woman working out with a barbell

Many people see the barbell involved in Olympic weightlifting and think it looks dangerous. But in fact, injuries in this sport are less frequent than in contact sports such as football and wrestling.

Still, injuries are possible with any physical activity. Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent them.

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What Is Olympic Weightlifting?

Olympic weightlifting, also referred to as simply weightlifting, is a sport with two lifts: the clean and jerk, and the snatch.

The clean and jerk happens in two parts. In the clean, athletes move a barbell from the floor to their shoulders in one fluid motion. They may drop underneath the barbell in a squat, then stand up, to receive it.

At the end of the movement, their fingertips are underneath the barbell facing toward the body and elbows point away from the body. This is the front rack position.

The second part is the jerk. Here, the athlete moves the barbell from the front rack position at the shoulders to above their head. They must lock out their arms.

In the snatch, the athlete moves the barbell from the floor to above their head in one fluid motion. Like the clean, athletes can drop under the barbell in a squat position, then stand.

The lift ends with arms locked out overhead. The athlete usually has a wide grip on the bar.

What Are Common Weightlifting Injuries?

Most injuries from weightlifting involve strains and sprains to the muscles and tendons. These areas of the body are most often affected:

  • Shoulders
  • Lower back
  • Knees

The wrists, elbows, and neck are also prone to injury when weightlifting.

Injuries can be acute or chronic. Acute injuries happen suddenly, such as a ruptured tendon. Chronic injuries, on the other hand, occur slowly over time from overuse. Examples of this are rotator cuff impingement and patellar tendonitis.

How to Prevent Injury in Weightlifting

There are precautions you can take to reduce your risk of injury while weightlifting.

1. Use good technique. The Olympic lifts are highly technical. That’s part of what makes them fun to learn, but it also means they take a long time to master. Have an experienced coach check your form, especially when you’re first learning the lifts.

2. Warm up properly. It can be tempting to jump straight into your workout, but it’s important to warm up first. This will prepare both your body — the muscles, ligaments, and tendons — and your mind for the workout ahead.

3. Work your way up slowly. There is no greater adrenaline rush than hitting a personal best. Still, be sure to add weight incrementally. This will give you more confidence and reduce your risk of getting injured.

If your form is starting to decline as the weight gets heavier, don’t keep adding more. Take the time to master good form at a lighter weight before moving on. It can take a while to progress, so be patient.

4. Stay balanced. Don’t neglect strengthening any part of your body. If you have weaknesses, address them. For instance, an athlete with strong quads but weak hamstrings is more prone to injury.

Working the primary muscles used in a movement is great, but it’s often the smaller stabilizing muscles that keep you pain-free. In the jerk, the four muscles of the rotator cuff — supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor — do the stabilizing work. In the squat, it’s the calves, lower back, and hamstrings.

5. Follow a well-rounded training plan. Training in weightlifting doesn’t only mean working on the snatch and the clean and jerk. In addition to strength, the sport requires balance, mobility, speed, power, and coordination. Do supplemental exercises that address all these aspects.

Want to learn how our experts can help weightlifters train and get back on their feet after injury? For more information on staying injury-free while weightlifting, or to schedule an appointment, please contact UPMC Sports Medicine at 1-855-937-7678.

"Injuries Among Weightlifters and Powerlifters: A Systematic Review," British Journal of Sports Medicine. Link

"Shoulder Injuries in Olympic Weightlifting: A Systematic Review," British Journal of Medical & Health Sciences. Link

"Upper Extremity Weightlifting Injuries: Diagnosis and Management," Journal of Orthopaedics. Link

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.