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Why Baseball Players Shouldn’t Olympic Lift

Posted Aug 02 2012 10:22am
I've been very outspoken in the past about how I am completely against the inclusion of Olympic lifts in baseball strength and conditioning programs because of injury risk and the fact that I don't believe the carryover in power development is as good as many folks think.  I've taken a lot of heat for it, too, as it's essentially blasphemy for a strength and conditioning coach to not think the Olympic lifts are a "Holy Grail" of performance enhancement.

Truth be told, I think there is merit to the Olympic lifts for a lot of athletes and general fitness folks.  However, baseball players aren't like most athletes or general fitness folks.  They have far more joint laxity, and it's a key trait that helps to make them successful in their sport.  While I hate to ever bring additional attention to an extremely unfortunately event, a weightlifting injury that occurs in this year's Olympics reminded me of just one reason why I don't include the Olympic lifts with our throwers.  Please keep in mind that while this isn't the most "gruesome" lifting injury video you'll see, some folks might find it disturbing (if you want to see the more gruesome "after" photo, read this article ).  If you're one of those folks, don't push play (Cliff's notes: he dislocates his elbow).

Now, without knowing for sure what the official diagnosis is, an elbow dislocation could mean two things.  First, it could have been elbow hyperextension; I doubt that's the case, as the elbow appears to be slightly flexed when it "buckles."  Second - and more likely - we're talking about a valgus stress injury; not the joint angle below, which is approximately 20-30 degrees of elbow flexion:

You know what's remarkably coincidental about that elbow flexion angle?  It's where you do a valgus stress test to assess the integrity of the ulnar collateral ligament.

I don't know for sure if Sa Jae-hyouk is going to have a Tommy John surgery, but I can't say that I would be surprised if it does occur.  And, he certainly wouldn't be the first Olympic lifter to have one.

Now, I want to bring up a few important items.

1. I think this essentially kills the "they're safe if it's in good form" argument that some folks throw out there.  For those who might not know, this was a gold medalist in Beijing in 2008, and he was expected to medal at this year's Olympics, too.  I suspect he knows a few things about proper Olympic lifting technique.

2. According to research from Bigliani et al , 61% of pitchers and 47% of position players at the professional levels had sulcus signs (measure of instability) in their throwing shoulders.  And, 89% of the pitchers and 100% of the position players ALSO had it in their non-throwing shoulders, meaning that this is the way that they were born, not just something they acquired from throwing. I've never met an accomplished male Olympic lifter with a sulcus sign, though, which tells me that laxity is virtually non-existent in this athletic population, particularly in comparison with baseball players.  We need to fit the exercises to the athlete, not the athlete to the exercises.  

3. The obvious next question for most folks is "what about cleans and high pulls?" With cleans, the wrist and elbow stresses are even more problematic than with snatches, and there is also the issue of direct trauma to the acromioclavicular joint on the catch phase.  Plus, when folks hang clean, the distraction forces on the lowering component of the lift (assuming no drop) can be a big issue in "loose" shoulders and elbows.  High pulls are a bit better, but all of the aggressive shrugging under load with minimal scapular upward rotation can really interfere with the improvements to scapular stability that we're trying to make with our overhead throwing athletes.

4. For those curious about what I meant with respect to the power carryover from linear modalities (like Olympic lifts) not being great to rotational sports, check out this recently published research study from Lehman et al . You'll see that it backs up what I'd proposed from my anecdotal experience back in 2010 ; that is, power development is very plane specific.  Get to doing your med ball work!

This is one case where the injury prevention battle isn't just about adding the right exercises; it's about taking some away, too.  

With all that said, I hope you'll join me in keeping Sa Jae-hyouk in your thoughts and send him good vibes for a speedy recovery and quick return to competition.

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