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Improving Your Olympic Lifts

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Ray Gorman with Engage Movement Physio + Performance

When we enter the gym, it can be intimidating. No machines, explosive movements, rings, and open space. As the sport of fitness has progressed, more gyms are creating space dedicated to Olympic weightlifting; and as these spaces open up, traditional CrossFitters are making a shift to focus their attention to a sport that requires power and grace at the exact same time.

As a Physical Therapist who specializes in treating CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifters, the question I often get: How do I improve my positioning?

If you have experience with Olympic lifting, you know the struggle each session can be. One day the stars are aligning, you feel like a Gold medalist (Feeling is all relative!). Then you come back into the gym for your next training session, and it’s like you’re learning all over. Let’s breakdown from a PT perspective what might be limiting your performance or position.

  1. Flexibility – For sake of definition, let’s call this passive range.  Movement starts at a base of prerequisite needs: Our bodies need to first have adequate range of motion available to attain a good position in the bottom of an overhead squat. Ideally, I like to see athletes have at least 4 inches of dorsiflexion. Positioning starts at the base, as a limitation at the ankle will have an effect on where the shoulders are, often this limitation results in a forward lean of the trunk. Other areas for concern are the knee (not usually, but possible), the hip, thoracic spine, and shoulders.
  2. Stability – Let’s define stability as active range, or how well can your brain control your available range. Stability issues often manifest as “tightness” in the hips. This is due to difficulty with controlling all the moving parts and an inability for a good balanced position to allow the hips and pelvis to drop below parallel. Now for the sake of discussion, it’s important to note that “tightness” is a sensation, it doesn’t necessarily mean a joint or tissue is short range of motion. Stability issues aren’t just present in novice lifters, I’ve had the pleasure of working with elite level athletes who love to bypass stability requirements with speed. For example, an athlete who drops to the bottom of a squat to avoid controlling the range during the lowering phase. Areas that are susceptible to stability issues are the shoulders and thoracic spine. The squat pattern is of the most notably affected. 

If you combine these two terms together, you get movement!

The next two topics I want to discuss are patience and practice:

It’s not uncommon for lifters in other countries to begin their training at a single digit age. They dedicate their lives in the gym, hours… years! But most importantly, they master the basics. For instance, if you can’t perform an overhead squat easily, how can you expect to throw a weight up in the air and catch it in an overhead squat? A miracle!? It doesn’t work that way. You need to FEEL movement, good and bad. You need to be comfortable making small adjustments at the bottom of a lift where one small movement in the wrong direction could result in a miss. As an athlete, you need to respect your coach for drilling position after position to allow the complete picture to come together. Some of my favorite drills that are underutilized are pause OHS and snatch balance variations.

So, what can you do to get better?

  1. Properly identify the problem. Don’t scour the internet looking for the easy road; you’re just going to waste time and energy. Talk to your coach, and if you can’t find a solution, seek out a provider who is familiar with your sport and the movement demands. (I think I know a guy…)
  2. Be patient. Don’t just show up on snatch and C&J day, show up and do the grunt work. Do the SKILL work. It all translates into your big picture goal. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
  3. Be intentional. In everything you do. Come in and lift with a purpose. Learn something every time you step foot in the gym.
  4. Deload. Yes, I said deload. Give yourself a break mentally and physically. Plateaus are a classic sign of overtraining. Sit down with your coach and review how the last 2 cycles have gone. Don’t be resistant to change

Have fun when you lift. Train to be better at life. Stay healthy! Hit PRs! That’s what it’s all about!

Please feel free to reach out and ask question, I love interacting with the community and talking all things training and movement!

Dr. Ray Gorman PT, DPT, SFMA
Engage MVMT Physio + Performance