Ask Greg: Issue 123
Greg Everett

Evan Asks: I'm a male lifter who has been lifting for something like 9-10 months now. I usually lift in my garage; it’s pretty rare that I go to a gym. However, I do on occasion, and the last time I went happened to be a day that I was shooting for a new snatch max. After watching me fail twice at 79.5kg before I finally made the lift, I asked the coach there where I was going wrong. His answer was I almost always land on my toes, which causes me to either chase the bar or lose the weight forward. After I explained to him I shattered my left ankle a couple years back and now have permanent hardware in my leg that only allows for maybe 75-80% flexibility in my ankle, he explained that it’s something I will have to work around because the way the joint was repaired, there is a "wire" that keeps the two bones in my lower leg from separating around my joint because the ligament damage and such was quite severe. So I decided to give the split snatch a try. Now I'm not able to lift as much as I can with the squat style snatch, but I attribute that to not training in the split style before this. Does this sound like a situation that staying with the split style would be a good decision, or should I go back to the squat style and fight through it?

Greg Says: It sounds like the unfortunate reality is that the ankle will never have full range of motion again. Without knowing more about it, I’m assuming this is permanent—that no amount of work on it is going to make a significant change because of the hardware in place. That being the case, I have a few thoughts.

First, the split snatch will always be an option. By nature, it will be harder to lift as much weight as in the squat snatch, although if your squat snatch is significantly limited, it may not be by much. Also, you’re right in thinking that at this point, the difference is probably larger due primarily to your lack of experience with it. The more you train the split, the better at it you’ll get.

Another option is the power snatch. Depending on what your particular strengths are, you may be able to get farther with power snatching than split snatching. Unless you get really good at split snatching into an extremely low position, your power snatch and split snatch heights may not be significantly different (although the lower you are, the easier it will be to hold the position in the split rather than in a squat stance). If you’re explosive and can get good height on the bar, the power snatch option is probably the one for you.

Finally, it may be possible, depending on how limited the ankle ROM is and how good your other flexibility is, to snatch with a different receiving position that’s more reliant on hip flexibility than ankle mobility. This would mean a somewhat wider squat stance, probably toes turned out a bit more, and really expecting a lot of range of motion out of the hips. Obviously this is something you would have to build up to over time to avoid hurting yourself.

I would suggest doing a lot of overhead squats and heaving snatch balances both to improve that squat position mobility and also strengthen the position as much as possible, as you’re going to need a larger margin for error than someone who can easily sit into a good deep squat. Gradually move your stance out to use more and more hip mobility.

Now, I also want to float another idea at you… you may be struggling more because of what’s happening prior to getting into the receiving position than the receiving position itself. You say the coach told you that you tend to land on your toes—maybe this is just a misinterpretation of what he meant, but to me, landing on the toes is different from not being able to squat down without the heels lifting. And if you’re landing on your toes, the way you would need to then settle into the squat would be more demanding of ankle mobility than if you were landing flat-footed with your feet right under you where they should be.

In other words, if you’re out of balance forward during the lift, it’s going to exacerbate the ankle issue. This is why the overhead squats and heaving snatch balances are so important—if you find you can do those with significantly more weight than you can snatch, the ankle isn’t what’s holding back your snatch, at least not entirely. Make sure the rest of the lift is being done properly before you give up on it entirely.

This is definitely a situation that’s going to require a lot of experimentation on your part, and likely plenty of frustrating training days and setbacks.

James Asks: I started Olympic lifting last year after taking up strength training in 2012. I soon found that there was little direct crossover of the low bar squat to the Olympic lifts and subsequently incorporated the high bar squat in to my training routine. This was fine for a while but eventually I injured my knee. It turned out that I got an avulsion fracture on my kneecap. Looking back I probably had not introduced enough posterior chain work in to my routine once I changed my squat technique. I assume also that I probably had not been performing enough stretching and was possibly using too much 'bounce' out of the hole. My injury has now healed although there is still some tenderness on the top of the kneecap (and a small bump where shards of bone were pulled from the knee cap). I now want to get back in to Olympic lifting. I have started back squatting relatively light amounts and it feels fine, but I am weary that I will injure my knee again. Do you have any advice for developing a program to get back into lifting? Thanks.

Greg Says: I would be reluctant to attribute the problem to a lack of posterior chain work. Weightlifters tend to not do what many other people would consider “adequate” posterior chain work, and we don’t see this kind of injury. I suspect it’s more an issue of your having a pretty good strength base, but not in the high-bar position, and not having the joint conditioning needed, and then moving over to this new movement too abruptly. In other words, without enough preparation, you were able to start squatting in a completely different way using pretty good weights right off the bat, so you missed the normal progressive improvement in joint conditioning that would normally accompany increasing strength. I would also agree with you that introducing a bounce contributed to the problem—you cannot condition your body for that with low-bar squats.

My suggestion is to build the base you needed in the first place. Squat high-bar without any significant bounce—a controlled speed into the bottom position. This will not only get rid of the added strain on the patellar tendon, but it will increase the strength of the knee at that very small angle. Use high-rep sets (10-15) with pretty light weight for at least a couple months to condition the joint and get some improved connective tissue strength. If you’re concerned about posterior chain strength, make sure you’re regularly doing good mornings, stiff-legged deadlifts and glute-ham raises. Also do front squats at least once a week, for now without any real bounce.

After this initial period, begin increasing the weights and decreasing the reps. Keep the eccentric speed on the back squats slow still, but begin increasing it and the bounce a bit in the front squat. Make sure you stop if you feel any pain at any point, and certainly don’t keep working through any tendonitis feeling.

Finally, make sure you’re keeping your quads flexible and fluid with plenty of foam-rolling and stretching. Be sure to stretch the hip flexors as well to make sure part of the problem isn’t excessive rectus femoris tension. And of course, work with a medical professional like a good manual therapist to make sure your recovery is on track and you’re not doing any more damage. Always err on the conservative side if you’re unsure.

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