Does Olympic Weightlifting Really Build Muscle?

Besides high levels of strength and explosiveness, most Olympic weightlifters display a solid muscular development too. This raises a question – can a man develop a solid musculature by doing the two Olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) and their variations?

Size Vs. Strength

Olympic weightlifters and bodybuilders are a very good example that size does not always equal strength and vice versa. Many of the light Olympic lifters are phenomenally strong, and yet even an amateur bodybuilder looks two times bigger.

In the video below, the weightlifter from Bulgaria Ivan Ivanov front squats 463 lbs – 210 kg at the “fragile” bodyweight of 115 lbs – 52 kg.


Truth be told, even the current Mr. Olympia Phil Heath who is 10 times more muscular than Ivan Ivanov won’t be able to front squat that weight at that depth.

That’s not a surprise since bodybuilders don’t train for strength or skill. Their goal is to build mass and look good naked. And while Ivan Ivanov had absolutely insane strength, most people from the fitness community will insult him with the good old question: “Do you even lift, bro?”

The guys in the lower weight classes may be light, but their muscle quality is still phenomenal. A good example would be lifters such as Lu Xiaojun who displays a remarkable level of back thickness.

Image source: MILO®: A Journal for Serious Strength Athletes

Image source: MILO®: A Journal for Serious Strength Athletes

At the same time, in the heavier weight classes of the sport, there have been many muscular monsters such as Dmitry Klokov and Evgeny Chigishev.

In other words, Olympic weightlifters are jacked and very strong.

Question is, what’s behind their size?

Do snatches and clean & jerks build muscle?

The snatch and the clean & jerk are dynamic lifts. The weight is lifted explosively. That’s why the duration of the actual lifting phase is short if we don’t count the recovery portion.

Explosive lifts are less stressful on the muscle fibers and the central nervous system (CNS). That’s why Olympic weightlifters can train so frequently.

Conversely, the slow lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift) are the complete opposite. They test your maximal strength, and while you still need explosiveness, the nature of the lifts is different. It’s all about brute force. Moreover, the slow lifts can fry your CNS in no time. That’s why powerlifters and bodybuilders rarely train every day.

That being said, the Olympic lifts build a lot of mass in the legs and back. The recovery is essentially a squat whereas the back muscles work intensely as pullers and stabilizers.

The pushing musculature receives less stimulation, which is why many Olympic weightlifters add assistance exercises for the upper body.

Just let the barbell drop…

Another important factor that has a significant impact on the Olympic lifts‘ ability to stimulate growth is the lack of an eccentric (negative) portion. In other words, Olympic weightlifters don’t fight the bar on the way down. They just drop it. This saves a lot of energy and reduces the stress on the musculature and connective tissues.

On the contrary, the slow lifts have a very pronounced eccentric/negative portion which ultimately stimulates more hypertrophy. Many believe that the negative portion of a lift is doing most of the damage to the fibers and elicits more growth stimulation.

Is it worth the trouble?

The Olympic lifts build both, strength and size, but are not very practical. It takes a lot of time to learn the movements. In addition, you will have to find a gym with bumper plates and a platform to practice safely and efficiently.

If you aren’t interested in learning the Olympic lifts, there’s no need to do so when your goal is to build mass and absolute strength. You can just use the good old slow lifts. They work better for that.

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