The weightlifting community is rich with different thoughts, methodologies, and training philosophies. Athletes and coaches like a large variety of programs, training cycles and correctional fixes. Some go for the very specific methodology and some go for a very assistance exercise-heavy methodology. Upper body strength and upper body muscle hypertrophy is definitely overlooked and under-rated in North America, probably for the sake of being progressive rather than tradition-oriented.
Back in the days, you had no choices but to be strong in your upper body as a weightlifter. Athletes of those times spent a lot of time developing pressing, rowing, and overall torso strength for two main reasons. The most obvious reason is that they could not touch the thighs as they pulled which required a lot of upper back (shoulder elevators and most scapular muscles), shoulders and arm strength.
Such a pull does not put your torso at bio mechanical advantage which translate in big strength and hypertrophy gains in that region. So when you see Norik Vardanian or the Armenians national team still doing those kind of pulls for assistance exercise, consider how strong their torso are and how strong it’s going to be. Most people don’t develop such upper body strength and hypertrophy from snatch and clean and jerk only training.
A second reason for the incredible upper body strength of most weightlifters of the older days is the good old clean and press. The clean and press, which was more like a power clean and press, necessitate a lot of back strength as the lifter leaned back to push the bar away from him. You needed very strong shoulders, back, and core to do it (especially since you could not bend at the knee). Here is David Rigert demonstrating the pressing technique and the upper body strength it needed.
The press was removed from the competitive lifts and then Bulgarian domination happened. Somehow along the way, people thought Bulgarian stars only did classic snatch, classic clean and jerk and lots of squats. While many went on a routine of the like, many started by using lots of variations. For instance, if this source is credible, Suleymanoglu (Bulgarian/Turkish superstar) did lifts off blocks, pulls, jumps, back squats, and powers variations. More than just snatch and clean and jerks and front squats were done. Most countries included a lot of calisthenics and agility work that improves overall strength and upper body strength. Here is a good example.
Anyhow, many went on to think that you only need full lifts and some squats to reach the top. It is arguably true for the gifted athlete but is probably not suitable for the injured, or not as talented, or imbalanced athlete. Nothing develops better timing and rhythm than doing the full lifts in my opinion. However, weightlifting improvement is simple and totally depend on the answer to a single question : how can we enhance the right technique, its timing and rhythm?
The answer : Weakness correction. Weakness is defined as either technical or physical or psychological weaknesses.
Here is the kicker, technical faults are often related to physical or psychological weaknesses in experimented lifters. After a while, a lifter than does not stay over the bar is a lifter with weak back (we see that a lot in squat oriented methodologies vs pull oriented methodologies) or very bad habits. A lifter that rounds the upper back and drop the elbows in the clean is a lifter with a weak upper back or weak glutes. While front squats can help improving that, so can bent over rows and glute work.
The thing is that the expression of perfect technique is linked with strength or in other words, high results in weightlifting are correlated with maximal strength. However, a good technician is a lifter that use a large % of his available strength which means, in other words, that your approach needs to be oriented towards technique and technique refinement throughout your whole lifting career. Thus, technique can be bettered with adequate strength training as long as technique refinement is still included and still a priority. In other words, you need more than strength and need a technique first approach….but the right strength training can yield result in the technical lift as long as its works on weaknesses.
So how important is upper body strength now that the game has changed?
Some are against the use of presses, bent over rows, heavy pulls, and some even say pull ups and dips are just not specific enough. Others argue that hypertrophy is not a priority for weightlifting because Sagir, Vardanian, and many others were skinny and very good. While it okay to do backsquat, a movement that has little resemblance (let’s say not as specific as the front squat) to the snatch or clean and jerk, rows or goodmornings or presses are sometimes condemned as a waste of time by some.
Upper body strength is extremely important and we saw that at the 2014 USA nationals where many jerks were lost to weak upper bodies. When jerks were caught, you could see the upper body of many lifters tremble and twists which did not really happen in the clean of most. Prior to the jerks, you could see a cyphosis of the thoracic region of the back or the forward rounding of the shoulders, all of which are the results of weak upper back and shoulders. Many snatches were missed due to weak upper bodies as well.
Upper body strength is necessary for correct positioning during the pull, the squat and jerk. Many lifters would benefit from adding rows and presses when the competition is far away. Stability is only possible when the foundation is strength. By the way, for most people, strength increases much faster when strength training follows some kind of hypertrophy training (cycle wise). No body is saying upper body development should occupy most of the training session, but it definitely should not be overlooked. Most can gain out of it and are missing out on it and only a few over do it.
It is one tool, out of many, that can be used to improve stability and reduce injury risks. Some people don’t use isolation exercises and prefer to use different types of pulls, that’s fine but the result is still an improvement in upper body strength. Its not like this article is revolutionary (few things in weightlifting are revolutionary) but it’s good to always remind ourselves of such common sense.