I always enjoy looking at seemingly controversial issues and making people realize they are arguing about the wrong things and neither side is being very clear about the point they are trying to make. The debate about internally or externally rotating the shoulders to receive a snatch is mysteriously heated. Before I get too deep into this, I want it to be known that while I appreciate weightlifting as a sport and have the utmost respect for the coaches and athletes that devote their lives to master the lifts and teaching the lifts, I personally do not care that much about the lifts or using them with the people I work with. I do not coach the lifts and I have never taken the time to truly go an learn to teach the lifts. They are not that important to teach to the typical person I work with at my clinic.
I do think this leaves me in a unique position to evaluate both sides of this strange debate as a person who understands biomechanics and efficient and effective movement of the body under load. I have no vested interest in the teaching of either of these methods and have not drawn a line in the sand and told the either side they are unequivocally wrong and I am certainly right. I do not speak in absolutes when it comes to these issues because there rarely are absolutes.
I am going to show you four pictures. Two show me in an internally rotated position and two show me in an externally rotated position. The pictures show me standing and in the deep squat. Look closely. You will notice that I personally am not that comfortable in what you would consider an internally rotated position in the bottom of my squat but that doesn’t make it wrong. I have a history of surgeries that makes that particular position uncomfortable.
This is a better representation of the internally rotated position so many people debate about. This is a lifter from the Chinese national team. The picture was taken by the great Randall Strossen of Ironmind. I know it is a picture of a jerk but it is about the best one I could find that really exemplified my point. His is internally rotated with his traps shrugged and the head of his humerus centered in the socket. It is a valid and stable position:
What matters is I am able to keep the head of the humerus centered in the glenoid fossa when I am either internally or externally rotated. It takes more effort in either position to keep it there, and it takes activation of a few different muscle groups to make it work, but it can be done. If you are going to fully internally rotate, you will also have to elevate the traps to support the load. Keep in mind the shoulder is still stable in this position and gold medals have been won with this strategy. With that in mind, I don’t think it is really the position you should coach the average hobby weightlifter into. Mostly because they didn’t start when they were kids and likely don’t have the capsular range and motor control to make it work. The key thing to remember here is the head of the humerus remains centered in the glenoid fossa.
Fighting for full, exaggerated external rotation presents it’s own set of issues. Many times it leaves the bar behind the body and you have to lean over to find the center of mass. This leads to missed lifts behind you. This can be a valid position as well but I don’t think it is really what coaches are looking for when they want an athlete to externally rotate. When I hear a cue like “show me your armpits” (a common cue to get someone to externally rotate) I see it as a way for a coach in a particular situation at a particular moment in time to get an athlete out of anterior and internally rotated translation of the shoulder and into a more stable kind of middle of the road position. This would be displayed in the next two pictures.
I am not aggressively internally rotated or aggressively externally rotated. I am just in a comfortable overhead position that is strong and stable and engages my serratus, lats, pecs, traps, biceps, and triceps to keep me where I want to be whether I am standing or squatting. This position, in my eyes, seems to be the one most people who are in the externally rotated camp actually want their athletes in. I think part of the confusion comes from the fact that the pecs and lats are internal rotators of the shoulder and are applying a force at the humerus to keep it stable while it is overhead. This is the position I would likely coach the majority of people into if I taught snatching. To comfortably hit this position, your shoulder needs to have the ability to adequately internally and externally rotate or the shoulder will be pulled in one direction or the other depending on which way has more stiffness and you will likely end up either internally rotated and anteriorly translated or externally rotated and anteriorly translated like these next two pictures.
As you can see in these pictures (and it may not be as clear as it could be as it is hard for me to put myself into these anteriorly translated shapes because they are painful and I have spent a lot of time teaching myself to not do it), the head of the humerus is translated anteriorly and is no longer centered in the glenoid fossa. This leave the already vulnerable shoulder joint in a precarious situation and this is where we hear many horror stories about a torn labrum or dislocated shoulder. This is also where the people who are in the anti-internally rotating camp get confused because they have this vision in their head when they think of internal rotation. This is also why I think many people use the “armpits forward” cue. It is an attempt to get the person to not internally rotate and anteriorly translate but, as you can see, it is just as bad to anteriorly translate and externally rotate. As I mentioned above, an internally rotated overhead position can be stable, it just isn’t he best shape for everyone. Are you starting to understand that most people (including maybe even you) aren’t actually arguing about what you think you are arguing about?
So which one is it? The answer is both. If you can do the internally rotated and shoulders shrugged position that is very popular in the world of Chinese weightlifting without injuring yourself and you efficiently put up big numbers, knock yourself out. If you are more comfortable over time with the more “neutral” position, get after it. If you consistently hit big numbers with aggressive external rotation and you stay pain free, be my guest. The important point is pick one and stick with it from the receiving position all the way until you stand. Trying to transition between rotational positions under that kind of load is not desirable. What you want to avoid is the repeated anterior translation of the joint under load. That is what people really need to be worried about. The internet has left us in this weird place where people want to be in a camp and throw stones at the other camp and argue about who is right when if you look at the situation from the outside you can see that both sides are actually correct, they are just different.
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