Do You Qualify for Olympic Lifting?

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“Most of us do not particularly need to practice the olympic lifts, they are not specific to any sport other than professional Olympic Weightlifting and there are many ways to improve mobility, strength and power whilst avoiding these highly technical lifts requiring years of training to master.”

Olympic lifts, when performed correctly, are ultimate examples of the combination of mobility and stability, and an expression of the summation of forces through the kinetic chain during the performance of a closed skill. The olympic lifts include the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk. If not performed to their entirety, derivatives of these lifts (hang pulls, hang cleans, power snatches, power cleans, push presses, power jerks) are commonly practiced today in surf performance centres, in belief they will successfully improve the surf athlete’s strength, speed and power, in an efficient “bang-for-your-buck” fashion. The rise in popularity of CrossFit means these olympic lifts have become more relevant for physical therapists to have an understanding of their mechanics, in addition to the lifts being taught by qualified coaches (and practiced by near-perfectionist students). Weightlifting combines extreme ranges of motion (arms overhead, pulling a barbell from the floor, squatting ass-to-grass), high loads and explosive force development. Ultimate efficiency in the sport requires flexibility, mobility, stability, strength, coordination, balance and maximal power.

The multi-joint and multi-motor patterns required during the pulling, squatting and jerking have been considered relevant to many other sports, in particular jumping and throwing (Channell & Barfield 2008). Therefore, many strength and conditioning coaches have traditionally used the olympic lifts and their derivatives to develop an athlete’s power output. Today their popularity has snowballed with the rise in numbers attending CrossFit and other circuit classes where olympic lifts are smashed out, usually for time or set reps.

Injuries and Weightlifting

Injuries to the lower back, knees and shoulders are the most common (Faigebaum et al 2008, Junge et al 2009, Raske & Norlin 2002), however there exists a relatively low injury incidence within the professional sport when compared to other sports at the elite level. The elites have excellent technique, hence greatly reducing the chance of training injuries. Today the majority of weightlifting / crossFit is NOT practiced at the elite level. Search “CrossFit fails” in youtube.

Components of the Lifts to Consider

1. Pulling

The goal is to generate power to lift the bar up just enough to then drop your body under the bar as quickly as possible into a full squat. The lower back is particularly vulnerable during the pull phase if the athlete is unable to maintain a neutral spine. Problems can arise due to;

  • limited mobility of the ankle, hip, thoracic spine
  • limited flexibility of the hamstrings, glute max, external hip rotators, adductors
  • weak hip extensors, placing greater demand on the trunk-extensors and the athlete actively flexes the lumbar spine to allow a mechanical advantage for trunk extension
  • poor trunk extensor strength and endurance
  • poor pulling mechanics, heaving the weight up with the back rather than the hips
  • poor wrist mobility when catching the bar on the shoulders

2. Squatting

The athlete must drop under the bar and control it over the shoulders (clean) or overhead (snatch) in a squatting position, eccentrically. There’s a great deal of flexibility, mobility, strength and control required here, hardwired!

Symmetry is really important for the squat technique. Contra-lateral (left to right) deficits in strength, power, endurance, flexibility or mobility may lead to overload on one side of the body – for example, shifting the pelvis to one side at the bottom of the squat. Lower spine damage, lower back muscle strain, intervertebral disc changes, hip impingements, quadriceps and patella tendinopathy and knee joint / meniscal injury are all injury potentials and occur secondary to technique issues.

Here are some compensations that can result in problems;

  • posterior pelvic tilt caused by poor hip, spine and ankle mobility, inadequate hip or back strength.
  • weight shift caused by mobility, strength or motor control issues.
  • hip internal rotation, knees dropping inward, forward movement of the knees, rounding of the spine and rotating of the hips may occur due to mobility or strength issues.
  • forward movement of the knees load up the patella-femoral joint and within the patella and quadriceps tendons.
  • caving in of the knees cause loading stress on the inner knee which is commonly associated with poor ankle mobility and hip range/strength deficits.

3. Overhead Position

This position is required for the snatch and via the jerk during the clean and jerk.

Failure to control the bar overhead in the snatch may result in trauma to either the shoulders (instabilities, impingements, rotator cuff tears) or elbows (medial collateral ligament tears). The optimal position requires a stable pelvis and trunk, thoracic extension, scapula external rotation/upward rotation and shoulder stability. Mobility limitations of the hip flexors (usually in the presence of weak glutes), upper spine, lat dorsi/shoulder internal rotators, pec minor, triceps and posterior shoulder capsule can all limit the scapular and shoulder positions required in this overhead posture. A great degree of pelvic, trunk, scapula and rotator cuff stabilisers are also essential to prevent injury. Shoulder instabilities and impingements, neck overload, and wrist impingements are not uncommon injuries in the weightlifting population (Raske & Norlin 2002).

As a last word, in olympic lifting, large forces are demanded to be moved through a rather unnatural body position and a great degree of mobility and strength are required to keep the sport safe. Understanding the peculiarities of olympic weightlifting and its physical demands assists successful teaching, performance and any injury management required. Accept that your body may not qualify for olympic lifts and even if it does, do you really need to train them? Consider the risk to benefit ratio. Most of us do not particularly need to practice the olympic lifts, they are not specific to any other sport besides Olympic Weightlifting and there are many ways to improve mobility, strength and power whilst avoiding these highly technical lifts requiring years of training to master. Ensure you seek out qualified coaches with experience in lifting, question their motives and keep striving for perfect technique over load quantity. Olympic lifts are not something you should  be doing for as many reps as you can in a set amount of time. Either learn perfect form and train appropriately or avoid the olympic lifts altogether.
To help you prepare for Olympic lifting, visit my online strength and conditioning.


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