Olympic weightlifting is a sport that requires a lifter to express high amounts of power, strength, and mobility. To develop, athletes must develop a systematic approach to progress throughout various phases of training, each addressing physiological attributes necessary for long-term success.
At the forefront of Olympic weightlifting training is the need for technical training with the barbell, mobility, and a good strength base for more advanced and aggressive training cycles. Hypertrophy blocks, also known as base phases, set out to increase overall work capacity, physical fitness, and muscle mass of an athlete. Additionally, this is a time where coaches often dedicate more time and training volume to bring up weaknesses of a lifter.
Leg strength and lower body development is essential for the Olympic lifts. Squatting, pulling, and other lower body exercises are key aspects of a lifter’s training program. There are times when a coach and athlete must dedicated greater time and energy to bringing up a weak squat and develop the lower body.
Therefore, in this article we will discuss lower body hypertrophy training for weightlifters, specifically:
- What is Muscle Hypertrophy and Who Can Benefit from Hypertrophy Training?
- When Should You Train For Hypertrophy?
- Popular Weightlifting Exercises for Lower Body Hypertrophy
- How Hypertrophy Training Impacts Your Olympic Lifting Programming
- How to Transition from Hypertrophy to Strength to Competition Phases
- Sample Lower Body Hypertrophy Program
What is Muscle Hypertrophy and Who Can Benefit from Hypertrophy Training?
In short, hypertrophy is the increase in size of skeletal muscle due to the growth inside of its individual cells. Two main factors that impact overall hypertrophy is (1) sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which increases the space within the sarcoplasm of muscle cells, and (2) myofibril hypertrophy, which refers to the increase in the muscle fiber and strength capacities.
Nearly every weightlifter can benefit from increased muscle mass and strength capacity. There are however, phases within a training period that a lifter may need to transition out of a hypertrophy training phase to maximize performance, often into a more strength-focused training block.
That said, no matter the level, age, or total: hypertrophy training is an essential training phase for all weightlifters. Coaches and athletes must properly design a training program that integrates hypertrophy-focused blocks that systematically progress a lifter to more strength and maximal performance goals over a span of months.
Note, many hypertrophy phases last anywhere from 6-12 weeks, and can shift emphasis towards hypertrophy and strength towards the latter half of a hypertrophy period. Coaches must understand that various athletes will respond differently to the same program, so it is essential to track recovery, progress, and adjust on a case-by-case basis.
When Should You Train for Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy blocks are an essential part of a weightlifting program. In previous articles, we covered extensively the basis of periodization, which outlines the path a coach should take to progress their lifter from a foundational level of training into a more competition specific, strength and power phase.
Throughout a lifter’s training cycle, there will be months at which training volume will be high, intensity (% of maximum) will be lower, and the emphasis will be on gaining muscle mass, improving work capacity, and enhancing an athlete’s ability to withstand the stressors of strength and pre-competition training phases.
hypertrophy blocks should occur towards the early stages of a weightlifting cycle,
…with emphasis on increased training volume occurring furthest away from a competition period.
One of the main priorities of the hypertrophy phase is to set the base for more rigorous and heavier training cycles. Athletes and coaches should not be attempting to lift maximum weights during this time, but rather focus on lifting submaximal loads well, and in high volumes to drive muscle growth.
10 Effective Weightlifting Exercises for Lower Body Hypertrophy
Below are 10 of the most effective exercises to increase lower body muscle hypertrophy. Note, the below movements were selected due to their specificity to the sport of weightlifting and their application to the specific positional strength necessary for the snatch, clean, and jerk.
1. Back Squat
The back squat is an essential strength movement for Olympic weightlifters (and most strength, sports, and fitness athletes). The back squat works to develop back, hip, and leg strength necessary for stronger lifts.
In Olympic weightlifting, the high bar back squat is the primary back squat style used as it directly transfers to the angles needed in snatch, clean, and jerk. The low bar back squat is often not an effective squat variation in Olympic weightlifting, as the goal of squatting for weightlifters is to have strength transfer to the lifts, not simply to squat more.
Set Your Base
Start by stepping under a barbell (supported in a rack). This step is key as it is your chance to properly engage the upper back (step 2), set a firm foundation with the core, and mentally prepare for the un-racking of the barbell.
While you will need to step out of the rack to set your feet up for the squat, it is recommended that you place your feet in the squat stance, or slightly narrower, as you want to think about “squatting” the load off the rack hooks, rather than stepping in and out with one foot, etc. This is especially the case as the loads get heavier.
Coach’s Tip: This step is significantly important the heavier the loads are. Not not rush this process.
Get a Grip
Grip widths will vary, however the key is that you should be able to take a full grip on the barbell, as this will allow you to maximally contract the upper back/traps/forearms to properly secure the barbell in the high-bar squat position. Note, that the barbell should be placed above the traps, or on them, rather than on the rear delts/lower on the back (like the low-bar squat set up).
When doing this, be sure to actively flex your upper back and traps up into the barbell, which will give you some “padding” for the barbell to rest on. Lastly, be careful not to hyper-extend the back as you do this, as many lifters will lose tension and bracing in the core.
Coach’s Tip: Squeeze the bar and find a secure position. Once you have found it, pull the barbell tight into the body so that you and the barbell are now one, massively dense and stable unit.
Step Out and Get Stable
When you are ready, step out of the rack, using either a 2 or 3-step approach (as this is often the best way to minimize barbell movement and conserve energy). The feet should be about hip-width apart, with the toes slightly pointed out. The chest should be held high, with the core and obliques contracted.
Be sure not to have too much of a forward lean, as this high-bar variation should allow you to keep your torso up vertical.
Coach’s Tip: This can be challenging and inconsistent for many beginner and intermediate squatters (the pre-squat routine). Be sure to practice the same set up and walkout techniques every time you squat, as this will help it become more automated (one less thing to worry about).
Pull Yourself Down into the Squat
With the feet planted, and pressure evenly distrusted throughout the foot, slightly push the hips back while simultaneously allowing the knees the bend forwards, tracking over the toes. Keep the upper back locked to minimize forward lean or collapse of the thoracic spine.
Think about gripping the floor with the toes and creating space for the belly between the thighs. Often, the cue “knees out” is used, which can be beneficial for some (however it can also cause excessive bowing of the knees). Regardless, think about pulling your torso straight down so that the abdominals and hip flexors assist in the lower of the movement.
Coach’s Tip: Take your time as you lower yourself into the squat, making sure to feel any weight shifting back/forward or tendencies to collapse the torso.
Squat to Depth, and Stand Up
Squat to the desired depth, which for many is at parallel or below. Once you have assumed the desired depth, push your back upwards into the bar while simultaneously pushing the feet aggressively through the floor, making sure to keep weight in the heels (and toes). As you stand, continue to keep the chest high and core locked.
Be sure to keep your spine locked into position, and your heels down on the ground. A general rule of thumb when assessing high-bar squat technique is that the shin angle should be parallel to the spine. If they are to intersect (id you continues those angles) at any point in time, it could indicate excessive forward lean of the torso (horizontal displacement of the barbell, which is not desired).
Coach’s Tip: You should feel your legs (quadriceps) working, as well as the upper back and hips.
2. Front Squat
The front squat is a squat variation that can be done to place greater emphasis on the quadriceps, core, and upper back. When looking to increase muscle hypertrophy using the front squats, Olympic weightlifters need to prioritize posture rather than pushing through high-repetition sets that often lead to postural breakdown.
In other words, this exercise can be a great tool for increasing lower body hypertrophy while also having application to the clean. It is important however, for lifters to understand the difference between doing a front squat with perfect form versus doing a front squat with progressively sloppy form.
It is recommended that repetitions for the front squat during hypertrophy phases stay within the 3-5 rep range, as higher repetition sets often produce greater amounts of core and upper back fatigue prior to lower body fatigue.
It is for this reason that many coaches will opt for more set with less repetitions per set than fewer sets with greater repetitions. Doing the former will also allow for higher relative loading to be used.
3. Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is a highly effective hamstring, glute, and lower back exercise that also has direct transfer to the pull in the snatch and clean. Lifters can use this to also develop positional strength and awareness to help lifters stay over the barbell in the pull.
Programming the Romanian deadlift can be done both with heavier loads and fewer repetitions (3-5 reps per set) or for more general hypertrophy (8-12 repetitions).
4. Clean Pull/Deadlift
The clean pull and clean deadlift are two pulling movements that can be done to help reinforce proper pulling mechanics in the clean while also contributing the hamstring, back, and leg growth. Typically, repetition ranges are kept within the 3-5 rep range during hypertrophy phases, with lifters focusing on maintaining ideal positions while moving heavier loads.
The clean pull/deadlift is a main pulling strength movement with training volume being taken into consideration with establishing weekly training volume parameters.
5. Snatch Pull/Deadlift
The snatch pull and snatch deadlift are two pulling movements that can be done to help reinforce proper pulling mechanics in the snatch while also contributing the hamstring, back, and leg growth. Programming guidelines are similar to the clean pull/deadlift. However, this lift can often be trained more frequently as the relative loading is less, and therefore less stressful on the nervous system than heavier clean pull/deadlift training.
The snatch pull/deadlift is a main pulling strength movement with training volume being taken into consideration with establishing weekly training volume parameters.
6. Belt Squat
The belt squat is a great accessory exercise to add additional training volume and stimulate leg growth without adding additional loading to the spine. This is also a great squat variation to use if a lifter has lower back pain or discomfort while back squatting. The ability to target the quadriceps and glutes and add significant amounts of volume while minimizing spinal stress and neural fatigue makes the belt squat a highly valuable accessory (and sometimes main strength) exercise for Olympic weightlifters.
7. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral lower body exercise than can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, and/or any other type of load. The Bulgarian split squat can also be done with a barbell on the back or in the front rack positioning.
The Bulgarian split squat can be trained with moderate loads for most, and with heavier weights in more experienced lifters. Generally speaking, the Bulgarian split squat can be done using moderate loading for moderate repetitions and sets (3-4 sets of 5-8 repetitions per side).
The step-up is a unilateral exercise than can be done to increase quadriceps and glute hypertrophy. By adjusting the step height, weightlifters can also place greater emphasis at specific ranges of motion that may be a weakness for some lifters. The step up is most commonly done with a barbell on the back, as this allows a lifter to not be limited by anterior core or back strength, but rather place high amounts of training volume on the lower body specifically.
This can be done using moderate loads for higher volumes within accessory training blocks. Start by performing 3 sets of 6-8 step ups per side, with moderate to heavy loads.
9. Good Morning
The good morning is a barbell movement that targets the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. This exercise is often done with light to moderate loads and is performed towards the end of a training session. This exercise should emphasize back control and a full stretch on the hamstrings. Generally speaking, it should not be done with extremely heavy loads that result in breakdown in form.
Start by integrating the good morning within accessory training blocks for 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions with light to moderate loads
10. Glute Ham Raise / Nordic Curl
The glute ham raise and nordic curl can add muscle mass to the hamstrings and glutes without the need for high amounts of external loading. This is key when looking to increase muscle mass while monitoring overall training stress.
Placing these two movements within accessory training blocks towards the end of the workout can be a great way to place a little more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes.
How Hypertrophy Training Impacts Your Olympic Lifting Programming
During hypertrophy phases, coaches and athletes need to adjust for the higher amounts of training volume that is devoted to exercises like squats, pulls, and lower body accessory work. The athlete must understand that the amount of weight they can snatch, clean, and jerk themselves may actually decrease due to program shifting emphasis from high neural output to more muscle growth adaptations.
To help reduce overall training stress and fatigue, coaches should prioritize technical training of the lifts with loads under 80% of max for the first phases of the hypertrophy period. Integrating variations from blocks, hangs, or power lifts can also be a good way to decrease leg and back fatigue so that the athlete can train squats and pulls more aggressively.
How to Transition from Hypertrophy to Strength and Competition Phases
When looking to transition out of a successful hypertrophy phase, coaches and athletes need to shift emphasis from higher volume training to a more intensity-focused program. Dropping repetition ranges into the 2-3 rep range for most strength work is generally suggested, with the lifts themselves (snatch, clean, and jerk), being performed for 1-2 repetitions at intensities above 80% (but often not higher than 90% in the early strength block stages).
As a lifter progresses and becomes more accustomed to higher intensities of both the Olympic lifts and the strength movements, coaches can then acclimate an athlete to near-maximal or maximum intensity attempts. Note, the ability to lift near-maximal and maximum attempts is a neurological skill that must be developed and is often reserved for pre-competition phases.
Coaches should have a firm grasp on advanced programming for competition preparation and understand that the athlete will be under high amounts of neuromuscular stress and may have a harder time recovering than in previous phases.
Author’s Note: This guide is not to be used as the definitive outlines for transitioning from a hypertrophy block into a highly strength and pre-competition phase, as this transition is very complex. If coaches are looking for more information regarding this subject, please refer to the below articles and guides:
Sample 4-Day Hypertrophy-Focused Weightlifting Program
Below is a sample 4-day weightlifting program that places a high emphasis on lower body muscle hypertrophy. Note, that this entire program involves approximately 14-16 sets of lower body training (not including the full olympic lifts).
They key with muscle hypertrophy is finding the perfect balance between recovery and training, with sport scientist, Dr. Mike Isreatel suggesting 14-16 lower body hypertrophy focused sets per week.
- High Block Snatch: 3 sets of 2-3 reps at 70-75%
- Power Clean + Power Jerk: 3 sets of 2 reps at 70-75%
- Snatch Pull: 3 sets of 3 reps at 90-100% of snatch max
- Back Squat: work to daily 5RM, RPE 8
- Back Squat: 1-2 sets of 5 reps, at 80% of daily 5RM
- Back Extension Isometric Holds: 2-3 sets of 30-45 seconds
- Power Snatch + Snatch Balance: 3 sets of 2+2 reps at 70-75%
- Tall Clean: 3 sets of 3 reps at 50-60%
- Push Press: 3RM, RPE 8
- Pendlay Row: 4 sets of 8 reps, RPE 8
- Hang Snatch High Pull: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Weighted Plank: 3 sets of 45-60 seconds
- Block Snatch: 3 sets of 2 reps at 75-80%
- Block Clean: 3 sets of 2 reps at 75-80%
- Front Squat + Front Squat + Jerk: 1RM, RPE 8
- Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 5 reps, RPE 8
- Belt Squat: 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps, RPE 7
- BTN Snatch Push Press + Snatch Balance: 3 sets of 3+1 reps at 75-80%
- Power Clean + Jerk: 3 sets of 2 reps at 75-80%
- Snatch Pull: 3 sets of 3 reps at 90-100% of snatch max
- Back Squat: 3 sets of 8 reps, at 70-80% of Day 1’s 5RM
- Nordic Curl OR Glute Ham Raise: 3 sets of 8-10 reps