Olympic Lifting compensations part 1: over head

Overhead positions - narrow and wide grip

Welcome to part 1 in this series on optimizing mobility for Olympic Lifting, while dealing with some of the obstacles that can impact this movement. In this article, we will look at compensations and limitations in the upper body that restrict a standing overhead position (for front rack position, see part 2). There are two main types of overhead positions: wide grip and narrow grip. Since the compensation patterns for each of these are similar, we will cover them together.

First, let’s clarify what we are looking for in a strong overhead position. Be it during a snatch or a jerk, the arms should be fully locked, the biceps covering the ears. The bar, shoulders and hips should line up; we will call this triple alignment. More specifically, we want the shoulders pulled back and down while having the creases of the elbows pointing towards the head and the elbows out. This will bring the weight closer to our centre of gravity and bring the shoulder into a strong position. The anterior core muscles (abs) should be actively holding the rib cage down.


Excessive extension at the wrists: This is a common problem, and yet is often overlooked by coaches. The wrists will bend to a certain degree once the weights start to increase, but they should not come into excessive extension just to make an overhead position possible. If the wrists are compensating in this way, consider it a red flag that there may be a lack of mobility further down the chain, forcing the wrists to do more than their share.  Excessive wrist extension will lead to sore wrists because the wrists bear the load that the shoulders would normally support in triple alignment.

Excessive extension at the wrists


Internal shoulder rotation: A very common limitation that is seldomly addressed, internal shoulder rotation is known as the “silent killer of athletes.” Some athletes default to this position due to soft tissue limitations that pull the shoulders into internal rotation, yet don’t realize it or don’t regard it as problematic.  In most cases, the athlete will feel strong in the overhead position and have a solid triple alignment, but be unaware that they are sabotaging their shoulder stability and health, while pushing the bar further away from their centre of gravity. Many coaches cue the arms to lock by telling their students to “reach for the ceiling,” but the athletes unknowingly respond by pushing their shoulders up to accomplish this goal. There are successful Olympic Weightlifters who have a position similar to this one, but there has been greater success in the countries that stress the importance of having a “packed shoulder,” one example being the Chinese weightlifting team.  Shrugging the shoulders towards the ears inhibits overall shoulder performance and health to the point that some health professionals call ears “shoulder poison.” This pattern may not seem detrimental in the short term, but that doesn’t mean it’s without consequences in the long term.

Internal shoulder rotation


Back extension:  This compensation, characterized by extending the back into an arched position, while pushing the hips forward and leaning the torso back, is less common because it is incredibly stressful on the body, specifically the lower back, and so more instinctively avoided. It is arguably the compensation that increases the risk of injury the most out of the ones we’ve discussed so far, while greatly inhibiting performance and movement competency. Tell-tale signs of this compensation is the rib cage thrusting up, a lack of triple alignment, and the bar placement often somewhere between the hips and shoulders. This pattern will make the squat snatch impossible because the hips pushing forward, bringing the pelvis into posterior tilt, creates an odd position from which to squat. This creates a lengthy period between the catch phase of the snatch and the descent, which some weightlifting coaches confuse for a transition rather than a hesitation. This makes the squat snatch look like a two-part motion instead of one smooth athletic endeavour.  The consequence of this position is a “sore” back and an increased risk of back injury due to the fact that the anterior core muscles (abs) turn off and the lower back has to compensate for the extra load and poor alignment.

Back extension


Compensations, movement competency and performance: If you experience pain, or a massive strain, especially in the lower back, the wrists or the shoulders, after doing jerks or snatches, your overhead position should be assessed.  In addition to aches and pains, soft tissue restrictions lead to instability in the overhead position.  When lifting with any of the compensations discussed, the load rests more on the musculature and soft tissue, rather than being supported by the skeletal structure.  This will limit the length of a hold in an overhead position. There will be a tendency to lose balance anteriorly towards the toes, since the bar is always slightly in front, instead of over the shoulders. People with mobility limitations will a have harder time completing a push jerk compared to a split jerk, and will plateau quickly in squat snatches, even if they are extremely strong and fast. 

The good thing is that we can make big changes to improve an athlete’s alignment, and fast, using Adaptive Bodywork techniques.  This a myofascial therapy that effectively resolves the tensions that create these or other similar compensation patterns by reconfiguring the connective tissue support system. It’s a powerful tool that can quickly help you achieve the desired position by giving you the healthy range of motion necessary to optimize your strength training. If you are interested in increasing your performance or removing unwanted parasitic tension from your body, contact an Adaptive Bodywork practitioner today for more information.

Check out part 2, where we discuss optimizing mobility for Olympic lifting, and where we will be taking a look at a good front rack position.