Should Baseball Players Olympic Lift? 5 Reasons Why Ours Don't

The snatch and the clean and jerk are amongst the most impressive feats a human being can perform.  These two events are so highly regarded that every four years countries from all over the world showcase their best lifters to compete for national pride in the Olympic games. Many of us have seen it on TV or YouTube: An athlete grabs a heavy barbell that's placed motionless on the ground, then creates enough tension throughout their body to break inertia and throw the barbell overhead with inhuman ease, speed, and fluidity.  This is a breathtaking display of the perfect blend of mobility, explosiveness, technique, and overall stability.

These “O-lifters,” when compared to athletes of other sports, are often associated with having increased numbers of type II muscle fibers, greater ability to produce power, superior vertical jumping ability, and greater levels of hypertrophy.

One may thus conclude that practicing these movements may lead to adaptations towards becoming a bigger, stronger, faster, more powerful athlete… and one would be correct!  Who wouldn’t want that?

Baseball is one of the most “power-based” sports around, due to the stop-and-go nature of the game.  Power is a key component in a successful baseball player, and each year SAPT excels at augmenting our baseball players ability to harness and produce power during their hitting, sprinting, and throwing.

Are the Olympic lifts a phenomenal tool to develop power and explosiveness? Absolutely. Is a strength coach wise to employ them with many of his or her athletes? Of course.

However, ask any of our baseball beasts how often they snatch, clean, or jerk during a training cycle at SAPT and you will probably find that the range of frequency falls between “never” and “0 times a week.”

Why? Well, here are 5 reasons why SAPT baseball players don't Olympic lift:

1. Plane-Specific Transference of Training Qualities

(Note: In general, movement is categorized into three different planes: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. Sagittal plane movement involves anything going front-to-back, without any involved rotation or leaning side to side. So, things like lunges, squats, sit-ups, deadlifts, sprints, box jumping, and Olympic lifts, all occur in the sagittal plane. Frontal plane movement examples include side lunges, side shuffles, and side raises. Transverse plane movement involves anything with a rotation component; a perfect example of this is the stroke Obi Wan used with his lightsaber to kill Darth Maul.)

To an extent, strength and power development is very specific to the plane of motion in which it is trained.  Sure, there will be a bit of carryover from one plane to another when it comes to transference of athletic qualities, but to truly maximize potential in a given plane, you need to train that plane, specifically!

Guess which planes of motion a baseball player remains in to hit, throw, and/or pitch? The frontal and transverse planes.

Now, guess what plane of motion the Olympic lifts exclusively take place in? The sagittal plane.

So, for the baseball athlete, how can they train outside of the sagittal plane in order to best enhance power production in the frontal and transverse planes? Which exercises will provide them the most bang for their buck, be time efficient, and have the most carryover to their sport?

It is here I argue that the answer doesn't lie with the Olympic lifts, but in med ball work and lateral jumping variations. These become an enormous asset to the baseball player; they are fun (few things beat throwing a medicine ball into a wall as hard as you can), fairly easy to learn, allow the athlete to demonstrate and forge power output in a concerted manner, and they're downright effective!

Here are just a few of the med ball variations and lateral jumps we use at SAPT. (We have over 30 variations in each category to cycle through.)

MB Cross-Behind Shotput

MB Cross-Behind Shotput w/Partner Pass

MB Heiden to Side Scoop Throw

MB Cyclone Overhead Throw to Wall

MB Hop-Back Side Throw

In-Place Heiden with Stick Landing

Single-leg Depth Drop to Heiden with Stick Landing

The options are virtually limitless.

Assuming they are already proficient in the sagittal plane - as one DOES need to learn to master that plane before attempting to train frontal and transverse, similar how one should learn to add and subtract before performing algebra - roughly 80-90% of the "power" development we utilize with our baseball guys takes place outside of the sagittal plane. The remaining 10-20% we will fill by having them perform sagittal-based movements such as KB swings, broad jumps, and speed deadlifts and speed squats.

2. Faulty Movement Patterns Overhead

Watch the majority of people put their arms overhead, and, if you know what you're looking for, you'll often find nothing short of a multiplicity of grody compensation patterns taking place along the entire kinetic chain. Yes, even in overhead athletes.

Tony Gentilcore has said that the majority of trainees must "earn the right" to press overhead, and I continue to nod my head in agreement with him. Watch someone press a bar overhead (or snatch or jerk it, as one would during an O-lift), and, using a classification system I learned in my college biomechanics class: their mechanics lie somewhere between poop and utter poop.

I hope it goes without saying that it'd be far from prudent to have these folks continually throw a loaded bar overhead at high speeds. However, the strength coach can't freak out about ALL overhead movements for the baseball player, as their sport does, in fact (get ready to have your mind blown....), necessitate them going overhead.

While we can certainly improve a baseball player's overhead mechanics by having them perform core stabilization drills, thoracic spine mobilizations, shoulder "corrective" drills, and improving lat length, there's still something to be said for doing a few, shoulder-friendly, loaded overhead activities to complement the corrective drills and give the athlete a chance to further ingrain solid overhead mechanics.

One of our favorites is the landmine press, as the neutral grip position opens up the subacromial space - giving the rotator cuff tendons more room to "breathe" - and the natural arc of the press grooves some nice scapular upward rotation. Not to mention, the core musculature has to work like crazy to keep the pelvis and ribcage in a stable position. I've yet to work with anyone - including myself, and I have a REALLY beat up shoulder - who has shoulder pain while landmine pressing.

Another option is to use the single-arm bottoms-up KB press, as many of the benefits of the landmine press still apply (scapular upward rotation, core stabilization, etc.) yet you get to train through an even greater degree of humeral elevation (flexion+abduction), and also receive some nice "reflexive" firing of the rotator cuff due to the kettlebell wanting to shake back and forth in your hand.

Both of the above exercises can be performed half-kneeling, tall-kneeling, standing in parallel stance, or standing in a staggered stance.

There are a host of other options as well, but the point is there are much less "dummy proof" methods of training the overhead position without resorting to a jerk or snatch. (Even though the O-lifts do look way cooler.)

3. Wrist and Elbow Concerns

To say the success of a baseball player's career is at least partly contingent upon the health of his wrist and elbow is akin to saying that Superman derives his power by absorbing and metabolizing solar energy from the Earth's energy; both are platitudes.

As Dan John aptly put it, the "Rule #1" a strength coach needs to live and breathe by is Do No Harm! 

To rely on Olympic lifts as the primary tool for developing the baseball athlete would make about as much as much sense crossing the the Atlantic Ocean in a one-man canoe. Or using a canoe of any size, for that matter. Could it be done? Sure. But do there exist other ways to accomplish the same goal, with a much lower risk of something undesired occurring in the process? You bet.

Given that, day in and day out, baseball players' wrists and elbows already take a wicked beating from pitching, throwing, and hitting, why compound the issue by performing lifts that stress those same bodily structures more than perhaps any other lift? Especially given that, as you saw earlier in this article, there exists a host of other training modalities one can employ to enhance athletic power.

Regarding the power and hang clean, most baseball players have a hard enough time even being able to comfortably get into the clean position for front squatting, without the mere position causing their wrists or forearms to scream, so why we would choose to add velocity and then CATCH in that position is beyond me. And, if we're discussing the snatch: the top, catch position places considerable levels of strain on the UCLs (ulnar collateral ligaments) of both elbows; if you follow professional baseball to any capacity, then you for sure know how important the UCL is to a baseball player. Tommy John Surgery, anyone?

One last point I'll add is that not only do you have the wrists and elbows taking a beating during cleans, but the AC (acromioclavicular) joint, as well, due to that poor fellow living smack dab in the middle of the barbell's landing zone. The AC joint is located just inside of the index fingers during the catch phase of a clean, and while professional Olympic lifters often "flow" into the catch phase with minimal impact, it's far from uncommon to find high school and college baseball guys literally slamming the bar onto their shoulder during the catch, as it can take years to make it a fluid transition.

Now, just because baseball players overuse their elbows and wrists, and we don't recommend the inclusion of cleans and snatches in their programming, does this mean they are to be babied, forever relegated to pilates as the most intense training they're "allowed" to perform? Don't be silly!

As demonstrated earlier, we use the countless other methods at our disposal for their power training, and then have them perform plenty of heavy lifting to develop strength, structural integrity, and throwing speed.

4. Sagittal Plane Dominance           

A typical training program for our baseball guys are rich with lifts such as squat variations, deadlift variations, lunges, glute bridges, step-ups, and the list goes on. Notice a pattern?  These are all movements that occur in the sagittal plane.  (We can argue about frontal and transverse stability components in the single leg exercises, valid points indeed... but let's save that for another day.)

The point is, although we dip into the other planes of motion, the majority of the work is sagittal.  Throwing in Olympic lifting variations just adds to the volume of sagittal plane work and takes time away from working the other planes of motion.

To build a properly balanced athlete, we have to save some room in the program for some work in the frontal and transverse planes which can include tons of variations of: lateral step-downs and step-ups, lateral lunges, single arm farmer’s walks, anti-rotation/pallof presses, prowler side-drags, jumping, hopping, and, as exhibited earlier, medicine ball drills.

5. Time

I hate to beat a dead horse, but I am going to have to bring up the token argument against Olympic lifting: It takes too long to learn.

When it comes to training competitive athletes, time is the major limiting factor.  With most of our baseball guys, who typically have 3-5 months of off-season training with us, we opt for a program consisting of exercises that don’t require such a significance prerequisite time-commitment for the learning process.  The price in time we must pay to proficiently learn and perform the snatch, clean, jerk, and their variations safely and effectively (as it doesn't do them any good to perform the lifts poorly) is often more costly than we care for.  Instead we use the modalities shown above in point #1, for supreme power development.

Another critical focal point we attend to for baseball power development is sprint work.  We spend a significant amount of time working on our athlete's sprint technique, stride length/frequency, change of direction speed and starting speed.

With such limited time (and not to mention recovery capacities; many of these guys are still in leagues or camps throughout the off-season) it is simply impractical to throw in the O-lifts into the mix.

If a baseball player never learns to snatch during his athletic career, does it really matter?  I’d be more concerned with his on-base percentage, runs, stolen bases, strikeouts, consistency, and health.