Hypertrophy and Weightlifting: Y u do this?

We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.

- Henry David Thoreau

Does hypertrophy play a part in training for and competing in Olympic weightlifting? If so, how does it support those goals?

In short, absolutely.

  • for competitive and recreational weightlifters alike, hypertrophy training also acts as a protective measure against injuries caused by the inherent imbalance of sport specificity.

  • for recreational weightlifters, physiological symmetry is a means to better power production and positioning. Most of these athletes have sedentary jobs (like the rest of us) and/or come to the sport from a largely untrained background. This means that creating mass in the right place is a huge part of longevity and productivity in the sport.

  • for weightlifters of all types, hypertrophy work can also provide a means to fixing weaknesses in weightlifting, i.e. a poor Split Jerk receiving position can be corrected by better technique but also by a better glute and hamstring balance to quad-dominance, better midline balance created by lower back symmetry, and the presence of more upper back mass to support the load overhead.

  • for competitive athletes that are under in their weight class, it is an opportunity to "fill out" their weight class fully by adding mass that will add to their performance (muscle, not fat).

How do you best like to incorporate hypertrophy training?

For most of my weightlifting clients, when I incorporate hypertrophy training depends on the client. For primarily competitive athletes I implement hypertrophy dominant cycles and back away from this extra demand on the body as we get closer to competition. For recreationally lifting clients that train in the morning (and generally for my more mobile and less stabile clients), I find that supersetting accessory work specific to hypertrophy prior to heavier lifting does not take away from their big lifts and instead allows them to be more thoroughly prepped for the work to come. For clients that lift in the evening, I prefer to include accessory work specific to hypertrophy after conditioning pieces for those who have them, and even as a substitute for conditioning pieces for clients who don't typically want conditioning pieces. Yes, it’s a tad sneaky, but it works very well! I find this allows the body physiologically and mentally to cool down and promotes good recovery which is critical in a sport this neurologically demanding.

What are your some of your go-to moves?

For most weightlifters, the opportunity presented in accessory work is to correct imbalances presented by sport specificity (i.e. single sided movement in the split jerk and spending the majority of their time in the sagittal plane). The most common weaknesses I see inform the modalities I use for hypertrophy work but of course, every athlete is different! That said, most athletes need thoracic extension work, low and mid-trap strength, multi-directional mid-line stabilization, and a strong emphasis on single leg stability and posterior chain strength.

Though many of the movements I prefer come from the wide world of bodybuilding, a lot of them come from traditional gymnastics. For instance, every weightlifting athlete should be able to hold a perfect hollow and a perfect arch hold for at least a minute. But ownership of these basic gymnastics positions isn’t necessarily the limit for weightlifters. I am a firm believer in the power of pull-ups to buttress the shoulders and trunk for weightlifting. Every grip is important for the weightlifter as we spend the majority of our time pronated. One of my earliest coaching mentors was a body-building coach who used to scream at me from across the gym every time I would do pull-ups: “Pull-ups make your back like a map!” Besides being a little outspoken, he was also correct!

For low trap and mid-trap strength I prefer challenging the strength of these smaller groups beyond what a conventional physical therapist’s prescription might be, but with movements that are often thought as solely “corrective” in nature. For athletes being challenged by movements like the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk, more strength is needed in these peri-scapular muscle groups than simple un-loaded work. Movements like lying t’s and i’s, and bottoms up turkish get ups seem to yield excellent advances overhead when progressed to the point of load at higher rep ranges. This is just as critical for competitive weightlifting athletes - as shown here by Lu Xiao Jun himself, PRing your accessory work is no small matter. The more competitive the athlete, the more opportunity there is for making the work sport-specific as in the example of the Behind-The-Neck Snatch Squat Press. If weightlifters do not start out confident for high reps in this position, they should eventually get there.

One of my current mentors, Coach Mike McKenna, believes that all athletes should have “hamstrings that look like they have VW beetles parked on the back of each leg.” While it’s obviously very popular to champion glute-dominant posterior chain hypertrophy (and I do!) I think single-sided hamstring strength is just as vital to the weightlifter. Because weightlifting is almost 100% concentric, creating symmetrical strength between concentric and eccentric control is paramount. Specific to the hamstrings and single leg work this means spending a lot of time with single leg banded eccentric hamstring curls, super slow single leg romanian deadlifts, single leg hip extensions, holds, and negatives on the Glute Ham Developer, and getting really good at keeping a neutral spine in hamstring dominant positions. Louie Simmons said, “Remember, it not quad-dominant, it is hamstring weak,” and this mindset has inspired my emphasis.