The Achilles Heel of the Female Weightlifter

By Nicole 'Littlest' Lim

Jordan Weichers, california strength women's team (picture by hookgrip)

We have all probably seen it by now… a snatch missed behind or an unstable jerk that leads to the very scary hyperextended elbow.  Why is this more commonly seen in female weightlifters?  Well it turns out that females are more susceptible to this type of injury due to our specific anatomy.

Anatomy 101

Not only were we (women) made with a different hormone system that unleashes itself once a month on our poor little bodies, but we are also blessed with the gift to bear children… Along with child bearing HIPS.  To compliment our wider hips, the female elbows usually have a greater carrying angle.  The carrying angle is the angle created at the elbow by the humerus and forearm.

Importance to Weightlifting

Studies show that an increased carrying angle may relate to joint instability at the elbow.  So ladies, I’m sorry. But most of our elbows suck, or at least look like they suck and are at risk of injury anytime that we have weight overhead. Which is about 66% of our lifts.

Prevention and Rehab

Here are some tips to prevent hyperextension at the elbow and improve the integrity of the elbow joint.

  1. Shoulder and wrist health - It is the natural response of our physiology for proximal joints to compensate for compromised joints.  Shoulder and wrist health should be maintained and a part of your daily recovery / maintenance routine.

  2. General mobility - Musculature of the forearm, biceps, and triceps should be supple and have good integrity throughout the muscle belly and connective tissue.

  3. Exercises - There are a ton of different exercises to help with this injury.  But here are a few that can be done in almost any gym setting.

    • Bicep strengthening - Curls for the girls, duh.  Strengthening the bicep will help create muscular stability where there is joint instability.  Incorporate variations including hammer curls, shortened/lengthened curls (using incline or decline bench), close grip curls, reverse curls, and curls with rotation.

    • Tricep strengthening - It might seem counter intuitive to strengthen the muscle group that is responsible for movement related to this injury but the triceps cross the elbow joint and should be used to protect the joint through strengthening.  Instead of recommending a gazillion tricep variations, I like to strengthen the triceps with closed chain exercises through a controlled range of motion.  For this, I use a tempo push up.  The “up” portion of the push up should be controlled through a tempo without fully extending at the top.  I like this because you’re using your own body weight, not a cable or other external resistance.  This will help re-train the triceps to fire appropriately without hyperextending the elbow.

    • Neuromuscular reeducation and stability - Remember the Body Blade?  We all thought is was a silly exercise scam.  But it has a great concept to to re-educate your neuromuscular system.  The perturbing stimuli from the Body Blade in movement creates input and tells our brain to tell our bodies to stabilize.  Other exercises include creating unstable environments to help our neuromuscular system engage.  For example, you can take the push up exercise above and do them on foam pads or dynadiscs to create an unstable environment.  Hanging light plates using theraband is another one of my favorites to create instability during presses.

A Few Things To Note..

1. Do not limit yourself to these exercises.  There are tons out there to choose from.

2. If this is a problem that happens frequently, consider a more holistic approach to analyzing your movement pattern.  Issues may be a result of technique flaws or poor core stabilization in the catch.

3. When it comes to supporting the elbow, IWF rules do not allow anything to cross the elbow so be mindful when you are using supportive sleeves or tape.


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