Q and A: Hypermobility and the Olympic Lifts

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Q: I’ve recently got into Olympic lifting, but my hamstrings are so flexible, I have no tension at the bottom and lose power. Also, my shoulders are unstable when I snatch and my wrists bend too far back when I push press, etc.

I’ve just purchased wrist straps, but I’m not sure what to do about my hamstrings in particular. Any tips or advice? Many thanks in advance for taking the time to read this!

– Paula

A: First off, let me just say that I think it’s awesome that you’ve taken a step outside your comfort zone and decided to take on the OLY lifts. It’s refreshing to see a female get after it and not fall into the Tracy Anderson “no woman should lift a weight over three lbs/excuse me while I vomit a little bit in my mouth” trap.

To that, Paula, I’m dedicating this slow clap to you:

With that out of the way, there’s a few things we need to highlight/discuss.

There’s obviously a lot of efficacy towards the OLY lifts as it relates to strength, power development, performance, and increasing one’s overall level of badassery. As a strength coach, I’d be remiss to state otherwise.

The first point I’d like to cover – for my own edification – is how “technique heavy” the OLY lifts are.  These aren’t just something that you decide to throw into the mix one day and all is butter fly kisses and rainbows. The OLY lifts are hard and often take years to master.

I don’t care how many articles someone reads or how many Youtube videos they watch, NOTHING will trump in-person coaching.

ESPECIALLY in this context.

To that end, I’m just going to assume that you’re under the watchful eye of an established OLY or weightlifting coach.  If not, please do yourself a favor and seek one out.

Secondly, and maybe most important of all, is the heart of your question: Do the OLY lifts and hypermobility mix?

At first glance you would probably think yes. I mean, if you watch many of the top lifters or someone who knows what they’re doing, it would seem that having all that mobility would be a good thing. How else to explain the crazy positions they’re able to get themselves into – with a shit-ton of weight above their head no less!

While there is a fair degree of natural selection going on in terms of having the ability to do those things, you also have to understand that these athletes are demonstrating an insane level of mobility AND stability, as dictated by the joint-by-joint school of thought.

For the amateur or weekend warrior, having excessive hypermobility may (not always) be more of a reason NOT to partake in the OLY lifts.

Of course, how can we even ascertain whether or not someone is hypermobile in the first place?  Are they in any way, shape, or form, affiliated with Cirque de Soleil?  If so, they’re hypermobile.

Kidding aside, one easy screen you can do is the Beighton Laxity Test.

1.  Do the fingers extend past the 90 degree angle to the dorsal aspect of the hand?

2.  Does the thumb contact the forearm with full flexion?

3.  Is there more than 10 degrees of hyperextension in the elbow?

4.  Is there more than 10 degrees of hyperextension in the knee?

5.  Can he or she lay their palms flat on the floor during the toe touch movement?

Generally speaking, if someone scores a 3/5 or higher on the screen, chances are they’re hypermobile.  Or, at the very least, it’s something that needs to be taken into consideration.

With this information on hand, we can make a better judgement call as to whether or not the OLY lifts would be a good fit.  Now, this isn’t to say that if someone tests very high on the Beighton Score that he or she needs to avoid Olympic lifting like a Justin Beiber concert.

I’m not saying that at all.

Rather, all I’m trying to convey is that certain precautions need to be taken into consideration.

1.  Avoid aggressive, uncontrolled ranges of motion during the warm-up.  Especially in the upper body.

2.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to perform a lot of yoga.  If you are: stop.

Well, let me back track that statement.  You can perform yoga, but I’d limit aggressive poses that place a premium on becoming a human pretzel.

3.  With your warm-ups, something to keep in the back of your mind is that closed-chain exercises will provide more stability.

4.  As far as strength training is concerned:  to reiterate, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you seek out a reputable coach, or someone who has experience with the OLY lifts.  Given the excessive ROMs elicited by the sport itself, not to mention how technique intensive it is, it only make sense.

Additionally, since you mentioned how you feel you lose power in the bottom position and that your hamstrings are very flexible, it probably wouldn’t hurt to hammer things like Romanian deadlifts, pull-throughs, glute ham raises, or anything that will help strengthen that area (single leg work included).

5.  It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to include more rhythmic stabilizations into the mix to help teach the joints to, well, stabilize.

6. Static stretching.  Don’t do it.  Seriously.  Stop.

Instead, I’d try to perform more low grade activation drills.  Think:  glute bridges, Forearm wall slides, bowler squats, t-push-ups, dwarf throwing, etc.

And that’s really about it.  Like I said, I think it’s fantastic that you’re pursuing the OLY lifts, but I think given your situation, some precautions need to be made.

In Summary:

1.  Get a coach (if you haven’t already).

2. Don’t go out of your way to perform a lot of static stretching.

3.  Strengthen the posterior chain (especially the hamstrings).  Also, be careful with front and back squats – hypermobility (when not addressed properly) can wreak havoc on the joints when squatting.

4.  Try to include more low grade activation drills and rhythmic stabilizations into your repertoire.

5.  Avoid exposure to Justin Beiber as much as humanly possible. Good luck with that.

If there are any coaches or people with more experience than myself on this particular topic, PLEASE, feel free to chime in.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Niel

    From my experience with Olympic lifting, women should focus on getting stronger and going through the movements correctly. With hypermobility I'd think Paula, or anyone else, would benefit from some tempo training and focus on slowing down eccentrics to 2-3 seconds and slightly higher reps to complement the fast and low reps of the sport.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply to this comment

    • Ellie

      In my experience with Olympic lifting, everyone should focus on getting stronger.

      May 31, 2012 at 5:37 am | Reply to this comment

      • Niel

        No doubt about that! I see men come into the sport with an abundance of strength but it doesn't translate well when their technique is lagging behind. Women on the other hand usually don't come in as strong but are more mobile and can get into the positions better. This is why I suggested higher rep and slower eccentric accessory work.

        May 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tim Enfield

    Speaking as a competitive weightlifter. Do a lot of work up front (like Tony says) working on single leg exercises to create a degree of structural stability. With excessively mobile hamstrings, and given the high incidence of medial collateral injuries in the sport, I'd be worried about the stability of the knee long term as a primary consideration. So, as Tony said work hamstrings( eccentrically) through natural glute ham raises and RDL's or seated good mornings with a slower tempo on lowering. In regards to shoulder stability, If you get a coach (in my opinion a necessity) , unfortunately, you're going to have a hard time convincing an old weightlifting coach that rhythmic stabilizations are worth his and your time. These coaches are invariably set in their ways and closed minded in that regard. Instead, spend some time drilling technique; muscle snatches from the hang, behind the neck snatch grip press and from an accessory lift standpoint do lots of drop snatches(or snatch balance) and work on your upper back musculature. Use wrist wraps if you like, but probably you'll find with practice that your wrist will adapt. And, furthermore, if your wrists hurt early on, you'll have more of an inclination to work with lighter weights on technique rather than pushing yourself too much, which is definitely a good thing. Thomas Ferer (I think that's how you spell it) wrote a good book recently on weightlifting, as well Carl Miller's book is a must have. Good luck, T

    May 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kennet Waale

    Dwarf throwing - you just cracked me up mate! Good post!

    May 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply to this comment

  • deansomerset

    I would agree with Tim above. A lot of the time olympic weightlifters are the most mobile SOB's on the planet, next to gymnasts and Cirque performers. The big difference is their level of joint stability and control through the terminal range of motion is off the charts, and not only can they get to the bottom of their squats but they can own that movement and power back up through it. I would throw in some low anderson clean grip squats to help build the ability to push through the bottom of the movement while having a safety in place, and also to reduce the impact of bouncing on the bottom of the movement altogether. T minus 2 days until the most epic Predator handshake of all time (next to the actual Predator handshake, that is).

    May 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Ellie

    I'm a weightlifter with EDS (Ehlers-Danlos) a genetic connective tissue disorder - I think one thing that's overlooked here is that hypermobility is quite individual specific - by that I mean that those suffering tend to have weaknesses in different joints and areas to others and therefore a personal approach with a detailed understanding of your personal weaknesses is important. See a hypermobility physiotherapist to assess your weaknesses - there'll be ones you didn't even know about (been there!) and get working on the hypermobile-specific physio exercises. I emphasise hypermobile-aware physios because physiotherapy for the non-hypermobile will be damaging to you. This will help no end with balancing your body for lifting.

    May 31, 2012 at 5:41 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tim Enfield

    I second the anderson style squats. Nice one Dean. 

    May 31, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply to this comment

  • ZZ

    As a female lifter I found the beginning of this response extremely patronising.

    May 19, 2014 at 4:59 am | Reply to this comment

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