With any sport, weightlifting regiment, or exercise routine there are "common issues." Olympic lifting is not immune to this reality. With consistent training comes consistent adaptations. The adaptations we are trying to achieve are strength, power, movement competency, and oly lift skills. The adaptations we are not seeking are reduced range of motion, overuse injuries, and painful movement patterns.
In this blog we will cover the "common issues" of olympic lifting as well as easy to perform techniques that improve range of motion and reduce the body's need for painful movement patterns. Because we are not able to test out exactly what you need as an individual and have no opportunity to systematically identify the changes we are seeking and modify accordingly, we will use a shotgun approach that hits all areas of the body.
Let's begin with a quick overview of how the body works, as it pertains to Olympic Lifting. If you have two feet on the ground, parallel to one another, the body has two primary options for movement. Flexion and extension. There is some ability for side to side motion as well as some rotation, but we are truly primed to move our body forward or backward with our feet parallel underneath us. Squats, deadlifts, and strict press are all perfect examples of what happens when there are two feet parallel on the ground.
Given our primary options of flexion and extension, we add in the variable of weight. The barbell poses a challenge to our system. From our feet to the top of our head, our body has to do something about that barbell. If it's in the front rack, we have to hold it up to keep from dropping it in front of us. If it's on our back, we have to keep it up from crushing us forward into the ground. If we put it up overhead, we have to keep it from dropping it forward and keep it from taking us over backward.
Since we are all human, there is generally a best movement pattern that can be used to support the barbell and you likely have heard all the cues that support that movement. For the front squat, "elbows up," "knees out," "eyes up," "stand up." These cues activate our body's extension nervous and muscle systems to keep the barbell from pulling us aggressively down into flexion. Extension is our friend when holding a barbell in the front rack. But 100% extension is standing up on your tip toes and we don't really spend a lot of time in that position. Therefore, there needs to be some flexion, just enough, to allow us to sink into a squat without losing our tension and collapsing under the bar.
Flexion allows us to sit back into our hips (hip hinge), bend our knees, push our shins forward over our feet (dorsiflexion) and enter a tensed squat. The more ankle flexion, knee flexion and hip flexion we have, the less we will need to get it from the spine. This is an important concept but it is not everything. Yes, work on your ankle mobility. Yes, work on your hip mobility. But don't forget like so many have before you, that your whole body is connected.
If your ankle ares stiff. Your hips are tight. And your back seems to do everything for your life. Then your rib cage needs to be addressed as well. This is what I want to stress to you in this blog. You need to have a mobile rib cage in order to be able to balance flexion and extension during Olympic Lifts.
Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.
Ankle Dorsiflexion ROM
-Get your knee to move past your toes with your heel on the ground and you're good.
Knee Flexion Range of Motion
-This isn't a ton of knee flexion. In fact, this exercise is really aimed at your pelvis, but it's vital that your hamstring strength can rival your quads. Otherwise, you won't be able to balance hip flexion/extension.
Hip Flexion Range of Motion
-Don't let it pinch, try to let your hip flexors relax and really hold your knee up there with your hands.
-Elevated only if your have anterior hip impingement. Otherwise keep it light, feel the hip flexion, use your heels to find your hamstrings.
These exercises should be pretty self explanatory, but now we are going to get into what is commonly over looked.
Rib Cage Mobility
Here we will jump into the least well understood and probably the most important factor for achieving balance between flexion and extension during olympic lifting movements. Yes, you should work on thoracic extension. But you should also work on thoracic flexion. Thoracic flexion allows your ribs to make it down to your belly. With your ribs down in your belly, you can begin the extend at the thorax without over extending the lumbar spine.
Thoracic Flexion/Posterior Rib Cage Mobility
-Exhale completely. Feel your ribs tuck up into your stomach.
Thoracic Extension/Anterior Rib Cage Mobility
-Exhale your ribs down, when you inhale, feel your rib cage expand in the upper chest.
Lateral Ribcage Mobility
-Ribs down, hands ups, turned out. When your breathe in, you should feel your rib cage expand like a balloon, 360 degrees of expansion.
Beast. Now after you've gone through this regiment you should recognize some areas are more restricted than others. The areas that are more restricted will bias your body toward extension because extension is safe, stable, and immobile. Trying to move through immobile extension tends to hurt. So if you are in pain, find the limitation contributing to that pain. In contraire flexion is mobile, and therefore inherently less stable. By identifying and eliminating (over time) limitation in your ankles, knees, hips, and rib cage, you will be able to handle the symmetrical (feet parallel) demands of olympic lifting. This is true for front squats, back squats, overhead squats, strict press, push, jerks and even body building exercises.
To summarize, establishing balance between flexion and extension will allow your body to move through a greater range of motion with less pain. Balance between flexion and extension does this because your stable extensor pattern won't be restricting motion that you force yourself through. Better balance means less quad related knee pain, less low back pain, less upper trap and anterior shoulder pain. Also, it means more fluid movement with greater chance for progress.
If you have questions, ask. If you need help, get it. Don't however, complain that something hurts and do nothing about it.