Does Olympic Weightlifting Really Build Muscle?

When somebody who is not involved in bodybuilding and fitness training hears the word ‘weightlifting’ the first association is immediately with the Olympics – the guys lifting heavy barbells overhead in magical ways.

Besides high level of strength and entertainment the Olympic weightlifters usually display solid muscular development although their body fat levels are generally high, especially in the heavier categories. This arises the question – can you develop solid musculature by doing the two Olympic lifts – snatch and clean & jerk.

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 lifters are phenomenally strong and yet 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.

 

To tell the truth even the current Mr. Olympia Phil Heath who is well over 220 lbs and much 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. Their goal is to build mass and look good naked. 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?’

However, even though the guys in the lower weight classes are usually small, their muscle quality is phenomenal. A good example would be the Chinese lifters such as Lu Xiaojun who display level of thickness that is hard to match.

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 are other muscular monsters such Dmitry Klokov and Evgeny Chigishev who are quite big and very powerfully developed.

In other words, Olympic weightlifters are jacked and very strong no matter how you look at it. However, is their size due to the lifts they do or maybe there’s more?

Do snatches and clean & jerks build muscle?

The snatch and the clean & jerk represent dynamic lifts. The weight is lifted in an explosive fashion. That’s why the duration of the actual lifting phase is quite short, if we don’t count the recovery portion.

Explosive lifts in general are less stressful on the muscle fibers and the central nervous system (CNS). That’s why Olympic weightlifters can actually handle such frequent load. The majority of the successful Olympic weightlifters usually spend the whole day training. The day is divided into different portions and on top of that after the main training is completed there are many assistance exercises and stretching that are done in order to prevent injuries and muscle imbalances.

On the other hand 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 much different. It’s more about brute strength and the technique is much simpler. On top of everything the slow lifts can fry your CNS in no time. That’s why you rarely see powerlifters and bodybuilders train every day. It’s just not sustainable unless you are lifting really light weights that allow for active recovery and using anabolic steroids.

With that being said the Olympic lifts do build quite a lot of muscle strength and size in the legs and the back. However, the reason for the leg growth is the squat portion of the lifts. During the snatch the lifter is essentially performing an overhead squat and the clean & jerk obviously require superior level of front squat strength.

The back muscles are used as stabilizers and the traps are actively shrugging the weight upwards. The upper body receives less stimulation and it may surprise some of you but Olympic weightlifters don’t have that much of a strong shoulders and upper bodies in general. That’s why many do a lot of assistance exercises to even things out.

Just let the barbell drop…

Another important factor that comes with the Olympic lifts is that they don’t have the so-called eccentric or negative portion. In other words, you just let the bar drop down and don’t really fight it. Believe it or not that saves a lot of energy and stress on the musculature and connective tissues.

On the contrary, the slow lifts have a very pronounced eccentric/negative portion and this makes up for more stress on the body but also more hypertrophy stimulation. Many believe that the negative portion of a lift is usually the one that damages the muscle fibers the most. That means that there’s more stimulation and in return more repair and growth.

Is it worth the trouble?

While the Olympic lifts do build both strength and size they are not very practical, if that’s your main goal. It takes quite a lot of time to learn the lifts and you need to find a gym with bumber plates and platform in order to be able to practice the lifts.

At the same time your workouts will have to be quite long especially with the added assistance work for the upper body. If you aren’t interested in learning the Olympic lifts, there’s no need to do so when your goal is to build mass. You can just use the good old slow lifts.

Final thoughts

Being able to do the Olympic lifts with proper form is a very useful skill to have in your arsenal as a lifter, but the fast lifts do not offer some sort of secret magical muscle building qualities.

There are many old school coaches who may try to convince you, but even they know very well that when it comes to pure muscle construction the snatch and the clean & jerk are not the most efficient route to choose.

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