Olympic workout : Build muscle with Olympic lifts

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Forget the dodgy leotards and endless gurning; Olympic weightlifting is a very serious sport. The current world-record holder for the clean and jerk, Iran’s Hossein Rezazadeh, owns that coveted title because he lifted a ground-shaking 263.5kg.

These guys are very strong, and almost unrivalled in their power-to-weight ratio. “In this sport, speed is just as important as strength,” says Team GB’s head weight lifting coach Tamas Feher. And even if you’re not interested in entering the 2016 Olympics, this type of training is one of the fastest ways to achieve a strong, muscular physique. “An Olympic lifter’s body is a powerful one, and certainly looks it too,” says Feher.

Your programme

A study in the Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Science found that after eight weeks of Olympic lifting, participants increased their lean muscle mass by 4% and dropped 6% of their body fat. Our plan promises the same and more. Start with Week 1’s workout – created by strength coach Ian Mellis to condition your body for the demands of Olympic lifts. Then over the next three weeks follow the prescribed sessions, billing up to the main event.

Week 1 – 50% 1RM

Week 2 – 60% 1RM

Week 3 – 70% 1RM

Week 4 – 70-90% 1RM

Week 1: Strength and support



Perform this session 3 times, with a rest day between each. Do 5 sets of 5 reps of each exercise, resting 20sec between sets and 60sec between exercises. Aim to shift around 50% of your 1-rep max (1RM).

Kettlebell swings

This move strengthens your lower back – essential for heavy lifts. Stand with a kettlebell between your legs. Drive your hips forward to swing the weight up. Ben your knees as it swings back between your legs.

Dumbbell squat to curl

This builds the power you need to get that bar up to your chest. Squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then curl the dumbbells to shoulder height as you stand.

Squat jump

“Acceleration is key for lifting,” says Mellis. “Squat jumps improve power generation through the body.” Squat, then press up through your heels and toes, launching into the air. Land with your knees slightly bent.

Dumbbell push-press

This move will address any strength imbalances between your arms. Rest the weights on your shoulders, bend your knees, then explosively press the weights overhead.

Week 2: Beginner compound moves

You now need to prep your body for specific areas of the lifts. Follow the same plan as for Week 1 (5 sets of 5 reps each), but aim to use 60% of your 1RM.

Goblet squat

This is the foundation of a strong front squat. Grab one end of a dumbbell with both hands and hold it under your chin, palms facing up. Bend your hips and knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Then slowly rise back up.

Box jump

“This replicates the central move of the lifts,” says Mellis. Squat slightly in front of a secure box. Jump onto it, swinging your arms forward. Land with your knees bent. Perform continually for 1min, instead of the usual 5 reps.

Upright row

Stand holding a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs. Raise the weights straight up, keeping your palms close to your body until they’re just below your chin. Pause, go up onto your toes then return to the start.

Military press

“This trains you for the press phase,” says Mellis. Grab a barbell with an overhand grip and hold it across your shoulders. Bend your knees and push the bar above your head, locking your arms.

Week 3: Advanced compound moves


Perfect these exercises before you attempt the main lifts. Again, do 5 sets of 5 reps for each move, this time using 70% 1RM.

Romanian dead lift

Bend to pick up the barbell with an overhand grip. Use your thighs to raise the bar and straighten your legs. Lower the weight down to just in front of your shins. Straighten up, pushing forward with your hips.

Weighted box jump

“It’s explosive strength that gets the bar off the floor,” says Mellis. Perform the move as per the instructions for Week 3, except this time hold a weight plate or dumbbell in each hand. If 70% 1RM is too much, go lighter.


This is where it all comes together. Bend to pick up the barbell. Keep your chest high and drive up through your heels. When it reaches hip-height, shrug your shoulders to pull the bar in front of your chest. Rest it above your collarbone.

Front squat

“Here’s where the power comes from to lift the bar over your head,” says Mellis. Rest a barbell on your shoulders. Sink into a deep squat, then push up to the start position. Tense your glutes throughout to achieve maximum output.

Week 4: The grand finale


Feeling the benefits of your training doesn’t require months of hard slog. With 3 lifting sessions each week you can pack on 6kg of lean muscle in just 8 weeks. For muscle building, perform 3 sets of 8 reps at 70% 1RM. For strength and power, aim for 2 sets of 2 reps at 80-90% 1RM.

The clean and jerk: step one

Squat down behind a barbell and grab it with a shoulder-width overhand grip. Keep your arms extended fully – this forces your upper-back muscles to pull the bar up.

Drive upwards with your legs, lifting the bar. When it reaches thigh height, pull your shoulders back, bend your knees, rotate your wrists and catch the bar with your palms facing upwards.

Clean and jerk: step two

Now push back up through the balls of your feet to stand up straight with the bar resting across the top of your chest. Take a breath and get ready for the final phase of the lift.

Bend the knees then explode upwards, pressing the bar overhead. At the same time, put one leg forward and one back to aid the overhead press. Walk your feet together, champion.

The snatch: step one

Stand behind the bar with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, shins touching the bar. Drop down and grab the bar with a very wide overhand grip, arms completely straight. Get ready to explode up.

Keeping your chest high, your back straight and head up, push upwards through your heels to stand. Keep the bar as close to your legs as possible throughout the movement until it reaches your thighs.

The snatch: step two

Now, pull your shoulders back and bring the bar up fast, flipping it over onto your fingers. Swoop underneath the bar by dropping into an overhead squat position, as shown. Now for the final push.

Press up through your heels, until your legs are straight, keeping the bar locked-out over your head throughout. Congratulations: this technical move is a true test of your coordination and strength.