WHAT ARE THE OLYMPIC LIFTS AND CAN THEY BE USED TO GAIN MUSCLE?
For most gym rats, the term “jerk” used to refer to the douchebags hogging the squat rack to do curls while taking selfies, “clean” is what you were after the occasional post-training shower and “snatch’ was what “jerks” talked about with their bros the day after a late night hook up. For some more informed iron aficionados, these three words were bizarre lifts referred to as the “Olympic lifts”. You got to see these on TV for 5 minutes every 4 years between 1 hour of swimming and 2 hours of gymnastics coverage.
Nowadays, thankfully, the Olympic lifts and their variations have become a lot more mainstream largely due to the popularity of Crossfit.
Say what you want, despite its many flaws, Crossfit has done more than the weightlifting federations to popularize the snatch, clean and jerk popular and more than the powerlifting federations to make the deadlift and squat mainstream. Some Crossfitters may not always have the best technique, but at least they are trying. I have coached many of these athletes, and even the average person who participates in group trainings want to perfect the Olympic lifts.
In this article, I will discuss the various Olympic lifts and provide some clarity on how they can be effective tools in a muscle-building program.
Variations of the Olympic lifts
Before we get into whether or not the Olympic lift variations are effective at building muscle, let’s elaborate on the Olympic lifts themselves.
Type of lifts
You have three “lifts”: the snatch, the clean and the jerk. Technically, the clean & jerk is one lift but in strength training and Crossfit, the clean and the jerk are often trained separately.
Typically, the snatch is superior to the clean when it comes to building power because the bar must travel a much longer distance, thus requiring more acceleration. Although you will be able to handle less weight in the snatch versus the clean, for many people, the difference is greater than it should be because they are afraid of the snatch and/or don’t train it as often as the clean. My approach with my athletes is to do at least twice the amount of snatch work versus clean work. If I only had the luxury of using one single Olympic lift, it would be the snatch, hands down.
That being said, the clean does have its benefits: it teaches you to absorb a force that “hits” you. If you are playing a contact sport, the clean offers an advantage over the snatch for that reason alone.
People tend to think that the clean is easier to learn, whereas I find the opposite to be true. I think people have the perception that the clean is easier to learn because beginners tend to be able to execute it more easily, but that’s only because you can “muscle up” the weight thereby relying on arm strength rather than on explosiveness. This is especially true when strong athletes are using light weights to learn the technique. Quite the contrary, you have no choice but to be explosive to execute the snatch. We think it’s harder to learn because most people are not explosive and learning how to be takes time.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the different catch positions. In the “muscle” catch position, you do not squat down under the bar, meaning you catch it with straight legs, and the feet should not leave the floor. This is more of a strength lift than a power one, but it is quite helpful to learn to keep the bar close to the body during the pull.
In the “power” catch position, you squat down partially to catch the barbell (as low as 90 degrees at the knee is considered a “power” catch). This is the type of catch position that you should primarily use with athletes. As its name implies, it has the highest power output and is technically simpler than the full lifts.
The third catch position is your full squat catch. In weightlifting circles we typically do not specify when the plan calls for a full squat lift. For example, when the plan calls for “snatch”, it means catching it in a full squat position. In Crossfit, they use the “squat” denomination when prescribing a lift (eg. squat snatch). I don’t really like to use this catch position with athletes. For one, not all of them have the mobility to do it properly and the timing it takes to be efficient takes some time to master. Second, the position doesn’t really provide any benefit for the athlete that can’t be achieved using the power variations.
The last catch position is called the “split”, where you catch the barbell with one leg forward and one leg backwards (similar to the middle position of a split squat/lunge). This is commonly used in the jerk (split jerk), but up until the 50s and early 60s the split style was also used in the clean and snatch. I rarely use the split position when training athletes, even for the jerk.
The first possible starting position for the lift is the floor. This is the default starting position and as such, when prescribing a lift, the presumption is that it will be executed from the floor. For example, a “power clean” would be executed from the floor unless otherwise specified. I don’t tend to use this starting position with athletes because in weightlifting the most complex element is transitioning from the first pull (floor to knees) to the second pull (acceleration after the knees). It is outside the scope of this article to go into great detail about this, but I generally find that most athletes will start too fast on the first pull allowing the bar to travel too far forward to transition efficiently into the second pull.
The second possible starting position is “from the hang”. When performing a lift from the hang, you start standing up with the barbell in your hands (as if you had just completed a deadlift). From there you lower the barbell down (options are to lower the bar to mid-thigh, above the knees or below the knees) without bending the knees like in a Romanian deadlift and clean or snatch the weight from that position. When working the lifts from the hang, I like to give the cue “imagine that your body is a bow and the bar is the arrow”. Essentially, your hips are the bowstring and your head is the handle. The further back the hips travel (bowstring), the more power you’ll generate.
The third starting position is “from blocks”. Here, the barbell rests on blocks in the starting position. The starting height can either have the bar positioned above or below the knees (with athletes I prefer above the knees). What I like with lifts from blocks is that you can place your body in the perfect starting position without expending energy. Just like the lifts from the hang, lifts from blocks are technically simpler than lifts from the floor. However, unlike lifts from the hang, there is no eccentric action preceding the lift, thus negating the contribution of the pre-stretch to increase force production. You must go from zero muscle activity to maximum power instantly. This is why I like these lifts for sprinters and football linemen who need to be able to produce maximum power from a deadstart.
Both the lifts from the hang and from blocks have the advantage of being technically simpler because they help to keep the barbell close to the body, especially past the knees (someone with improper technique will tend to let the bar travel too far from his body when he passes the knees). They also better mimic the athletic position and thus are a little more sport-specific. The lifts from the hang have the added benefit of having an eccentric phase (lowering the bar to the starting position) and a transition from eccentric to concentric.
Putting it together
By putting these three elements together (lift, catch position, start position) you can create many different variations of the Olympic lifts:
- Squat snatch
- Squat snatch from hang at hips
- Squat snatch from hang above knees
- Squat snatch from hang below knees
- Squat snatch from blocks above knees
- Squat snatch from blocks below knees
- Power snatch
- Power snatch from hang at hips
- Power snatch from hang above knees
- Power snatch from hang below knees
- Power snatch from blocks above knees
- Power snatch from blocks below knees
- Muscle snatch
- Muscle snatch from hang at hips
- Muscle snatch from hang above knees
- Muscle snatch from hang below knees
- Muscle snatch from blocks above knees
- Muscle snatch from blocks below knees
- Split snatch
- Split snatch from hang at hips
- Split snatch from hang above knees
- Split snatch from hang below knees
- Split snatch from blocks above knees
- Split snatch from blocks below knees
- Squat clean
- Squat clean from hang at hips
- Squat clean from hang above knees
- Squat clean from hang below knees
- Squat clean from blocks above knees
- Squat clean from blocks below knees
- Power clean
- Power clean from hang at hips
- Power clean from hang above knees
- Power clean from hang below knees
- Power clean from blocks above knees
- Power clean from blocks below knees
- Muscle clean
- Muscle clean from hang at hips
- Muscle clean from hang above knees
- Muscle clean from hang below knees
- Muscle clean from blocks above knees
- Muscle clean from blocks below knees
- Split clean
- Split clean from hang at hips
- Split clean from hang above knees
- Split clean from hang below knees
- Split clean from blocks above knees
- Split clean from blocks below knees
- Split jerk
- Split jerk from behind neck
- Power jerk
- Power jerk from behind neck
- Squat jerk
- Squat jerk from behind neck
- Snatch grip split jerk behind the neck
- Snatch grip power jerk behind the neck
Terminology: “Olympic lifters” and “Olympic lifting” are terms used only in North America, for the rest of the world the terms used are “weightlifters” and “weightlifting” in one word. Weight lifting refers to the activity of lifting weights and can be applied to anybody who trains but weightlifting (one word) refers to the sport commonly referred as Olympic lifting.
Can you build muscle with the Olympic lifts?
Yes and no.
There are a few jacked weightlifters; Dmitry Klokov, Lu Xiaojun, Tian Tao, Aurimas Didzbalis and in recent past Pyros Dimas and Eugeny Chigichev for example. So it would be tempting to say that training for weightlifting will give you a lean and muscular physique. But if you look at the clear majority of weightlifters, they do not have what we could call a “jacked physique”, that is they don’t have a body that would stand out in an average commercial gym or even on the streets. And we’re talking about the very best lifters in the world here, guys lifting 400-500lbs over their head! So how would lifting weights half that heavy give you a jacked body then?
The fact is that “typical modern weightlifting training” will not build a super muscular physique in most people. The weightlifters who have a great physique either do plenty of accessory exercises to build muscle (the Chinese lifters even do a lot of bodybuilding work) or are born to look that way.
Don’t get me wrong; any form of activity where you are lifting progressively heavier weights will build some muscle. But not all training styles will have equal effect in that regard.
Why modern weightlifting training is not ideal to build muscle
- Modern weightlifters tend to focus pretty much exclusively on variations of the snatch, clean & jerk, squats and pull. These exercises spread the load over many different muscles, none of which really receive a targeted focus (except for the legs). As I mentioned above, those weightlifters who build more muscle are those who add accessory exercises to their sport-specific training.
- In modern weightlifting reps are kept very low. On the competitive exercises and their variations, the number of reps is normally between 1 and 3 (most of the time 1 and 2). Assistance work like squats and pulls can be done for higher reps but rarely do they exceed 5, and the bulk of the work is still done for 2-3 reps per set. This is a training zone that causes neural adaptations and does not typically lead to significant muscle growth.
- There is no eccentric emphasis in training, and this is a portion that is important to maximize growth. The weights are lifted explosively but on the competitive lift variations, the bar is dropped back onto the ground on every repetition. Even on squats and pulls, the eccentric phase is executed quickly and sometimes without much effort to control the bar (especially on pulls).
- Even during the lifting phase, muscles receive maximum tension only briefly. This occurs at the point of maximum acceleration (around the hips) and lasts a fraction of a second. For the remainder of the range of motion, muscle effort is sub-maximal. For example, the movement up to the point of explosion is that of a modified deadlift. However, because you are using weights that are 40-60% of your deadlift max, you are not using most of your fibers to do the work. Furthermore, after the explosive phase, the momentum created contributes to lifting the bar, maximum effort is not employed there either. The resultant maximum effort of about 1” of movement and a fraction of a second for a total of 1-3 reps is not enough to stimulate and fatigue enough fibers to lead to growth.
How weightlifting can lead to muscle growth
On the other hand, there was a time when weightlifters were more muscular than today’s lifters. Lifters from the 50s up to the mid 70s (or early 80s) carried more muscle, especially in the upper body, than today’s lifters. I see three reasons for that:
- Bumper plates (rubber plates that allow you to drop the bar on every rep) were not used until the 70s: Prior to that weightlifters used regular iron plates. To avoid damaging the equipment and floor, the lifters had to bring the barbell down on every rep, unless they missed a lift, creating more eccentric emphasis in training. While not as significant as what we see in bodybuilding (you cannot do a slow eccentric with a heavy snatch or jerk), there was enough eccentric action to have a positive impact on muscle growth.
- Higher reps were used: Back then it wasn’t uncommon to do sets of 5 reps on the competitive lifts and their variations and up to 10 on exercises like squats, presses and deadlifts. This put the muscles under tension for a longer period of time, causing more fatigue and growth.
- The press was competed until 1972: Back then there were 3 lifts in a contest: clean & press, snatch, clean & jerk. They removed the press because it became too hard to judge; initially the lifters were doing a pure, strict military press and then eventually they bent the rule and extended their backs to get under the bar. But prior to the elimination of the press, lifters were doing a lot of upper body work. Military press, push press, incline bench press, bench press, etc. In fact, upper body pressing work was as much as 30% of their total training volume. Lifters up to the early 80s continued to train the press even though it wasn’t a competitive lift anymore. After that they began to use a more specialized approach in large part due to the success of the Bulgarian team who were the first to use a program based only on the competitive lifts and squats (back and front).
Other than the above-stated reasons, my experience working with Crossfit athletes has led me to observe that it is possible to build muscle using the Olympic lifts. Just like “old school” lifters, Crossfit athletes tend to use a mix of low and moderate reps on the Olympic lifts. They are also known to use high reps, but what they do for high reps shouldn’t really be called Olympic lifting. When they do the actual the Olympic lifts and their variations (and by that I mean do them with a form that is solid, not punching an endless number of mindless reps) they often use one of these methods:
- Sets of moderate reps (3 to 5)
- EMOMs: doing 2-3 reps at the start of every minute (so having around 30-40 sec of reps of rest between sets)
- Barbell complexes: combining several Olympic lift variations into one set, without ever dropping the bar. The typical example is the Bear Complex: a combined a clean, front squat, push press, back squat and push press behind the neck. They are also likely to use something simpler like: 2 power snatches + 2 snatch push press + 2 overhead squats.
These methods are effective at stimulating muscle growth because the fiber fatigue (thus growth stimulation) is higher than during traditional weightlifting training.
Olympic lift variations for muscle mass
- Use the simpler variations of the Olympic lifts. Stay with the “power” or “muscle” variations and preferably start the barbell from blocks or from the hang, the hang being superior for hypertrophy.
- Most of your work should be in the 3-5 reps range. I would not go above 5 reps per set and sets because technique will suffer.
- Another very good approach is using 2-3 reps EMOM for 8-12 minutes. Using a weight that is 65-75% of your maximum, doing 2-3 reps at the beginning of every minute (0:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, etc.).
- The use of complexes can also be considered but sometimes they have too much of a metabolic component or can be confusing if your technique is not super solid. While they can be effective, I would use them only if you are in good physical condition and have solid overall technique.
- If your primary goal is muscle mass, the cornerstone of your plan should still be hypertrophy work.
Here’s an example of what it could look like.
- Activation/preparation routine
- Power clean from the hang 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Deadlift 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Straight-arms pulldown 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Seated row 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 6-8 to failure
- Supinated lat pulldown 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 6-8 to failure
- Preacher curl 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Activation/preparation routine
- Power jerk 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Military press 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Incline DB press 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 6-8 to failure
- Lying EZ bar triceps extension 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 6-8 to failure
- Rope triceps pressdown 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Activation/preparation routine
- Power snatch from blocks 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Back squat 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Bulgarian split squat 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Machine hack squat 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 6-8 to failure
- Lying leg curl 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Activation/preparation routine
- Push press 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Bench press 2-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3 work sets of 3-5 reps*
- Machine chest press 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 6-8 to failure
- Pec deck machine 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- V-bar triceps pressdown 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Single arm triceps pressdown 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Activation/preparation routine
- Muscle snatch from the hang 3 reps EMOM for 10 minutes (around 70%)
- Power clean from blocks 3 reps EMOM for 10 minutes (around 70%)
- Barbell curl 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- DB lateral raise 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
- Bent over lateral raise 1 x 10 (warm-up), 1 x 8 (moderate), 1 x 8-10 to failure
* Means that you go heavy, but not to failure on your work sets.
The take home message is that the Olympic lifts are fun to do. They will increase your power output and will make your nervous system more efficient, making it possible to more efficiently recruit the growth-prone fast-twitch fibers. This will result in better growth with less volume. OLs can also contribute to improving your look by improving posture as well as muscle tone. While they are not the primary choice to build muscle, they can certainly enhance your training.