If you are an Olympic weightlifter, you may have heard coaches tell athletes that “bench press is useless”, and that training the chest will make them less flexible for snatches and jerks. Sure, tight pecs and triceps can make placing a heavy barbell overhead more challenging if they aren’t maintaining mobility, however it can also help increase overall strength, muscle mass, and weightlifting potential.
So, should you train your chest if you are an Olympic weightlifter? Yes, weightlifters should train their chest, as well as all other muscles to develop muscular balance, increase lean body mass, and help minimize injury. While I’m not saying you need to start a powerlifting bench press program, you should be training the pec muscles in some capacity throughout your training.
To fully address this chest training question for weightifters, I feel it’s best to break down:
The benefits of training chest for Olympic weightlifters
Why some weightlifting coaches are against training chest
The best chest exercises for weightlifters
How to program chest in your workouts
The goal is to arm you with enough chest training information to help you train more effectively, improve overall weightlifting performance, and maybe, just maybe change a stubborn weightlifting coach’s mind.
Let’s dive into the chest training for Olympic weightlifting and why you should do it!
Why Are Some Weightlifting Coaches AGAINST Training Chest?
There are a few reasons why some coaches feel strongly against training the chest in Olympic weightlifting. Depending on the lifter, their limitations, and their needs; some of these reasons may actually hold up in the case against chest training for weightlifters, but in general they do not.
#1 – EXERCISE SPECIFICITY AND SELECTION
Olympic weightlifting is a sport in which a lifter’s success is ultimately determined by their performance in the snatch and clean and jerk. Both movements are highly technical and rely on muscle coordination, flexibility, timing, strength, and power.
Both competition movements (snatch and clean and jerk) rely on leg, back, and overhead strength primarily, with the shoulders and triceps being used to support the bar in the overhead position of both the snatch and jerk.
Therefore, many coaches will look at those movements and discredit the benefits of chest training, stating that because a lifter does not press weight in the horizontal direction (rather, they lift weight vertically), that there is no benefit in training the chest for Olympic weightlifters.
Unfortunately, this reasoning is flawed, as chest training can and does help many lifters who struggle with upper body strength, front rack positioning in the clean, and even increasing lean body mass.
We will dive deeper into the weightlifting benefits of chest training later.
Learn more about the differences between push jerk vs push press.
#2 – FLEXIBILITY AND MOBILITY CONCERNS
One could argue that tight pecs and triceps can impede overhead mobility and performance in the snatch and jerk. While this is generally a fair assessment, the fault of poor mobility lies not with chest training, but the lack of proper shoulder and overhead mobility training within a weightlifting program.
I will agree that if a lifter is severely impeded with placing their hands overhead in the correct snatch and jerk position, they should not be training chest on a consistent basis until improvements of mobility have taken place.
This doesn’t mean they should omit training the chest, it only means they should take that time to perform more dedicated shoulder mobility and flexibility training (via combinations of stretching, accessory exercises, and mobility work).
Nonetheless, if a lifter is limited or has no limitations in achieving proper positions in the snatch and clean and jerk, there is no harm in performing bench presses, dips, and other accessory movements to aid in overall strength development necessary for prolonged success in Olympic weightlifting.
Are you a beginner? Take a look at the 5 Tips Every Beginner Olympic Weightlifter Should Know
#3 – UNWANTED STRESS ON THE SHOULDERS
Like other overhead athletes (such as baseball, track and field throwers, and American football), chest training via bench pressing and dips is generally said to place high amounts of stress and strain on the shoulder joint.
As with concerns of flexibility and mobility issues due to chest training, elevated amounts of strain and stress to the shoulder joint and surrounding tissues may lead to coaches omitting chest training altogether.
To not train the chest muscles however, can also make weightlifters more susceptible to injury in situations where their limited upper body strength and lean body mass is at fault in a lift. Movements like snatches, front squats (front rack), and jerks all rely on the upper pectorals, triceps, and shoulders to stabilize heavy loads overhead.
Without adequate muscle mass, this can lead to poor positions, instability, and injury.
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Why Should Weightlifters Train Their Chest?
Omitting any body part and muscle group from a training program can lead to muscle imbalances, movement disorders, and injury. While the chest is not vital to the weightlifting operation, it does play a supportive role in situations that are vital to Olympic weightlifting success.
#1 – MORE UPPER BODY STRENGTH AND MUSCLE MASS
It is no secret that a strong overhead press, push press, and general upper body strength is highly beneficial to Olympic weightlifting. Training the chest using the exercises discussed below can be a great way for coaches and athletes to add quality muscle mass to the upper body pressing muscles as a whole (pectorals, triceps, shoulders) and enhance lean body mass.
I often find that many beginners and women struggle with upper body strength, and rely heavily on more standard strength and conditioning principles for accessory training to help develop general upper body strength and muscle which then can later be utilized in the snatch and jerk.
Related Article: Should You Train Chest And Triceps Together?
#2 – STRONGER OVERHEAD STABILITY
The triceps, shoulders, scapular stabilizers, and upper back are all essential muscle groups in weightlifting. While Olympic weightlifters should spend the majority of their training energy and time performing the core weightlifting movements and their specific variations, chest training (using the chest exercises listed below) can be done to further enhance overhead stability and strength capacities in all level lifters.
The stronger the chest is, the stronger the triceps are. This relationship can then span to overall improvements in pressing strength and upper body mass; both of which are beneficial for lifting heavy loads in weightlifting.
Related Article: Strength vs. Power: 5 Main Differences You Should Know
#3 – BETTER FRONT RACK POSITIONING
Poor front rack mobility is a common issue for beginner and intermediate Olympic weightlifters alike. While the specific causes behind limitations in front rack mobility may vary, most issues are a combination of poor tricep/latissimus dorsi (back) flexibility, limited thoracic mobility and extension strength, and general lack of spending enough time in the front rack position.
A less common issue (still something to be addressed, however) for those with poor front rack position is the lack of muscle tissue for which the barbell to sit on while in the front rack of the clean, jerk, and front squat.
If you have ever caught a clean on the collarbones or on the bony aspect of the shoulder, you know how painful that is and how you are more likely to try to avoid it the next time around.
Having more upper body mass will help you provide sufficient “padding” and muscle tissue to absorb the load and impact during Olympic weightlifting movements.
Adding chest specific training exercises, like the ones below, in addition to shoulder strengthening exercises can help you develop a well-rounded upper body ready to take on 315lb clean and jerks, anyday.
The 7 Best Chest Exercises for Olympic Weightlifters
When adding chest training exercises within a training program, look no further than these 7 chest-building movements. Not only are these great ways to stimulate chest growth and upper body strength, but they can also help reinforce triceps development, scapular stability, and improve lockout strength needed in the snatch and jerk.
Related Article: 7 Best Chest Exercises With Bands
#1 – INCLINE BARBELL BENCH PRESS
The incline barbell bench press is a great foundational upper body strength exercise. This movement allows a lifter to train the upper chest, shoulders, and triceps; all of which are needed for optional front rack positioning in the clean and jerk.
This is also a great movement for beginners to slowly build more overhead strength when they may have issues pressing loads directly overhead in the beginning stages of their training.
#2 – BARBELL FLOOR PRESS
The barbell floor press is a partial pressing movement that reinforces scapular stability, back tension, and minimizes stress placed on the shoulder joint. By performing presses on the floor, the triceps and chest are isolated to a higher degree, furthering the benefit of specifically attacking muscle groups that may be lagging.
Additionally, the shoulders are trained in high volumes in Olympic weightlifting (snatches, jerks, presses, overhead squats, etc), making the floor press a great way to give them a break while still training the upper body.
#3 – DUMBELL BENCH PRESS
Training with dumbbells is a good way to address any asymmetries and muscle imbalances that may go unnoticed when only training with a barbell. Dumbbell pressing can also help increase unilateral stability or both the shoulder and elbows joints, adding an additional layer of support for weightlifters. Lastly, the ability to manipulate the angles of the press make the dumbbell bench press a great chest pressing movement if other types of chest exercises are uncomfortable to perform.
#4- PUSH-UPS (VARIOUS ANGLES)
Push-ups are a bodyweight movement (can also do these with weights) that translate well to weightlifting due to its reliance on body control and stability, both needed for snatches and clean and jerks.
Performing push-ups from a deficit, kneeling, incline, and any other angle/variation can be done to diversifying pressing strength and upper body development.
#5 – HANDSTAND PUSH UPS (HSPUs)
While this may technically be more of a shoulder/overhead pressing movement, I suggest lifters learn how to properly support themselves in the handstand position. This is directly correlated to proper overhead positioning in the jerk and trains the same muscle groups needed for overhead lockout performance in the snatch and jerk.
Additionally, performing handstand push-ups (non-kipping) builds high amounts of triceps, shoulders, and upper chest strength making this a great movement for more advanced lifters.
#6 – DIPS
Dips are another bodyweight movement that can be used to increase upper body pressing strength and muscle mass, specifically for the chest and triceps. This movement is a good way to also help lifters/athletes reinforce body control and scapular stability.
It’s important to note that some lifters experience pain/discomfort when performing dip variations (bench dips, bar dips, ring dips). If this is you, I would suggest performing one of the other movements instead.
#7 – CHEST FLYES
While I generally suggest sticking to more compound movements (rather than single-joint exercises), chest flyes can be helpful when looking to reinforce pectoral strength and control at larger degrees of shoulder adduction.
While I do not recommend training these with heavy loads to complete failure, I do find it sometimes helpful to do these slowly with moderate loads, working on properly stretching the muscle and contracting the chest muscles after a full stretch as you perform them.
Related Article: Do Olympic Weightlifters Train Every Day? (And, Should You?)
How to Program Chest Training in Your Current Workout Program
Training chest in a workout can be as simple as adding it into accessory blocks or on days where you have a little more time during sessions. The key here is to not overdo it, and to make sure that while you still want to build sufficient upper body strength and mass, you are still ensuring adequate time devoted to developing sound technique in the snatch, clean, and jerk.
I prefer to add 3-5 sets of one of the movements above, 1-2 times per week depending on the needs and goals of the lifter. Rep ranges can vary based on the goals of the lifter. Generally speaking, I program 3-5 reps for strength, 6-8 reps for strength and hypertrophy, and 10-15 for general fitness and muscle building. The more reps in a set, the less sets I program.
It is also important to place this on a day where you will not be conflicting with the ensuing training session:
For example: If you are to do jerks and snatches on Day 3 of a program, it may not make the most sense to train chest on Day 2 as this could impede with pressing strength and lockout performance (triceps).
Instead, maybe add chest to the accessory segment following the jerks and snatches, or on a day where a rest day follows.
This is just one way to do it, however, lifters and coaches must monitor accessory exercises and training volume to not impede performance and recovery of the primary movements
If you want to take the guesswork out of programming, use the Fitbod app. It will give you weightlifting workouts based on your logged training data to make sure you’re progressing in the most optimal way possible. This includes giving you chest exercises that don’t interfere with your other training goals.
When to Train Chest, LESS?
We have already answered the question of WHEN to train chest within a training program, however, sometimes we must train chest less frequently or not at all.
While this can vary lifter to lifter, it is generally a good idea to slash overall chest training volume at times when a lifter is training more intensely in the classic lifts (snatch, clean, and jerk). This is very common practice leading up to Olympic weightlifting meets or during peaking cycles where the coach must limit the overall stress to the body from non-weightlifting specific movements to ensure proper recovery and the utmost intensity while doing the snatch and clean and jerk.
Another time when chest training should be decreased is if a lifter is experiencing pain, stiffness, or general limitations performing other movements due to increased soreness or immobility following chest training days. The answer to the issue may arise in simply doing a few fewer sets than usual, using slightly lower loads, or placing chest training on another day where the lifter can have more time to recover.
It goes without saying that in the event of pain and discomfort at the shoulder, elbow, or wrist; chest pressing and other overhead movements may not be the best training stress at the time.
If you are experiencing pain and discomfort, it is best to seek medical attention and rest the affected area as acute issues can quickly turn into chronic problems.
Olympic weightlifters should 100% train their chest.
While some athletes may need to train their chest less frequently, or differently, it is generally not recommended to omit training an entire movement pattern for overall strength development and injury prevention.
Training chest can improve lockout strength and upper body mass as well as help lifters who struggle to place and stabilize load overhead in the snatch and jerk by addressing general limitations in chest, shoulder, and triceps development.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City ,Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition.
In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, travelling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.