I am an unabashed lover of the Olympic lifts. I would do them no matter what. Even if I were to have wrecked my back, knees, shoulders, and elbows doing them, I would continue to do them. The relentless pursuit of improved technique drives me on a daily basis. That all being said, in my 15 years of Olympic lifting, I have never once incurred an injury due to these lifts.
But wait, people get injured Olympic lifting all the time, right?
Well the truth is they do not; in fact, Olympic lifters are no more likely to incur a back injury than athletes in other sports (1), knee injuries are typically repetitive and not traumatic in nature, and most shoulder injuries can be prevented by skill and strength (3), but I digress.
What is my secret to not getting injured while Olympic lifting competitively and actively for over 15 years?
I actually have 3 secrets and I am going to share each of them with you.
Know your bodyweight.
When first learning the lifts it is important to use appropriate weights. The easiest way to select weights is not based on some perceived personal record or 1 repetition maximum.
During this initial phase of learning, the snatch movements can be done with up to 50% of your bodyweight, and the clean and related movements can be done with up to 60% of bodyweight.
So for a 200 lb athlete with 175 lbs of lean bodyweight (12.5% BF) we would use the following loads:
Snatch and related lifts: 70-87.5 lbs
Clean and related lifts: 87.5-105 lbs
This method allows athletes to spend a significant amount of time on developing movement efficiency of the specific patterns about which we are concerned. While many athletes will snicker at the notion of never going heavier than 50% of their own bodyweight, this is the exact method that I first used when training as a novice lifter. This is also the method that I use to load lifts for most novice lifters in my care. Every session is started with 30-50 reps with only a bar and the entire workout is completed with 50% or less of the athlete’s bodyweight.
At the age of 15, in my first Olympic lifting experience I came in with an ugly PR of 165 lbs and began using the bodyweight method for the first 6 weeks of training. When the reins were taken off of me after 6 weeks of the bodyweight method, I PR’ed with a 185 lbs max; 6 weeks later still, I set a new personal record again with a 250 lbs max.
Using this method established my movement patterns at a high level of efficiency. This means that I had established some seriously good habits, and didn’t have to go through growing pains later on in my training.
To be clear, you can get seriously strong using this method as well. I added 70 lbs to my max power clean without loading heavily for 6 weeks. I have never again added 70 lbs to my power clean 1RM in a 12 week span. Pretty good for only basing my weights used off of my lean body weight.
Develop great mobility
The Olympic lifts require great strength, that much is clear. Certainly, no one could argue against that – watch any of the best lifters in the world and it will be very apparent that these athletes are absolutely STRONG!
What also becomes clear is that these athletes possess great mobility as well; I don’t think that you would see anything less than a score of 3 from all of them in the FMS deep squat test.
The Olympic lifts require mobility in specific areas, and developing this mobility through a combination of correlated and analogous movements is the best way to develop the patterns needed to do them safely.
We specifically look at 4 areas in which mobility is at a premium:
Ankles: At the ground level and again in the deep receiving position ankle mobility is at a premium. Using typical ankle mobility drills, we always test this movement against the front squat, deadlift, and overhead squat to see if we make improvements.
Hips: Again the deep squat position of the floor start and the receiving position require mobility at the hips, which most individuals are lacking. The typical daily patterns of sitting at a desk or in a car reduce hip flexion mobility, and restoring this is an important part of getting individuals in the right positions.
Train to gain more mobility through SMR and mobilization at the hip in both flexion and hip external rotation, then test this movement vs. the pattern that needs to be improved.
Thoracic spine: Extension of the T-spine is an obvious part of the overhead receiving position in the snatch, but it is also a great requirement in the start position at the floor, during the second pull, and again in the receiving position in the clean. Limitations in T-spine mobility will put a great stress on the lumbar spine to get extension that it isn’t designed to maintain under loads.
Shoulder External Rotation: Difficulty in receiving the bar at the chest level leads most to look at the wrist as an area of restriction, but the culprit is typically higher up the chain, at the elbow or shoulder. Improving external rotation at the shoulder through targeted mobility will lead to a better racked position.
Have a clear progression
My final piece to make Olympic lifts safe is to have a clear progression. In fact you must have a clear progression of both teaching, and of movements.
A clear teaching progression will allow you to equip your clients with the appropriate movements at the appropriate times. You will never be at a loss for what a client should be learning at any specific time, and they will always be learning the movement that is right for them.
A clear progression of movement allows you to expand an individual’s program to fit their needs. In this sense having a hierarchy of movements is important. My hierarchy goes like this:
- Hang power clean
- Power jerk
- Power clean
- Split jerk
- Hang power snatch
- Power snatch
- Squat clean
- Squat snatch
This hierarchy is based on the ease which individuals can learn these movements and loosely around the amount of mobility required to complete the movement, moving from least to most. In this way, you are able to continue to improve mobility until an athlete is prepared to complete the movement.
I have been fortunate to not suffer any injuries while Olympic lifting over the past 15 years. Not “lucky” but fortunate to be a part of programs with clear progressions, logical loading patterns, and great teachers with great progressions. This combination has allowed me to stay healthy, and constantly strive to become a more powerful athlete.
If you would like to know about how I assess an athlete to see if they are prepared for Olympic lifting, the movements that are a requirement before beginning Olympic lifts, and my exact teaching progression broken down in a step by step fashion, check out http://completeolympiclifting.com/
1. Calhoon G, Fry AC. Weight-Training injuries: common injuries and preventative methods. J of Ath Training. 1999;34(3):232-238.
2. Stone MH, Fry AC, Ritchie M, Stoessel-Ross L, Marsit JL. Injury potential and safety aspects of weightlifting movements. Strength Condition. 1994;19:15-21.
3. Risser WL. Musculoskeletal injuries caused by weight training: guidelines for prevention. ClinPediatr (Phila). 1990;29:305-310.