This question has been bugging the crap out of me and I can't seem to get a complete answer. My question is very basic, why is there such difference in body composition between olympic athletes? I have seen olympic meets where you can compare 77kg (169lb'ish) lifters; some are completely jacked while others are straight up skinny! Is this a difference in genetics, training programming, and diet? The reason I ask is because I have completely stopped power lifting to just train Olympic Lifts three days a week on a rep scheme from 1 to 3 reps. Have I doomed myself in loosing muscle mass? I've been told no one cares what you look like when you have a gold medal around your neck which is true but you gotta have some glamor muscles!
**I was having a chat my old Uncle Rip, when this question came through and I asked if he would mind "splitting this kid's wig" with a bit of his knowledge. This installment of Talk To Me Johnnie is brought to you by the Iron Samurai Mark Rippetoe. Enjoy!
John and I talk, you know. He asked if I'd be interested in answering your question since he knows I have some opinions about this topic. Quite honestly, there are very few topics about which I don't have an opinion, but not all of them are valuable. Perhaps this one will be.
Let me break this to you: no one cares if you have a gold medal around your neck if there were only 8 people in the meet. Your question indicates that by "Olympic athletes" you mean Olympic weightlifters vs. powerlifters. If not, perhaps my explanation can be interpolated to cover whichever base you wanted covered. Modern American Olympic weightlifters as a group are not very big and muscular for a couple of different reasons having to do with training and supplementation. Forty years ago the stark contrast apparent now was not there, mostly because the two sports had yet to diverge to the extent they have now and everybody trained in similar ways. Everybody trained for strength, and this meant that everybody did 3s, 5s, and even 10s on the basic strength movements – the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press. The best Olympic lifters competed in power meets occasionally, even though it wasn't their primary sport, because they were strong enough to do well in the three lifts due to the fact that they trained them.
Over the past three decades, most (thankfully not all – John Broz and Kyle Pierce come to mind) Olympic weightlifting coaches have come to the conclusion that Olympic lifting, like gymnastics, is primarily a technique sport, and that virtually all training time should be spent perfecting the technique of the snatch and the clean and jerk. So they don't train the deadlift, press, and bench press. They squat using a technique that gets as close as possible to the front squat, and this limits the amount of weight they can use in the exercise. And the absence of deadlifting, heavy floor pulls of any sort, and the use of an upright torso when squatting tends to leave out the hamstrings and erectors. They tend to train almost exclusively in the lower rep ranges – singles, doubles, and triples – and thus receive little hypertrophy stimulus after their novice period (when everything that causes an adaptation will cause hypertrophy) is over.
A comparison between most of the lifters in the USAW Nationals and all national-level powerlifters will show a quite noticeable disparity in physical size, and strength across all the weight classes the two sports have in common (weightlifting stops at 231lbs+ while powerlifting includes 242, 275, 308, and 308+). At the international level this contrast is not nearly as stark. Modern Olympic lifters don't train for strength, since their coaches assume that the snatch and the clean and jerk produce enough strength to do the snatch and the clean and jerk. And this works just fine if all your athletes are strong, for whatever reason. The previous assumption, one I believe to be correct, was that the snatch and the C&J were excellent ways to display the aspect of strength we call "power", but an inadequate way to develop strength by itself. Since we placed 28th in the 2007 World's, something seems to be lacking in our Olympic lifting training model. Powerlifters, on the other hand, spend all their time doing things that make muscles big and strong, and thus the rather obvious difference in the physiques characteristic of the two sports.
There also seems to be a greater reluctance on the part of Olympic lifters to go up a weight class than you find among powerlifters. It may be a cultural thing in the sport, like wrestling. Or it may be that fact that since so few lifters compete in the sport in the US, the national meets are actually quite accessible to a relatively high percentage of those competing; since qualifying totals are set in a weight class, that class must be within reach of the lifter for possibly months at a time. A powerlifter competing in a sport that is much more popular will have a much harder time getting to the Nationals in a larger federation, and likely never will. He may never have to make weight in a class and stay there unless he just wants to. Since most powerlifters like the idea of size and strength, you find fewer powerlifters voluntarily holding back their own muscular size and weight gains than you do Olympic lifters, in a sport that accommodates this tendency with 3 additional heavier weight classes.
And since we're all adults here, by supplementation I mean the use of anabolic steroids. American Olympic weightlifters, eager to comply with USADA/WADA rules governing the use of performance-enhancing drugs, seem much more reluctant to jeopardize their standing with the USOC than do powerlifters, who do not compete in an Olympic sport. European lifters, OTOH, are fortunate in that their national federations seem more helpful than ours does in keeping them from testing positive. It's almost as though they were more concerned with winning than with being in compliance. Damned irresponsible attitude, I say. But the bottom line is that athletes take steroids because they make you stronger. There are no “technique” steroids, so the motivation for the risk of taking them seems pretty clear.
Another aspect of this disparity is that Olympic lifting is more popular essentially everywhere in the world than it is here. Here there are no scholarship opportunities, no sponsorship options, and no way to make the sport feed you. Total membership in USA Weightlifting, the NGB for the sport in the United States, is about 5000, a significant percentage of which is comprised of coaches, masters lifters, and other people like myself who are not competitive at the national level. We simply don't have the numbers that the Chinese team has access to, with perhaps 15 million registered lifters. This being the case, our demographics are completely different than theirs, with a concentration of the strongest (and you know what this means about their appearance) people in China competing for a spot on the team, while our comparable demographic is engaged elsewhere more profitably. So if you don't have the luxury of choosing from the strongest – which takes a lot of the pressure off of your coaching staff, who may not know any more about making people strong than ours does – you'd better be very good at making people strong, which we have decided not to do.
So, to answer your question more briefly, it's not that doing the Olympic lifts makes you skinny, it's failing to do your basic strength work that fails to make you big and strong. You know how to fix that. And we need guys like you in the sport, so good luck.
By the way, questions like this will be the focus of the attention of four notable coaches here at WFAC on Aug.7.