Weightlifting is a performance sport, but it’s not performative. The charm of Olympic lifting is in its simplicity — either you can lift the barbell over your head, or you can’t. How you look while you set up for a snatch doesn’t matter one bit.
In fact, some of the most accomplished weightlifters in history look more like your everyday gymgoer than a Mr. Olympia finalist. Still, nearly every well-made weightlifting program contains a phase dedicated solely to hypertrophy — the pursuit of more muscle.
As it turns out, muscularity matters. There’s a plethora of research showcasing that adding inches to your arms can actually improve your Total on meet day. Weightlifters might just have a thing or two to learn from bodybuilders after all.
The Weightlifter’s Guide to Hypertrophy
- What Is Hypertrophy?
- Benefits of Hypertrophy for Weightlifters
- How to Program Hypertrophy for Weightlifting
- Hypertrophy Training Do’s and Don’t’s
- Sample Hypertrophy Program for Weightlifting
What Is Hypertrophy?
A bodybuilder (or physiology researcher) could talk your ear off about the ins and outs of muscular hypertrophy, but you really only need a cursory understanding of it to reap the benefits.
Hypertrophy is the biological process by which your muscles grow in response to stress. Generally speaking, you stress your muscles via resistance training, and in the hours and days following the workout, they adapt to the challenge and grow.
The three primary factors that affect hypertrophy are mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and tissue damage. You need a healthy balance of all three during your workouts to make the most gains possible.
Benefits of Hypertrophy for Weightlifters
The perks of putting more emphasis on size go beyond just helping you look a bit better in your weightlifting singlet. There are more than a few good reasons to pick up a pair of dumbbells if you want to snatch more.
Strength Depends On Size
It’s not exactly one-to-one in terms of correlation, but your strength potential does depend on how big your muscles are, at least on some level. The symbiotic relationship between muscular size and strength has been thoroughly documented by researchers. (1)
A Bigger Muscle Is a Stronger Muscle
Beyond just being directly correlated, there’s a linear relationship between muscle cross-sectional area (how much actual space your muscles take up on your skeleton) and maximum contractility, or force output.
Generally speaking, a larger muscle with more cross-sectional area will produce more maximum voluntary force, all other factors kept equal. (2)
Some research even supposes that a larger muscle is more effective at force generation if you put aside strength training experience. (3) Lifting does make you more effective at recruiting and activating your muscles, but it is still better to have larger muscles if you can get them.
Hypertrophy Reduces Injury Risk
There’s a mountain of research supporting the benefits of loaded exercise as a means of reducing injury risk, but it bears repeating. You should train your muscles not only for the purpose of improving your strength, but to limit the chance that you suffer an acute injury as well. (4)
Muscle Burns Calories
If you struggle with making weight (in either direction) for competitions, you might want to focus on putting on more muscle. Skeletal muscle boosts how many calories you burn each day, even when you aren’t in the gym. (5)
Even if you’re weight-capped in your class, converting more of your total body weight to muscle and shedding some fat is a wise tactical move.
How to Program Hypertrophy for Weightlifting
Weightlifting is pretty time-consuming on its own. The last thing you’ll want to do is commit to gaining more size and turn your two-hour gym session into a three-hour slog. If you want to put on mass, you need to know how to integrate it into your training regime.
Volume is perhaps the most important factor to consider when you’re trying to add hypertrophy work to your program. You need enough to encourage growth, but not too much on top of your weightlifting training that you can’t recover.
Research on the ideal training volume has yielded some wildly inconsistent results, but most research reviews and meta-analyses back the idea that the “optimal” volume for hypertrophy is somewhere between 6 and 20 hard sets per muscle group, per week. (6)
You don’t need to go as hard on your dumbbell rows as you would on a clean & jerk complex, but you should still train intensely if you want to build muscle.
Repeated submaximal effort lifting can create hypertrophy, but you’d need to stack up your volume quite high to compensate for the reduced challenge. (7) Instead, you should aim to take most sets within proximity of failure — think two or three reps left in the tank.
Frequency matters on its own for hypertrophy, but you should also think of it as it relates to volume. Frequency is simply how you choose to divide up your total weekly volume, and the jury hasn’t reached a conclusive verdict on how much high (or low) frequency affects strength.
However, the modern general prescription for “optimal” hypertrophy frequency is to train a muscle group twice per week — as long as your total volume remains in check. (8)
Hypertrophy Training Do’s and Don’t’s
While you’re probably pretty cozy with the rigors of weightlifting training, working out for muscle mass is another beast entirely. To become beastly in your own right, you should know how bodybuilding workouts differ from Olympic lifting.
Do: Make It a Priority
Building real muscle mass will take more than just haphazardly chucking in a few sets of push presses or barbell rows at the end of a long weightlifting session. You need to save some mental and physical energy for the end of your session and not sandbag your “accessory” work.
The more general training experience you have, the harder it will be to put on muscle, so you should make your hypertrophy training your prime directive if you want to see real changes. (9)
Don’t: Overdo Leg Training
Your legs and upper back bear the brunt of the stress in Olympic lifting. In fact, you probably bang out dozens if not hundreds of squats per workout without even really noticing.
Your legs do need more volume to grow than, say, the smaller muscles in your arms, but that doesn’t mean you should cap off a weightlifting workout with 10 sets of 10 in the goblet squat. One or two extra leg movements per week will probably suffice if you want to bring up your quads. (10)
Do: Cut Back On Your Weightlifting
If you try to ante up on your hypertrophy training while you’re in the middle of a competition preparatory cycle, you won’t be satisfied with your returns in either area. You can only do so much each time you set foot in the gym.
While you’re focusing on gaining muscle, don’t be afraid to cut back on your Olympic lifting. Trim a few sets here and there, especially on squats and pulls, so you can save energy for the physique-focused lifting to follow.
Don’t: Perform Too Many Sets Per Session
In bodybuilding, “junk volume” is the boogeyman you want to avoid. Physique athletes regard junk volume as any work you do that isn’t sufficiently stimulating enough to elicit growth, but is just hard enough to make you tired.
There’s a threshold of efficacy to hypertrophy work. Exceeding it may come with some seriously diminished returns. Your best bet is to stay at or below six hard sets per muscle group per session. (6)
Do: Look Beyond the Barbell
Weightlifting is a barbell-exclusive sport. If you’re trying to gain some muscle, you have the perfect excuse to put it down for once and dabble in alternate equipment.
Machines, kettlebells, dumbbells, and cables all expand your options in the gym. You can perform far more exercises with these implements than you can with the barbell, and the novelty of working with new tools will keep your training fresh and fun.
Hypertrophy training is all about finding exercises that work for your body. You aren’t obligated to use any one lift or piece of equipment, so feel free to shop around.
Don’t: Rush Your Reps
Weightlifting is all about being explosive, but you’ll need to pump the breaks a bit on your hypertrophy training. If you don’t have a good amount of time under tension, you’ll accrue less mechanical stress and thus limit your gains.
Aim to lift all reps forcefully, but lower them in a slow and controlled manner.
Sample Hypertrophy Program for Weightlifting
The crux of the issue for any Olympic lifter looking to add size is making sure that their hypertrophy training doesn’t overpower sport-specific practice (or vice-versa). Getting the balance just right is crucial.
This four-day template represents a very broad application of the principles you should adhere to while training for size. It may not best serve your specific needs, body type, or experience level, but it should give you a general idea of how to mix bodybuilding with weightlifting.
- Muscle Snatch
- Front Squat
- Dumbbell Row
- Weighted Push-Up
- Power Clean + Push Press
- Clean Pull
- Front Squat
- Hip Thrust
- Resistance Band Lateral Raise
- Hammer Curl
- Power Snatch
- Snatch Pull + Snatch
- Pendlay Row
- Arnold Press
- Weighted Plank
- Muscle Clean
- Clean & Jerk
- Back Squat
- Cable Flye or Weighted Dip
- Upright Row
- Resistance Band Push-Up
Note that you’ll need to personally work out the appropriate number of sets and reps for each exercise no matter what program you’re on. This template should merely illustrate how to marry the two training styles — less time spent working the classics, more devotion to isolation work and the muscles that don’t get much love from competitive weightlifting training.
Most importantly, understand that you can still get high-quality weightlifting practice while you’re working on your beach muscles. It’ll just take a bit of trial and error at first.
Make especially sure to give some love to the muscles that you don’t usually stimulate in Olympic lifting. Your chest, arms, lats, and even calves might be understimulated and thus prime candidates for growth.
How to Progress
Accessory training operates under many of the same rules as the two competition lifts. You need to (gently) push yourself with harder and harder challenges over time if you want to see gains on the scale or the platform.
To make progress with your hypertrophy training, focus on trying to add weight to at least one exercise per session. If that’s not possible, up your volume with an extra rep or two, or even an extra set.
Beyond that, you can look toward more abstract methods of intensification, like reducing your rest times or focusing more intently on the muscular contraction itself.
Build a Massive Total
You don’t need 30-inch thighs to be a competent weightlifter. Moreover, you can’t snatch your way to 18-inch arms. Bodybuilding and weightlifting are distantly related, and they have very little in common at a high level.
However, muscle mass is the universal constant that binds both sports. Bodybuilders need jaw-dropping physiques to win shows, and Olympic lifters should pack on mass to improve their strength, insulate their joints, and shore up weak spots.
Gaining mass shouldn’t be your main focus if you work out in a weightlifting gym, but there’s no good reason to not take a page out of the physique athlete’s playbook. You’ll look better and, more importantly, lift better too.
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Featured Image: Riley Stefan