Clean, Snatch, Jerk… Lose Gains?
I love the Olympic lifts. For the past year I’ve done either a snatch, clean, or jerk variation at least five times a week.
I also train high-level CrossFit competitors, two of which qualified for the CrossFit Games this year. They train both the Olympic and basic strength lifts five days a week.
I love the sense of power and athleticism I feel when doing these lifts. If I could, all I’d do in my own training would be snatches, cleans, and jerks.
But I don’t.
Why? Because when I do I look worse and lose a lot of upper body mass.
Bad Idols and Body Goals
I see tons of people training the Olympic lifts because they think Dmitry Klokov is jacked and they want to look like him.
It’s true, he has a distinctive look: almost as much muscle as a bodybuilder, lean year-round, visibly athletic, and he can do almost anything with his body.
But his look is just that – distinctive. Even among elite weightlifters he stands out like a sore thumb. Very few weightlifters in the history of the sport looked like he does or close to it.
Each generation has a few elite weightlifters who look lean and muscular. But for every jacked one there is you’ll find 10 who look more like Ilyin or Nurudinov.
Sure, the others are amazing lifters, but they have very ordinary physiques and wouldn’t even strike you as people who train seriously if you crossed them in the streets.
For a sport where people are lifting 400+ pounds over their heads, you sure don’t see that many really jacked guys. Most of them wouldn’t stand out in a regular gym.
If most of the elite lifters, who hoist 400-500 pounds overhead, don’t look super jacked, how will the guy who can barely lift 225 look?
If the guys who spent years building up the strength to handle 450 pounds overhead don’t look much above average, what makes you think you’ll look like superman if you work up to handling 275 overhead?
This is not a diss at weightlifters. Their goal is to perform in their sport, not to look like fitness models.
If you take up weightlifting late in life, you likely won’t reach elite level. Those who “get it” and are dedicated might work up to a 265-280 pound snatch and a 330-350 pound clean & jerk, which are very respectable lifts.
But go to a weightlifting meet and look at what the people handling these weights look like. Chances are, they’re not Klokov!
Essentials for Muscle Growth
In the Olympic lifts, most of the stimuli that produce hypertrophy (size gains) are only present at a low level.
There’s very little eccentric loading. And the time under load is almost zero, especially if you count the time the muscles are actually producing a lot of force, not the time that the lift lasts.
So you don’t create a hypoxic state, or release a lot of metabolic waste in the muscles that lead to an increase in growth factors, and you don’t increase nutrient transport to the muscle like you would with “pump” work.
While they can build some muscle in specific places, the Olympic lift variations do not represent an optimal mean of stimulating growth. Olympic lifters have big legs, glutes, lower backs, and traps – built mostly via squats and pulls.
Advantages of the Elite
Olympic weightlifters at the elite level likely started their sport as kids.
That means those who reach the elite level were genetically gifted to perform in that sport: more fast twitch fibers and motor control, thus a predisposition to build more strength and muscle.
So the people you see at the top are exceptions: those naturally designed to be stronger and more powerful, who trained from a very early age to magnify those qualities, and who developed a very high capacity to tolerate and recover from hard physical work.
And even among the genetic elites, Klokov is himself an exception.
Even then, it’s not until he stopped competitive weightlifting that he starting to look really monstrous. He’s now 20 pounds heavier than at his heaviest, and leaner too.
Keep in mind that he now does a ton of presses, strength pulls, and bodybuilding work.
What This Means for You
If you’re an average adult without any natural predispositions like they have, the tolerance to handle volume like they do, and the neural efficiency they possess, it’s unrealistic to expect to reach the same level of performance and development in a few months, or even years.
Those who build great physiques from focusing only on Olympic lifting training are either genetically predisposed to be lean and muscular, or they’re doing plenty of muscle-building work on the side (basic strength lifts like presses, pulls, rows, pull-ups, or even bodybuilding work like the Chinese lifters).
What You Can Get From O-Lifts
Despite all that, training on the Olympic lifts can have a serious impact on how your body looks and performs. But if you’re focused on improving your body’s appearance, you’ll have to use other methods to build muscle.
The Olympic lifts:
- Build explosiveness and the capacity to produce power.
- Improve the body’s capacity to absorb external force. This is very useful if you’re competing in a contact sport.
- Develop intermuscular coordination; becoming more efficient at utilizing the body as one unit.
- Increase the nervous system’s efficiency at recruiting motor units, especially the high threshold ones which have a greater strength and size potential.
- Can help you build the traps, shoulders, back, and your entire posterior chain.
So by all means do the Olympic lifts. Do them to become a better athlete, increase your explosiveness, invest in your future gains by improving neural efficiency, become denser-looking, and have a lot of fun while feeling like a badass!
Not because you hope to look like Klokov.