One of the most common questions in CrossFit “do I have to squat?”
This question always comes during classes where athletes are asked to perform olympic weight lifting movements. More specifically, the clean and the snatch.
When we perform these movements the primary goal is to find how much explosive energy we can create through a movement that requires coordination and mobility.
In these movements there is a series of pulls that looks similar to a deadlift (it’s not a deadlift but it is the closest thing we can relate to the movement) and the catch, which is either a front squat or an overhead squat depending on the movement we are talking about.
The squat, or the catch/receiving position, is where we meet our issue. This phase involves having a barbell with a heavy load coming down onto our shoulders or overhead extended arms, and we have to trust in your technique to catch it. If we mess up, in most cases, we will have the barbell land in front or behind us. But, in some rare cases we will see athletes try to “save” the barbell and throw caution to the wind resulting in a barbell that lands on their back.
This brings us to the first objection – fear of injury.
“I don’t wanna get hurt.” This is a big one for people that have had friends who have done CrossFit before or seen fail videos. We see the athlete get the bar overhead and the bar comes crashing down onto their spine, which in some rare cases paralyzes the athlete. This is a very real possibility and should absolutely be acknowledged when starting an olympic lifting routine. What should also be taken into account is how rare these instances are.
In the sport of weightlifting we see an injury rate of 3.3 injuries per 1000 training hours (1). For comparison, soccer (football for everyone else) has an injury rate of 6.2/1000 training hours (2).
While CrossFit is new, the largest study performed on the training program found that the injury rate for experienced CrossFitters is .27/1000 training hours and for new CrossFitters is .74/1000 training hours (3). Studies before the study I am referencing put that number closer to anywhere between 2.1 and 3.5/1000 training hours, still making it less injury prone than popular sports such as basketball and martial arts that range from 6.2-18.3/1000 training hours (4).
The point is, as far as activities to stay fit, olympic lifts and CrossFit are not as injury prone as sports that we all love to be a part of.
It is also fair to point out as well that walking, golf, cycling, dancing, swimming, and recreation like that have even lower injury rates ranging from .19-1.5/1000 training hours (4).
While injury is a very real risk, it is real in everything we do.
In CrossFit and olympic weight lifting these injuries are more chronic than acute, occurring overtime due to a break down in form, imbalance, improper programming, poorly maintained equipment, and many other reasons that fall in the same vein.
These chronic injuries usually involve the shoulder and back when talking about CrossFit/olympic weight lifting. With proper recovery, lifting techniques, and coaching, these can largely be avoided or remedied.
The next thing athletes worry about is the fear of failure.
This is the other main reason I see for people not wanting to get low in their catch position. We don’t wanna fail because we could look foolish or feel lesser than the athletes around us. We don’t wanna get under the bar and have that feeling of being stuck. It’s easier to just power through and look strong, than retrace our step and get under the weight properly at a lighter weight.
In CrossFit gyms this can be extremely common due to the clientele that usually go to these gyms. Type A personalities that want to push to the top of the pack at all costs. While not all athletes are like this, the messaging from HQ in the early CrossFit years fostered communities built on this mindset. The fostering I am referring to is the tag line, “Forging Elite Fitness.”
Well how can you forge elite fitness without failure? How can you reach the top without failure?
You can’t. Anyone who has achieved success in their life has learned from failures before hand.
The beauty of these movements is that they are the most powerful movements humans can display with external load, while also being a safe place to try and fail at something that is difficult (when in a safe environment).
The other question I am asked when these movements come up is “why do we do them?”
We absolutely could train for explosive force with box jump variations instead of snatch. I could start throwing tennis balls at our athletes to train coordination and reaction. Our gym could flip some of our classes time to yoga to work on flexibility. We can have everyday life outside the gym to be the play ground for learning.
We can take a movement like the snatch. Teach it properly. Build good fundamentals and mechanics. Then have a movement that in one move works on coordination, mobility, strength, explosive power, accuracy, agility, and balance. We can efficiently train an athlete in multiple areas of growth for fitness with one movement.
The difficulty of these movements provide a place to learn something new while attaining the goal of improved health.
Olympic lifts are scary movements. They present a challenge as well as a risk for injury. But, the risk doesn’t loom large. It’s more along the lines of you have knives in your kitchen, one day you will cut yourself, rather than walking under a ladder that has a piano on it. With proper training and respect for the movement, getting under a barbell is a great exercise routine.
We can learn so much from attempting to do a barbell squat clean. We can also succeed much more than we would just powering it. I mean come on, a 185 lbs clean with good form will always be better than a 165 lbs power clean.
The best thing we can do is know how to fail, put our hands on a barbell, and get under it. This will lead to you being the most capable athlete you could be. Who doesn’t want that?
1) Injuries of Athlete’s in Weightlifting : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1322916/
2) Injuries of Professional Soccer Players*: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4495432/
*Injuries amongst recreational athletes are similar if not higher, but could not find reliable journals. Numbers ranged from the 6.6 to 35+ range depending on the study.
3) CrossFit Injury Data: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6201188/
4) Active living and Injury Risk UCLA: http://bionics.seas.ucla.edu/education/Rowing/Injury_2004_01.pdf