Baseball and the Olympic Lifts
By Zach Dechant, CSCS, USAW, SCCS
One of the more frequent questions that I get from athletes, coaches and parents is do I recommend Olympic lifts for baseball players? Olympic lifts were a staple during my athletic and early coaching career. I even trained as an Olympic lifter using the Bulgarian and Russian systems several years ago. While I loved the Olympic lifts, I don’t believe they are right for my baseball athletes. The clean, snatch, and their variations are just a tool among many, and not an essential piece of the training program for any athlete. All lifts in the weight room are general in nature. No lift is absolutely necessary or specific to any team sport. Many people believe the back squat is the king of the lower body and the only way to train. We haven’t used a back squat in half a decade. Yes, we have beliefs and opinions about movements we want to incorporate, but I understand that there is no one single necessary exercise. We pick and choose exercises based upon athlete need, movement patterns, preventative measures against injury, etc. We are not married to any weight room exercise. There are no necessary lifts and the Olympic variations, in my opinion, are no different.
HIGHLY TECHNICAL. The Olympic lifts themselves require a great amount of technical work. This is good and bad when it comes to baseball athletes. Baseball, unlike football, at the high school level doesn’t always have a development program in place, so many times baseball athletes have never done a clean or snatch. A clean slate in many ways is the best option when it comes to learning a new lift. That being said it takes a considerable amount of time to groove the proper movement pattern of such a complex lift. On the flip side, athletes that have done the lifts for years with major technical flaws become virtually impossible to reteach a broken pattern. The nervous system is grooved through many hours good or bad. When it’s bad it doesn’t wash away easily. Technique is something that can take weeks, months, even years develop properly. The technical nature of the lifts requires ample practice to get the full benefits. Athletes that spend months in learning mode are spinning their wheels of development. We could take multiple other means and be developing explosive qualities during those months of trying to learn a competent clean.
What we commonly see called a power clean ends up being a rounded back, reverse curl, into a hyperextended, sumo squat catch. Many athletes never achieve real triple extension through the hips. Powerful hip extension is the primary benefit of the movement. Often hips shoot up before the spine moves and all stress moves from where it should be to where it shouldn’t. The legs and hips are no longer the emphasis as the lower back tries to make up the difference. On the catch, knees shoot out in front of the toes, with feet wide in what looks like a limbo contest trying to lay back under the bar. What it ultimately comes down to in the technical aspect is coaching, and time. Can these lifts be safe and beneficial? Absolutely. Often coaches don’t have the patience to wait technique out. And when this is the case there is too much room for error in my opinion. In the quest for numbers technique gets glossed over quickly.
POWER DEVELOPMENT. The biggest claim to utilizing the Olympic lifts are the development of power. Power gains often take long periods due to inefficient technique, as well as lack of significant loading, as mentioned above. Any lift can be performed explosively. Especially by more advanced athletes that use velocity-based training mean. Power isn’t developed only with cleans and snatches. The clean commonly moves at 1.2+ m/sec. Jumps, medball throws, sled pushes, resisted towing, and sprints move multiple times faster than a common Olympic lift. The clean moves about half a meter per second faster than a squat at the same percentage. Sprinting can reach upwards of 10+ m/sec. Not only are ground reaction forces greater, but sprinting more closely resembles the demands an athlete faces in competition on a field. Medball throws, jumps, bounds, sprinting, pushing sleds all exhibit powerful efforts that have the ability to go well beyond the speeds and power produced by an average Olympic lift. When you factor in technical errors that come from inefficient athletes in the lifts, the true power outputs are even lower than initially assumed.
TIME. Time is the major factor involved in why we prefer to use alternative means to develop rate of force development and/or strength speed. I don’t have time to wait for a pitcher to develop the technical aspect for a safe clean, and then develop the strength to actually make gains from the Olympic lifts. Sprints, jumps, and medball throws can benefit my athletes from day one. With the restrictions on how much time we now have to develop our kids I need the most bang for my buck right now. Sprints, jumps, and throws give that to me immediately.
PLANE SPECIFIC. For us, the Olympic lifts are not plane specific to a rotational athlete. While they do train triple extension, time is more wisely spent on transverse, and frontal plane movements training speed, power, and strength in a rotational pattern. I understand that the Olympic lifts are general in the weight room along with every other lift we train. I realize though that the closer we get to movement specificity, the closer the transfer will be on game day. We don’t claim that all of our rotational movements are sport specific but we know based on Anatoli Bondarchuk’s work that training movement patterns that closely resemble sport equates to increased transfer. Hip, and pelvic rotation, front leg blocking, thoracic rotation are important training components whether fast, or slow for rotational athletes. We can train the body through a variety of means to fulfill these objectives. Some will be more specific than others, but using these means allows the body to develop a more robust motor program in the appropriate planes. In the end, rotational movements should win out in terms of priorities.
MOBILITY AND INJURIES. A high level of mobility is required through the entire body to properly drop and catch Olympic lifts. Compensations in mobility, and technique put stress and strain throughout the body during the catch. The swinging and throwing required in baseball put a lot of stress on the wrists. When I was training with Olympic lifts, the most painful areas of my body were my wrists. They were constantly in pain. The wrist, for position players, is a common problem area, especially the TFCC ligament on the ulnar side of the wrist. Catching a hand on the ground during a slide and jamming a wrist into the bag occur frequently during the season. Even swinging creates high stresses at the wrist. Injuries, and aggravation are common throughout the year. Athletes often compensate for the inability to drop under the clean by shooting their feet out wide. The result is a catch low on the chest with the elbows down which creates a lot of stress on the wrists. This is not a great position for athletes who depend on healthy wrists for successful performance.
Low back stress fractures are becoming increasingly common in college baseball players. Taking stress off the low back by eliminating over extended positions is a key to helping keep athletes healthy. Going into hyperextension is one thing. Doing it while throwing and catching a clean is another story.
The is risk of performing Olympic lifts and their variations outweighs the reward for us. We can get better benefits from other lifts and movements without the stress, strain or time required to learn how to properly perform Olympic lifts. There are also other lifts that are have better transfer to the sport of baseball. The Olympic lifts are another training tool in the strength coach’s tool box. They are general in nature and can be replaced with other lifts and movements. It all comes down to – how much time are you are willing to devote to learning how to perform safe, effective Olympic lifts? Could that time be more wisely spent using other movements when the goal is to develop explosive athletes?
Zach Dechant, BS, CSCS, USAW, SCCS is Senior Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at TCU in Ft. Worth, Tx. For more information visit https://www.zachdechant.com/