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Olympic Weightlifting: Worth the risk to your surfing? Photo: Wade Adams Photography.


The Inertia

Surfers don’t particularly need to practice Olympic lifts. When performed correctly, though, Olympic lifting is an ultimate combination of mobility and stability.

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 centers. The belief is that these movements will improve the surf athlete’s strength, speed, and power all in one efficient “bang-for-your-buck” fashion.

Outside of the surf community, the rise in popularity of CrossFit has made Olympic lifts a more common practice in gyms and training regiments for all athletes, and that in turn has given physical therapists the chance to understand their mechanics and how they impact the body. 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 – all things that translate to surfing performance.

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. Therefore, many strength and conditioning coaches have traditionally used the Olympic lifts and their derivatives to develop an athlete’s power output.

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Injuries and Weightlifting

Injuries to the lower back, knees, and shoulders are the most common, however, there is a relatively low injury rate within the professional levels of Olympic Weight lifting when compared to other sports at the elite level. The elites have excellent technique, which of course greatly reduces the chance of training injuries. Today the majority of lifting/CrossFit is not practiced at the elite level. Just search “CrossFit fails” on Youtube and you’ll understand.

Components of the Lifts to Consider

1. Pulling

The goal is to generate power to lift the bar up just enough to drop your body under the bar, moving 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.

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-limited flexibility of the hamstrings, glutes, external hip rotators, and 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. There’s a great deal of flexibility, mobility, strength, and control required here.

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Symmetry is really important for the squat technique. Contralateral (left to right) deficits in strength, power, endurance, flexibility or mobility may lead to overload on one side of the body. An example of this would be 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 patellar tendinopathy, and knee joint/meniscal injuries are all potential consequences that 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.

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-caving in of the knees can cause loading stress on the inner knee, which is commonly associated with poor ankle mobility and hip range/strength deficits.

3. Overhead Position

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, scapular 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 stabilizers are also essential to prevent injury. Shoulder instabilities and impingements, neck overload, and wrist impingements are not uncommon injuries in the weightlifting population.

As a last word, Olympic lifting requires large forces to be moved through a rather unnatural body position. A great degree of mobility and strength are required to keep the sport safe, meaning attention to detail is important. Understanding the peculiarities of Olympic Weightlifting and its physical demands assist successful teaching, performance, and managing injuries. Accept that your body just may not qualify for Olympic lifts, and even if it does you should ask yourself if you really need them in your training repertoire. Consider the risk to benefit ratio. Olympic weightlifting movements are not specific to surfing and there are many other ways to improve mobility, strength, and power without including these highly technical lifts that require years of training to master. If you do take up Olympic Weightlifting, make sure you seek out qualified coaches with experience in lifting. When training, strive 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.

Note: You can find me and my online coaching at surf strength and conditioning.

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