The beauty of the Olympic lifts is that they require a comprehensive set of athletic abilities. To even make a successful lift requires a great degree of skill, balance and mobility. Mobility is a term used to describe the movement of joints. It is influenced by the flexibility of the surrounding muscles and tendons, joint capsule shape and neural control of muscles (Atha & Wheatley, 1976). In the Olympic lifts, mobility is required to get into a good starting position, make a successful, efficient catch and to succeed in both overhead movements.
Ankle mobility is crucial for achieving the upright torso position necessary to catch the weight while at the bottom of the lift. Greater ankle mobility allows the knees to shift further forward at the bottom of the catch. This results in the hips being pulled anteriorly, meaning a more upright torso position must be maintained to balance. The further the knees can move forward, the more upright position can be obtained at lower depths, allowing the weight to be successfully caught lower and not pulled as far, permitting greater weight to be lifted. The large heel on weightlifting shoes is designed to shift the ankle’s range of motion (RoM) forwards, allowing greater movement of the knee than would be possible without the shoes. The most commonly used stretch to improve ankle joint mobility involves squatting down and resting a barbell on the knees. Glenn Pendlay and Jon North give a full description and demonstration .
Hip mobility is important for a number of reasons, it allows the athlete to move lower into the bottom of the squat to catch a clean or snatch, achieve a more desirable starting position, and even produce more power from the hips. The hip flexors, more specifically the psoas group are often tight; mainly due to the amount of sitting we do day-to-day. Tight hip flexors can lead to lordotic posture and lower back pain, and from a weightlifting perspective they can limit the hips coming through during the second pull. Though difficult to palpate, there are methods of performing self-myofascial release on it which is proven to increase RoM without any decrease in muscle performance (MacDonald et al., 2013). Using the old favourite the lacrosse ball, Ernie Hernandez demonstrates.
These hip flexor stretches can either be performed with the leg elevated or down.
This squat specific stretch is great for improving the starting position of the lift and bottom position of the squat. It involves squatting down as far as you can then pushing your knees out with your elbows and for team bonding points, have a partner push down your lower back to force yourself lower into the position.
Getting the knees out the way at the bottom of the clean or snatch is vital for hitting maximum depth by allowing the body into the gap so the torso can remain upright. Kelly Starrett demonstrates easy to perform non-specific hip mobility exercises to open up the hips, focusing on individual weaknesses. I must admit, when I first saw these I felt they lacked a bit of substance and didn’t seem too safe, but having given them a go, I’m a fan. The beauty is in their simplicity. They basically involve putting the hip through its extreme ranges of motion and targeting whatever the limiting factor is there for preventing it going further.
Pressing directly overhead is often mistakenly assumed to be easy. Most individuals lack the mobility and end up pressing slightly anteriorly, adopting lordotic posture to compensate. Ironically, prior to its removal from weightlifting in 1972, the clean and press involved a clean usually followed by some sort of contortionist incline press, rather than directly pressing it overhead.
The logic behind this being; the pectoral muscles are stronger than the deltoids. It is thought to have been responsible for many cases of lower back injury while weightlifting, such as stress fractures of the vertebrae which is termed “Spondylolysis”, this can lead to potentially further injury such as nerve damage (Calhoon & Fry, 1999; Debnath et al., 2003). Pressing directly overhead as well as being more comfortable and safer, is also a far more stable position as the spine is being loaded from directly above. The demands of upper body mobility during the Olympic lifts mainly revolve around freeing up the shoulder, especially the scapula.
If we consider the Kelly Starretts hip mobility sequence an all-round mobility drill for the hip, then that’s what shoulder dislocates are for the shoulder. Don’t worry, they aren’t as sinister as there name suggests. Take a broom handle or light bar and keeping your shoulders shrugged and arms straight, move it from in front of your body, over your head to touch your lower back. Moving your hands closer together the more flexible you become. You should be aiming for, at the very least, your snatch grip.
Once you can easily perform shoulder dislocations with your snatch grip you can put this into practice by performing overhead squats. Once you’re comfortable with OH squats and are getting greater mobility with your shoulder dislocations give the Sott’s press a go. Drop down into the bottom of an OH squat and press the bar overhead with your usual snatch grip. It’s a great test of your scapula stability as well as mobility.
Self-myofascial release is effective in the trapezius, rhomboids, lats, teres group and pectoralis minor for allowing greater scapula and overall shoulder mobility. Again, the lacrosse ball can prove effective at this. Try working through the range of motion of the joint as you focus on tender parts of the muscle.
Anything that gently and gradually forces the joint into the position it needs to work in will improve its mobility. This is the simplicity that features in all Kelly Starrett’s exercises. Here, he details another method of forcing the humerus into the positions needed to press overhead using a band.
Those starting weightlifting usually have trouble getting into the rack position. It requires enough wrist flexibility to get your hands around the bar while still resting on your deltoids. Any static wrist stretch will help this, as well as this intimate little stretch you can perform with a partner demonstrated tenderly by the guys at Cal Strength.
There it is; your complete guide to mobility to Olympic Weightlifting. Hopefully, using the techniques I’ve discussed you’ll be limber enough in no time to get the most out of your weightlifting, whether it be getting you mobile enough to complete the lifts in the first place or giving you an extra few inches lower in the squat. Remember with increased mobility comes greater need for stability so keep strengthening those traps and rhomboids, especially.
Weighted ankle stretch
Myofascial release of psoas group
Hip flexor stretch
Squat specific stretch
Hip mobility sequence
OH squats/ Sott’s press
Myofascial release of traps, rhomboids, lats, teres group and pec minor
OH position of humerus with band
Wrist stretch/ rack position stretch
Perform each movement for at least 2 minutes, and try to do these at least every few days to get the most out of them.
How did you get on with this? What improvements would you make?
For more information on stretching check out this video on “The Complete Guide to Stretching: Muscle and Strength Gain”
Atha, J., & Wheatley, D. W. (1976). Joint mobility changes due to low frequency vibration and stretching exercise. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 10, 26-34.
Calhoon, G., & Fry, A. C. (1999). Injury Rates and Profiles of Elite Competitive Weightlifters. Journal of Athletic Training, 34, 232-238.
Debnath, U. K., Freeman, B. J., Gregory, P., de la Harpe, D., Kerslake, R. W., & Webb, J. K. (2003). Clinical outcome and return to sport after the surgical treatment of spondylolysis in young athletes. The Bone & Joint Journal, 85, 244-249.
MacDonald, G. Z., Penney, M. D., Mullaley, M. E., Cuconato, A. L., Drake, C. D., Behm, D. G., et al. (2013). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27, 812-821.