Home Baseball Content Why Baseball Players Shouldn’t Olympic Lift

Why Baseball Players Shouldn’t Olympic Lift

Written on August 2, 2012 at 8:22 am, by Eric Cressey

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 for baseball players 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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  • Mike,

    I’d still consider it a higher risk exercise regardless in this population. I just don’t think you can overlook the catch component on an already excessively downwardly rotated scapula, which also pulls the clavicle down considerably (look at subclavius as the number one soft tissue restriction in throwers, and you’d adding repetitive microtrauma to it with each catch). I’d respectfully disagree with your contention that a catch on a power clean is no more stressful than a front squat, which is a far more controlled environment.

    Would it be as problematic as a snatch? Definitely not, as valgus stress at the elbow is largely eliminated and there isn’t as much concern for peel-back mechanism.

    And, to go back to one of the original points, I feel strongly that the transfer is much better with rotational power initiatives, although the Olympic lifts will certainly always have a place in athletes for whom throwing and jumping are important – minus the upper extremity issues we see in baseball players.

  • Good read Eric. Couldn’t agree more.

  • Thanks, John.

  • Eric,

    It is very refreshing to see that you are constantly evaluating how you train your athletes. The real contribution strength coaches provide is time. By that I mean that an athlete is able to compete at a higher level of output earlier in their career as a result of good strentgh and conditiong. Athletes have a limited amount of strength and conditioning time in a career, so all training must be evaluated from a risk/return perspective. Great strength and conditioning coaches job is to increase the level of fitness for the time devoted to this without injury. If an athlete is injured then all the great training adaptation is for naught. If you do not look at the risk in a training strategy it is no different than having a shot putter spend hours running on the track. It says alot about your skill if someone as experienced as you ,and you obviously like big lifts, is open to questioning what you are doing for your athletes.
    Oly lifts are great, but I have found that with risk and the time and attention it takes to teach efffectively, they are better in a University setting, but much harder to utilize in a commmercial environment. We have found some very effective alternatives that lower the risk and increase the possibiltiy for success with our athletes not only today, but throughout their careers. Great blog. thanks

  • Great post, Jacques; thanks for your contribution!

  • Cooters Towing

    If power development is plane specific why do you do med ball slams and tire/sledgehammer work?

  • Lat recruitment is incredibly high during acceleration in pitchers, so overhead stomps and sledgehammer work have a ton of carryover. The force is also applied down, not up.

  • Chase Kyriacou

    Eric,

    Do you think modifications to the olympic lifts are acceptable for baseball players

    Snatch
    -1 arm DB snatch
    -KB Snatch
    -Barbell Muscle snatch

    Clean
    DB clean and press
    KB clean and press/jerk

    I like using these peices of equipment with myself as i think these have really improved my athleticism on the baseball field. They feel better on my arm and im not constricted to one plane, like a barbell.

  • Chase,

    I don’t think highly of any of the clean and clean/press variations for baseball players. Some of the snatch variations are still a bit better, but I’d still rather see some aggressive medicine ball work there instead.

  • Chris Reed

    Eric I tore my bicep while doing the deadlift last year like in the video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wjq82nYPUeo I have started doing the Olympic lifts instead like clean pull and power clean. Should I go back to the deadlift and if so why?

  • james

    What are overhead stomps?

  • James – here’s an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyNfX-kksew

  • walter

    Go on to the top velocity website and call Brent Porceiu. You are completely wrong.

  • Thanks for setting me straight, Walter.  You’re right; I don’t know a damn thing.

  • Diego Sheish

    I’m sorry, but isn’t that injury caused by the weight? Why not try lower weight, higher reps? That solves the problem of an injury oustide of what could be prevented with good form.

  • Diego,

    Olympic lifts for higher reps are an even bigger recipe for disaster than heavy loading…

  • Hey Eric,
    Just stumbled upon this gem in my bookmarks from a while back. Great stuff in here– would you use any of the same alterations in training for other athletes with high demands of the wrist, shoulder, and elbow?
    Specifically, Basketball players, hockey players etc.? Or would you go with a case-by-base basis depending on the uniqueness of each athlete.

    Thanks,
    -Eric

  • Eric,

    I don’t think those populations warrant special modifications on this front, unless there is a considerable injury history. Thanks for the kind words!


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