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 daily. I have never once been injured due to these lifts in my 15 years of Olympic lifting.
But wait, people get injured in Olympic lifting all the time.
Athletes in other sports are just as likely to incur a back injury as Olympic lifters (1), knee injuries are typically repetitive and not traumatic, and most shoulder injuries can be prevented by skill and strength (3).
What have I done not to get injured while Olympic lifting competitively and actively for over 15 years?
I have three secrets, and I am going to share each of them with you.
Know your Body Weight
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 one repetition maximum.
During this initial learning phase, you can do snatch movements with up to 50% of your body weight and clean and related movements with up to 60% of your body weight.
So for a 200 lb athlete with 175 lbs of lean body weight (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 developing movement efficiency for the specific patterns we are concerned about. While many athletes will snicker at never going heavier than 50% of their body weight, this is the exact method I first used when training as a novice lifter. I also use this method to load lifts for most novice lifters in my care. The athlete starts every session with 30-50 reps with only a bar and completes the entire workout with 50% or less of their body weight.
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 six weeks of training. When the reins were taken off of me after six weeks of the bodyweight method. I PR’ed with a 185 lbs max; 6 weeks later still. And 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 in my training.
To be clear, you can get seriously strong using this method. I added 70 lbs to my max power clean without loading heavily for six weeks. I have never again added 70 lbs to my power clean 1RM in 12 weeks. 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 apparent that these athletes are STRONG!
It also becomes clear that these athletes possess great mobility; 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. Developing this mobility through correlated and analogous movements is the best way to develop the patterns needed to do them safely.
Ankles: Ankle mobility is at a premium at the ground level and again in the deep receiving position. Using typical ankle mobility drills, we always test this movement against the front squat, deadlift, and overhead squat to see if we make improvements. We specifically look at four areas in which mobility is at a premium:
Hips: Again, the deep squat position of the floor start and the receiving position require mobility at the hips, which most individuals lack. The typical daily patterns of sitting at a desk or in a car reduce hip flexion mobility, which 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 stress the lumbar spine greatly to get an 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. You must have a clear progression of both teachings and 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 right movement 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 with which individuals can learn these movements and loosely around the amount of mobility required to complete the movement, moving from least to most. This way, you can continue improving mobility until an athlete is prepared to complete the movement.
I have been fortunate not to suffer any injuries during 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 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 is broken down in a step-by-step fashion, check out http://completeolympiclifting.com/.