Does Olympic weightlifting build muscle is a very open question! The very short and simple answer is that Olympic weightlifting is not designed to build muscle and therefore in the traditional sense is not a very effective path towards building muscle. However like everything there are exceptions to this rule and it is possible to use Olympic lifting as part of an overall bodybuilding program to build muscle.
Before we go into the exceptions, let's briefly explore the world of Olympic weightlifting, or "weightlifting" for short.
What exactly is Olympic Weightlifting?
Olympic weightlifting or simply, weightlifting, is the Olympic sport of performing two specific weightlifting techniques (the snatch and then the clean and jerk) with an Olympic barbell loaded with weight-plates:
The Clean and Jerk
Weightlifting tests ballistic strength, as the lifts are performed as quickly as possible and the ability to lift larger weights comes down to skill and technique as much as it does strength. This is also why there are weight classes, similar to combat sports to mitigate the effect of muscle mass on competition. As a result you rarely see very muscular weightlifters, on the contrary they like to keep themselves light and lean to stay in their natural weight class.
Why does Olympic weightlifting not build muscle?
Olympic lifting results in a very short period of time under tension (TUT) for the muscles involved. They are firing at maximum effort for only a few seconds of explosive force, which when guided by efficient technique produces a good lift. As time under tension is possibly the most critical factor in building muscle, it's almost impossible to build decent muscle volume through Olympic weightlifting alone.
The main muscles that will grow through weightlifting are the quadriceps and the glutes, this is due to the fact that most of the hard work comes from standing up with the bar after the catch phase of the lift. However, most weightlifters spend a lot of time weight training these muscles separately using front and back squats. As weightlifting alone doesn't produce enough strength or muscle gains and is difficult to perform multiple reps at a sub-maximal weight in a short period of time.
Another factor to take into account is that weightlifters drop the bar after each lift, as it is no longer in the rules that the weight needs to be lowered back to the ground. So the eccentric loading phase of the lift is eliminated.
However, this certainly doesn't mean you shouldn't add weightlifting into your training, if you want to increase muscle mass, you just need to make some changes. It's also very enjoyable, satisfying and can be fantastic at adding a cardiovascular element to your weight training. This brings us onto the next point.
Why use Olympic lifting in your weight training?
Fun and different
As we mentioned above, Olympic lifting can be a very fun element to add into your weight training, particularly if you are getting a bit bored or feeling uninspired. Even non-competitively it'll give you new goals as you learn to push yourself in a whole new sport. It's a good idea to be taught the basic techniques, before you dive in, as it'll be much safer and will also mean quicker development with less risk of injury. Most Crossfit gyms offer Olympic weightlifting training programs, or tasters, which can get you started. Also many personal trainers and sports coaches can teach you the basics.
Raise the intensity
Weightlifting is a very explosive activity. If you reduce the maximal effort per lift and increase the rep range, the intensity can be raised to a very high level. This results in some seriously good cardiovascular workouts. This is one reason why Olympic lifting is the core of Crossfit.
Train your CNS
The stress on your central nervous system (CNS), when you perform explosive lifts is great. This results in a training effect on the CNS, which can then assist in other explosive activities. This is particularly useful for any sports that require quick, explosive movements.
Develop your coordination
It takes a lot of coordination to perform all of the elements of the lift correctly, with the right timing. By training Olympic weightlifting, you'll also be improving your coordination, which can carry over into other sports.
This may sound strange, but your body has to absorb a lot of shock and force when catching the bar, particularly if you are also lowering it to the ground. These forces can train the body to take impacts, which can be ideal for combat and contact sports.
How to add Weightlifting into your training
Sport aside, if you want to make Olympic weightlifting a key part of your training, for the above benefits, then make the following modifications to your program. Bear in mind this is not advice for those wanting to get into weightlifting competitively, as these modifications will not be good for those wanting to specialise in this sport.
1. Increase the rep range
If you want to build muscle or increase strength, then treat each Olympic lift as you would any other weight training exercise. Play with the rep ranges, aiming for 6 sets of 3 high quality lifts at the 75-80% RM range will give you a good foundation for strength. If you want to focus on the cardiovascular and hypertrophy gains that are possible through increased intensity, then increase the number of reps and reduce the weight further.
2. Use plenty of assistance exercises
Add in exercises that will compliment your weightlifting and add them in to your sessions before lifting. Aim for 4 to 5 sets of 5 to 6 reps with these exercises. Here's a few assistance exercises that will help train the related muscle groups:
- Overhead squat
- Snatch high-pull
- Behind the neck press with your snatch grip
- Snatch grip deadlift
- Clean grip deadlift
- Clean high-pull
- Push press
- Military press
- Front Squats
- Power Jerk
3. Slow down on the eccentric phase
When performing the assistance exercises that are non-ballistic (squats, presses, shrugs) aim on slowing down the eccentric phase of the lift to around 3-4 seconds. This will compensate the lack of eccentric loading when performing the actual lifts.
4. Work from the hang position
Performing reps from the hang position, force you to lower the weight back down slowly, thus helping to increase the eccentric loading phase. They also give you less pull time and help you to focus on a better pull technique.
5. Add pull-ups and dips
These body-weight exercises help to increase grip strength, lat, shoulder, tricep and chest strength. All important factors in good overall weightlifting strength. Aim for 6-8 reps and 4-5 sets with these body-weight exercises. You can even use a weighted vest or weighted belt if you want to increase the resistance.
So by making these modifications you can run an Olympic weightlifting program, or simply introduce some weightlifting into your existing weight training, whilst still being able to train for hypertrophy and/or strength. This training will also set you up with a solid foundation if you ever want to get into the sport of weightlifting.