriously as your Olympic lifts and squats. More slow, general strength exercises!

2. Slow down

You don't stimulate muscle growth with power training; you need to slow down, focus on constant tension, and accumulate more volume with more reps and sets.

Olympic weightlifting prioritises speed, so this can be a change of pace. You can ignore this for push press, but any bodybuilding program focuses on tempo and control. You need that in your assistance exercises, and constant tension from cables (e.g.) is another great addition.

You don't stimulate muscle growth with just heavy weight training, you also need to be deliberate about how you move - and the total mechanical tension. Weight training has a lot of ways you can change it, and this is key for an Olympic lifter trying to make muscle gains like a bodybuilder.

3. Incorporate isotonic exercise

Isotonic exercises use constant tension - like cable machines - to maintain the mechanical tension through the full range of motion of an exercise.

For power training, this is less common. You don't do this for competition lifts. But it's great to stimulate muscle growth and build bigger muscles. We particularly like this kind of exercise in the hamstrings and upper back.

Cable rows (especially single-armed) are great for building muscle in the lats, as well as improving your hang position in the snatch and clean. Better snatch grip positions are huge, and you can build efficient technique when this muscle growth makes controlling the bar easier.

4. Overlap intensity and volume

A typical bodybuilding program doesn't just use high rep range training. It's always trying to increase volume and intensity together wherever possible - and that means some schemes you don't run into with weightlifting:

  • Rep goals: as few sets as possible for a goal total rep count
  • Rest-pause sets: sets with rests near failure to overcome fatigue
  • To-failure: what it says - you go until you can't go no mo'
  • Cluster sets: small sets with small rests, pushing total reps in a given time
  • Pyramid sets: work up from low intensity to high intensity and back down (lots of back-off sets)

These schemes all have one thing in common: they want you to lift more weight, for more reps, in less time. The goal is clear and they take different approaches, but it's the thing you want to aim for.

Bodybuilders try to work at - and beyond - failure as often as possible. This is how you have to approach assistance exercises and, honestly, it takes more grit than you think if you've never really committed to building muscle as your top priority.

Building Muscle for Olympic Weightlifting: FAQ

Olympic weightlifting is a sport that makes two lifts a complex and decades-long Olympic sport. You can imagine that it might produce some questions.

Do You Need Big Muscles for Olympic Lifting?

No, you don't need muscle mass to start Olympic lifting, but it will help you develop. More muscle mass lets you get stronger faster, improves your recovery, and reduces injury risk - especially in the joints.

Olympic lifting can be very intense on the joints, in particular, and the extra shock absorption can really help keep you safe for more sustainable gains. It's an ongoing process - you don't need huge muscles to become an Olympic weightlifter, but it's something you'll work on in your training for the sport.

You DO need massive legs for weightlifting, as Dan's proving here.

How Do Olympic Lifters Build Muscle?

Most weightlifters will rely on a lot of front and back squats, snatch and clean deadlifts, snatch grip deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, presses, push presses, and pull ups.

Other exercises are also used - like bodybuilding exercises that use constant tension cable machines or stack-weighted machines - just less often. These are typically used during early parts of an Olympic lifting program, where training is more "general".

Olympic weightlifting doesn't build big muscles by itself, but many OLympic lifters give time to building muscle mass. Muscle growth is a completely legitimate goal - you're not too athletic to get bigger and stronger!

Does Building Muscle Make You a Better Olympic Lifter?

The answer is yes and no:

Yes: bigger muscles can get stronger and reduce injury. Those will make you a better Olympic weightlifter.

No: muscle mass doesn't make you better at explosive movements by itself, and requires serious work. It's probably better to be mobile, strong, and/or explosive as these are more relevant for Olympic weightlifting.

Pure size does nothing to benefit you, and requires a lot of work to be put to use in the Snatch and clean and jerk. Olympic weightlifting training programs won't even maintain that size for many athletes - there are very few exercises that stimulate muscle growth enough to maintain a larger frame.

See the source image
We're back to Mr Orok: muscle helps with longevity, and can be useful, but it's not the main factor for weightlifting performance.

Many bodybuilders and powerlifters find that their benefits extend to front and back squats, push press, and a few other exercises. However, that kind of work is 'foundational' and real Olympic weightlifting relies more on power training and athleticism than sheer muscle.

Olympic weightlifting is a strength sport, but also has a huge demand on power, speed, mobility, stability, and coordination that things like bodybuilding just don't prepare you for.

Can you build muscle with the Olympic lifts?

No - you're not going to be able to build muscle with Olympic lifts.

Olympic weightlifting is a sport that requires strength and muscle growth, but provides relatively little.

Snatch and clean variations are power training, at best. They provide very little time under mechanical tension for the muscles. They are explosive movements, which don't typically stimulate muscle growth.

Olympic weightlifting can help improve muscle growth - push presses may add to the total leg strength volume of front and back squats - but they won't stimulate muscle growth by themselves.

This is why athletes in Olympic weightlifting typically have muscle building phases in their program. It doesn't happen by chance.

Note: Many Olympic athletes are on steroids. Their physiques do not represent the muscle building effects of Olympic weightlifting. You can build muscle doing just about anything when you're slamming DecaDurabolin and bribing the IWF.
See the source image
Surely this fine young gentleman is not on steroids? Ruh roh, IWF.

Final Thoughts

Olympic weightlifting is an everything sport. muscle mass is one way you can improve, and an important one - body composition is always going to help you get better, faster, and safer.

The muscle growth of high rep accessory exercises can be useful, but it's not the whole story. Remember that any time you spend needs to actually improve the snatch and clean and jerk. A few months of hypertrophy training for building muscle can be useful, but only if you put that new muscle mass to use.

Just like any other Olympic sport, body composition is a way to get an edge, and muscle gains can be done well or poorly. Use weight training assistance exercises that make sense for your technical and strength needs - and balance up your volume accordingly.

A final tip: strength and hypertrophy blocks are a great time to back off the Olympic weightlifting and re-learn the movements.

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