Well Balanced Shoulders for Weightlifting


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The sport of Olympic Weightlifting consists of two competitive lifts; the snatch and the clean and jerk. In order to be successful in these multi-joint whole-body lifts, the athlete must achieve dynamic strength and peak power at some of the highest absolute levels. It doesn’t take a coach’s eye to take note of the demand placed on the shoulders to execute these movements. Weightlifting programs vary among countries and coaches, but a common characteristic is the frequency of high-intensity resistance exercise movements (2). As a coach or an athlete, monitoring the training variables is extremely important- especially for total volume.


Due to the repetitive nature in training and movement, there is always a concern for chronic injuries. A common misconception driving people to become reluctant to try weightlifting is the risk of sustaining an acute injury. Everyone sees the dynamic aggression of the lifts and the rapid velocity of the bar flying overhead prompting them to shy away. The reality is that if coached correctly and given the appropriate training considerations based on a thorough assessment, there isn’t any more or less risk assumption than any other lift (i.e. bench press/back squat). This is supported in a study conducted by (1), who found that the risk of sustaining acute injury in weightlifting is no greater than other traditional contact sports. This does not, however, speak to the risks for chronic injury manifestations.

In Olympic weightlifting, there is a lot happening in the shoulder complex in each of the lifts. During the third pull of both the snatch and the clean, we are seeing internal rotation and abduction at the GH joint. In the catch position of the clean, we are looking at slight protraction and downward rotation of the scapula and external rotation at the GH joint. And in the overhead position of the snatch and the jerk, there is flexion, external rotation, and abduction at the glenohumeral joint and retraction and upward rotation at the scapula, as well as stabilization once the bar is overhead.

Based on an athlete’s assessment, determining whether an athlete needs more mobility or stability work is a foundational step to establishing their weightlifting technique. The caveat to this is that everyone needs a little bit of everything, but we do want to emphasize certain aspects based on what the athlete shows us. USAW (USA Weightlifting) has a basic assessment to take athletes through before they begin. It is not the only assessment that should be used when evaluating an athlete’s movement sequence, but it’s a good place to start in regard to the Olympic lifts. The USAW screen focuses on proper positions needed for weightlifting, including an overhead press, front rack position, overhead squat, and snatch deadlift position (shown below). Whether an athlete can get into these positions and how they do so will determine the warm-up (movement prep) and accessory protocol that we will program.

Olympic weightlifting is a gentle balance of mobility and stability. When you have athletes that are extremely lax in their tendons and joints, then we need to counteract that and develop more stability and vice versa. Weightlifting is often viewed as archaic in its programming and training ideologies. Older coaches believe that if you want to get better at snatch and clean and jerk, then you have to snatch and clean and herk. Although this is obviously true, there are other things that can be done to help facilitate good movement patterns and allow the athlete a better opportunity to understand and improve their technique when things are working properly and moving efficiently. If something is efficient than it is effective, and the body’s kinematics are no different.

It is my firm belief that weightlifters should be held to the same standard as any other athlete involved in traditional sports. Weightlifters are athletes, no one would deny that, however, unlike football and basketball players who spend time at sport-specific practices and weight room training, weightlifters are only found in the weight room. Our “sport-specific” training should be a combination of the Olympic lifts and their derivatives to improve strength and technique as well as more traditional strength training, including the main lifts of squats and deadlifts. Where I feel a lot of people have missed the boat are those “accessory” movements. There is a lack of interest in the small details of lifting, but I believe this is where the game can be changed to help build stronger and overall healthier lifters.


Athletes complain that they have already spent so much time in the gym that they will skip out on their accessory work, but I would argue that based on an athlete’s capabilities these are some of the most crucial parts of their training. So, in an effort to guide my athletes I have begun adding in some more non-traditional movement prep as part of their warm-up. This challenges the athlete to move in different ways outside of the snatch and clean and jerk while still focusing on the biomechanical goals of the lifts and needs of the athlete. Below are some of my go-to warm-up and movement prep exercises I use based on whether an athlete needs more stability or mobility in the shoulder.

Mobility

Band OH Press

Band Y-Raise

Band Ext. Rotation to Press

Band OH Pull-apart


Stability

DB Roll to Press

½ Kneel B.U. KB Press

Bear Crawl w/ Mini Band (wrist)

KB Windmill


It can be argued that each of these categories can be interchangeable and I would certainly agree. In essence, you’re never really training mobility without training stability and vice versa. Since these movements are often incorporated more in the warm-up than at the end, it is important for the athlete to understand the intent behind the exercise. That includes whether the emphasis for them is on the mobility or stability side for them as well as how this will correlate to weightlifting. These exercises do no good if the athlete is just going through the motions in order to jump on the platform. I find that by simply connecting the dots, the athlete immediately changes their mindset during the exercises.

For example, if we are doing a band y-raise, we want to focus on keep the ribs closed and the spine neutral as the shoulders flex overhead. Why? Well as coaches we know this is the most efficient and proper way to get the shoulders to do their job and not allow for other muscles to compensate and contribute to extra ranges of motion that the athlete isn’t capable of, but athletes don’t always care about that. What they do care about is the ability to improve that overhead flexion while keeping the ribs closed, because that is going to improve the catch position of their snatch. Remember, these warm-up movements don’t need to be overly technical, they just need to be efficient and intentional. The more the movements can mirror the proper overhead angles seen in the snatch the more beneficial the carryover will be to the lifts.

This prescription of warm-up and movement preparation does not replace an empty bar warm-up, this is in addition to that. Having the athlete begin with an empty bar is something I believe is vital to a warm-up, but that is for a whole other slew of reasons and will be saved for another article. These movements are to simply provide an outlet for the athlete to work on some of their limitations within the shoulder that play a major role in the lifts. It can also be an opportunity to take the athlete out of their comfort zone and allow them to work through various ranges of motion and movement planes around the joint. The goal is overall shoulder health. The healthier the shoulder complex, the less susceptible it will be to unforeseen movement errors. Weightlifting is repetitive in nature and if the athlete only trains with that one mindset than they are missing the boat on overall health and the ability to prevent overuse injuries.


References

  1. Aasa U, Svartholm I, Andersson F., 2017. Injuries among weightlifters and powerlifters: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine,51:211-219.

  2. Storey, A., Smith, H.K., 2012. Unique aspects of competitive weightlifting. Sports Med 42, 769–790. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03262294

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