Bodybuilding in Weightlifting

by coachdanbell


(Calm yourselves, Klokophiles)

When the Bulgarian training craze swept the sport of weightlifting some years ago, it became dogma almost overnight that you only need to train six exercises to be a successful weightlifter: snatch, clean & jerk, back squat, front squat, power snatch and power clean. The idea was that constant practice of the competitive lifts makes you strong in the lifts, with squats giving you the leg drive for big weights. The idea that areas of the body other than the legs should be targeted for strength gains got lost in the race to emulate the latest breakout foreign program. But even the vaunted Bulgarians of the eighties and nineties did foundational bodybuilding as juniors. Zlaten Vanev did a lot of curls to protect his elbow after blowing it out on a jerk. There is a lesson there for the rest of us.

The Chinese believed that being Asian they started behind other nations in upper body strength, an essential quality for success in a strength sport, they properly reasoned. So they busted their asses at rows, presses, pullups, handstand pushups and even benching. Judging by the stunningly muscular specimens they put on the podium year after year, it’s paying off.


Bodybuilding hasn’t hurt the Chinese . . .

A strong upper body is vital in widening the overhead “groove” for the snatch and jerk. The stronger the lifter’s upper body, the more room for error–front to back displacement of the bar from the ideal doesn’t necessarily mean a missed lift. Bodybuilding is especially important for weightlifting women.


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While women’s leg strength doesn’t start out too far behind men’s, they lag far behind in upper body mass and strength. One of the great benefits of the growth of CrossFit has been the acceptance and encouragement of strong upper bodies in women.


At this past American Open in Dallas, you could almost tell if a female lifter had a CrossFit background by upper body development alone; weightlifting women had paid far less attention to upper body training than did the CrossFit women. I think this is where weightlifting can learn from CrossFit. CrossFit women did not have the sharp technique of women who focused on weightlifting, but they saved a lot of lifts that women with weaker upper bodies would have missed.

In the past I have made the point that too much upper body muscle can push you into the next higher weight class without conveying much benefit to the lifter. I’ve since re-thought that stance. I’m not talking about pro-bodybuilder mass, but enough to protect shoulders and elbows and make imperfect lifts make-able. I also have to agree with Zygmunt Smalcerz, the USAW Olympic Training Center coach, who observed upon his arrival here that American lifters are too fat. He thought many American weightlifters at least one weight class heavier than they should be. Well, maybe not, if that fat lost is replaced by upper body muscle. 

Dimitry Klokov seems to be every American lifter’s wet dream right now, partly, I think, because he’s built the upper body of a Titan. He looks great, yes, but did you ever hear about him injuring a shoulder or an elbow as he fought his way to the podium at Worlds and the Olympics? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. His strong upper body keeps him in the game and helps him win championships. But for the Klokophiles, here’s one more beefcake shot: