Top 5 Bodybuilding Exercises For Olympic Weightlifting
The sport of Olympic weightlifting is notorious for being the sport with athletes with little skinny arms. Arms that look like spaghetti hanging from a meatball, or limbs like Spongebob. The sport is also notorious for having REALLY UNASSUMINGLY STRONG athletes. Ordinary people see a weightlifter walking down the street and they be like, “There is no way that person lifts weights!” We mean no disrespect, but we’re looking at you Sohrab Moradi, king of the dad bod, slayer of Tian Tao.
What this all comes back to is that a lot of people neglect bodybuilding exercises to help their performance in the realm of olympic weightlifting. If we can think of some of the best weightlifting teams in the world, like the Chinese national team, tend to be extremely hypertrophic. We’ve seen them in the backroom of the training hall at the world championships doing tons of bodybuilding exercises leading up to their peak. We know successful teams, like the Chinese, tend to do bodybuilding.
Let’s start by defining bodybuilding. Recognize that bodybuilding is based around strengthening and enlarging muscles, ultimately strengthening ligaments and tendons so that joint capsules become more stable. That is the base definition of what bodybuilding does. It will increase ligament and tendon size and it is ideally going to improve joining stability. But it also can be based around isolation movements (not always), but a lot of movements are.
Now in a sport like weightlifting where the athletes are always doing bilateral work or favoring one side, like in a split jerk, utilizing bodybuilding isolation movements can help the athlete become more structurally stable. The athlete can lessen structural imbalances and improve their foundational integrity through muscle growth with isolation movements. The muscular growth and coordination triggered through these movements can play an important role in olympic lifting.
So why are bodybuilding movements important for the snatch and clean and jerk? Well we know that the snatch and clean and jerk improve with bilateral squats and pulls off the floor, movements that put a beating on a lot of different joints. The competitive movements do as well. We know athletes’ shoulders, knees, elbows and lower back will get banged up and have a lot of stress put on them.
Well, what exercises can we do with each area to ultimately improve the body’s integrity and lead to greater performance in the sport of weightlifting?
These exercises right here, they’ll do exactly that!
Upper Back: Glute Ham Reverse Fly
We know that in the snatch and in the jerk athletes’ upper backs get hammered. We have come up with a really unique exercise to develop the upper body with bodybuilding. Based off Stuart McGill’s research on lower back disorders, we’ve learned that the lower back can really grow and become more coordinated if it is under isometric tension.
So what we have done is taken a glute ham and have our athletes hold an isometric position. From there, while the athlete holds the isometric position, they are doing 12-17 reverse flys. Not only is the athlete hammering the rear delts, upper back and thoracic spine, but they are also focusing on dynamic trunk control, squeezing the posterior chain and focusing on recruiting the lower back through holding the isometric position.
We recommend doing this exercise once or twice a week for three to four sets of twelve to seventeen reps.
Low Back: Banded Back Extension
The next problem area is the lower back. The pulls, cleans and back squats, everything, is going to lead to lower back issues in the sport of weightlifting. The exercise we really like to utilize to target the lower back, glutes and hamstrings is the banded back extension.
We actually recommend using the banded back extension with a four to six second pause added in around that 45 degree angle to lead to more time under tension. The body has to focus on squeezing and contracting more. In turn, the athlete creates a better mind muscle connection.
That is a key factor developed with bodybuilding exercises--the mind muscle connection. A lot of olympic lifters struggle with body control and the mind muscle connection because the competitive movements are performed so rapidly in such a fast sport. However, as the athlete starts to do bodybuilding exercises, pauses and such, not only will the muscles get stronger, but they’ll be able to more effectively recruit various muscles.
We recommend doing this movement once or twice as a week as a warm up and once or twice a week as an accessory movement. Do it for three to four sets for seventeen to twenty three reps.
Elbows: Incline Zottman’s
A lot of weightlifters deal with a lot of fatigue and stress in the elbows from focusing on that lock out in the snatch and jerk. We have to think about how we can work on bicep strength because the muscle inserts into the shoulder. A lot of bicep injuries can lead to serious shoulder pain and elbow pain.
This is where we recommend doing incline zottman curls to really start to focus on forearm and bicep development just by leaning back and letting the arms hang. From there we have our athletes do an incline curl, then rotate the wrist to slowly lower the dumbbell with a pronated grip for three to four seconds. Then the athlete needs to extend the elbow and turn the wrist back, creating more range of motion through the bicep.
The incline zottman curl can really help strengthen the bicep which can potentially prevent any serious shoulder issues by simultaneously leading to more protective mechanisms around the elbow.
We like to program this for once a week for four to five to sets of twelve to seventeen reps. It creates a nice pump so make sure the movements are about two days before lifting heavier because they can make the biceps quite sore.
T-Spine: Miracle Gro
Another problem olympic weightlifting athletes come across, and this goes back to the upper back, is the thoracic spine. Yes, the upper back and thoracic work in conjunction, but with the miracle gro, an overhead movement that we use a lot, we like to see a really deep stretch through the lats.
Executing the miracle gro requires taking a dumbbell deep past the head having elbow flexion with a nice lengthening of the lats. A lot of weightlifters struggle to utilize their lats overhead. Kind of like novice bench pressers who really learned how to use their lats benching heavy. However, when miracle gros are incorporated the thoracic spine starts to wake up. Some lifters even have spasms in their upper-mid back. Just remember to finish with a rapid lock out from elbow flexion to elbow extension.
What happens is the athletes’ lats are strengthened in coordination with their triceps. Not only will coordination improve, miracle gros will dramatically improve tricep strength and lat strength.
But be warned!
This movement, the first two or three times it is done, will make an athlete incredibly sore. We promise it will create more soreness than any tricep exercise on the planet. But do this once or twice a week for five to six week and we guarantee that the tricep gainz and lock out will see phenomenal improvements.
Just for a little proof is in the pudding, Halye Reichart can lift a 70 pound dumbbell for seven to nine reps and she has one of the best jerks on the planet, pound for pound.
Knees: Spanish Squats
We like to utilize the Spanish squats with a pretty thick band wrapped around the back part of the knees. One of the key factors in the execution of this movement is to lock out at the top of the squat and squeeze the quads back against the band for three to four seconds.
Remember, this is a bodybuilding exercise with a focus on time under tension. So, if every single rep is done with the pause and squeeze, the quads over the course of fifteen to twenty reps will start to recruit really, really well.
We love this movement for long limbed lifters. Long limbed lifters’ knees tend to get banged up more than shorter limbed lifters. Utilizing Spanish squats about twice a week will help the longer limbed lifter get some quad development, as well as help prevent knee issues or at least alleviate knee pain because the Spanish squats contribute tremendously well to proper recruitment around the knee joint.
Increasing that total is the ultimate goal for competitive olympic weightlifters. However, the best way to add kilos to that total is to stay healthy so that training can continue for years upon that marathon grind. One of the best ways to stay healthy is to strengthen the ligaments, tendons and muscles around the joints that get banged up in the sport. A great way to strengthen joint areas is through the use of bodybuilding movements that isolate the areas that need more structural integrity.
With that knowledge, time under tension, with rep ranges anywhere from twelve to seventeen to twenty-three reps are advisable. In addition, we recommend pauses and controlled eccentrics to increase that time under tension even more. Finally, the exercises need to be directed at the areas of concern: Spanish squats for the knees, miracle gros for the t-spine, lats and trize, incline zottman curls for the biceps, forearms and elbows/shoulders, banded back extensions for that lower back and glute ham isolation holds while doing reverse flies for the upper back. Implement these five movements strategically into a training regiment and see improvements, gainz and aches go away.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.