On the topic of weightlifting-related injuries

Photography by Rob Macklem
Photography by Rob Macklem

As a practitioner of weightlifting or as a coach,  you always have to answer questions that are related to weightlifting injuries. For the most part, the only promotion weightlifting ever get in mainstream press (at least in North America) is in relation to injuries which, in turn, promote weightlifting as an unsafe sport. The general population is thus exposed to extraordinary events and make the conclusion that injuries are happening more commonly than in any other sports. Many opinions are shared and few facts are stated. I would like to change that. This article is a very in-depth look at the injuries rates and types in sport.

Injuries in Weightlifting

First off, in an effort to make this article unbiased, we have to admit that injuries in weightlifting exist. How frequent are these injuries? How severe are they? This is what we will look into.

A study by Gregg Calhoon et al. published in Journal of Athletic Training in 1999 wanted to determine injury types, rates and locations in US elite male weightlifters (trained at the OTC, ”Olympic training center). They followed these weightlifters over 6 years. They concluded that the main locations of injury was the lower back, knees and shoulders. Roughly 70% of the injuries were strains and tendonitis and 60% of injuries were acute (short-term). In 91% of the cases, recommended number of training day missed was a day or less. In other words, and contrary to what most would believe, the injuries are not severe and seem to derive from temporary overuse of bodily structures. This means that it can be avoided with proper programming and added recovery time. 

In the discussion, Calhoon et al write : Kulund et al reported that low back pain constitutes a ”small problem” for weightlifters, whereas Granhed and Morelli reported that retired wrestlers suffer more from chronic low back pain than retired weightlifters. In addition, retired weightlifters reported a similar frequency of low back pain when compared with untrained individual.

Lavalee et al (2010) has looked into the acute and chronic injuries of strength training. Much like Calhoon, he reports that 46-60% of non urgent injuries are relative to strains and sprains. He states that weightlifters injures mainly their elbows and knees and seem to experience more back injuries than bodybuilders. However, he rapidly makes the argument that most of these injuries are not severe and require little to no time away from training. Acute emergent injuries (severe injuries) account for 2-3% of total injuries in adolescent power lifters. In other words, the extraordinary weightlifting severe injuries you see on tv are not frequent and not the norm.

Blimkie (1993) looked into the resistance training for children, which is a subject I will cover more in-depth in a future post. He reported that resistance training could be injurious to some children in an unsupervised environment, which is obvious. However, in his abstract, he states that the risk of injury from prudently prescribed and closely supervised resistance training makes the risk of injury from resistance training very low during preadolescence. Barbieri et al, in a much more recent study (2013), looked into the benefits and risks of strength training for children. In line with Blimkie, Barbieri states that the ”current scientific literature does not have any particular aversion against the practice of strength training by children and adolescents” as long as the rules are followed. He concludes his review like this : ”it can be therefore concluded that strength training is a relatively safe and healthy practice for children and adolescents”.

Injuries in other sports

In the eyes of the public, many other sports are seen as safer then weightlifting which may negatively affect the number of weightlifting practitioners (scare of injuries vs adopting a safe sport). How does weightlifting compare to these sports?

Andersen et al (2013) looked into the prevalence of injuries in Triathlon. Andersen looked mainly into the overuse problems and acute injuries of iron distance triathletes. The study was conducted for 26 weeks and included 174 participants of the 2011 Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. They registered 490 cases of overuse problems were 165 cases were substantial problems. He states : ”the most prevalent sites of overuse problems were the knee (25%), lower leg (23%) and lower back (23%)”. The finding reports that the predominant types of injuries were contusions, fractures and sprains. In other word, some of the injuries were quite severe (fractures) while some were minor.

Hal C et al (2013) looked into the epidemiology of lacrosse injuries since the sport has grown 219% of the last decade. To resume their study : Fifty percent of the studied players experienced a new injury while playing lacrosse. The ankle, knee and head seemed to be the most common sites of injuries in these female high school and collegiate lacrosse player. 11% of the 500 respondents suffered from a concussions while 35% experienced some loss of consciousness. Most injuries (84%) occured via contact and most athlete had to lose  10+ days of training.

Even in baseball injuries have been studied. Li X et al (2013) looked at the incidence of injury over one complete season (major/minor league baseball players playing in a professional organization).  According to Li X, in pitchers, groin injuries were the most common, followed by elbow injuries and then shoulder injuries. Total days missed for groin injuries were 318 days while 466 days were missed because of elbow injuries and 527 days because of shoulder injuries. As for soccer, Akodu (2012) reported  that a total of 89 injuries were sustained during the 2011 West Africa Football Union cup. This is the equivalent of 9.9 injuries per match or 289 injuries per 1000 player hours. Most of the injuries were from contact with other players and were localized in the lower leg and knee.  On the topic of brain related injuries in sport, Cusimano (2013) ”conducted a retrospective case series of brain injuries suffered by children participating in team sports” (ice hockey, soccer, american football, basketball, baseball, rugby) over close to 20 years. A total of 12,799 brain injuries were studied. 44% of the cases were attributed to hockey, followed by soccer (19%) and then football (12.9%). The mean age of the participant was 13.2 years old.

Conclusion 

The public opinion of weightlifting has been heavily and negatively influenced over the year. A comprehensive review of the scientific literature suggests that the rate of weightlifting related injuries is low and the severity of injuries is very little. No cases of brain injuries were reported in weightlifting whereas it was reported in most of the more popular sports. In comparison to other sports that are often perceived as safe or safer than weightlifting, olympic-style weightlifting is as safe, if not safer. In most of the cases, weightlifting injuries are not chronic and do not require a lot of time off from training. Olympic-style weightlifting is safe but it should not be practiced without the eyes of a knowledgeable coaches as most injuries seems to be overuse injuries and thus are easily preventable.

Disclaimer : If you use this article (or any other article on this website) for promotion of weightlifting, please credit me. If possible, also mention it to me. I will be more than glad to know about it. I encourage you to do so. Thanks for reading. Jean-Patrick Millette

Sources

Akodu AK, Owoeye OB, Ajenifuja M, Akinbo SR, Olatona F, Ogunkunle O. Incidence and characteristics of injuries during the 2011 West Africa Football Union (WAFU) Nations' Cup. Afr J Med Med Sci. 2012 Dec;41(4):423-8.

Andersen CA, Clarsen B, Johansen TV, Engebretsen L. High prevalence of overuse injury among iron-distance triathletes. Br J Sports Med. 2013 Sep;47(13):857-61

Blimkie CJ. Resistance training during preadolescence. Issues and controversies. Sports Med. 1993 Jun;15(6):389-407. Review.

Barbieri D, Zaccagni L. Strength training for children and adolescents:benefits and risks. Coll Antropol. 2013 May;37 Suppl 2:219-25. Review. 

Calhoon G, Fry AC. Injury rates and profiles of elite competitive weightlifters. J Athl Train. 1999 Jul;34(3):232-8. PubMed PMID: 16558570;

Cusimano MD, Cho N, Amin K, Shirazi M, McFaull SR, Do MT, Wong MC, Russell K. Mechanisms of team-sport-related brain injuries in children 5 to 19 years old: opportunities for prevention. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e58868.

Hall C, Friel K, Dong M, Engel L, O'Boyle L, Pasquarella A, Serkes D, Smith K, Stoebe L, Valle D. Epidemiology of injuries in the elite level female high school lacrosse player. Res Sports Med. 2013;21(3):229-39. 

Lavallee ME, Balam T. An overview of strength training injuries: acute and chronic. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010 Sep-Oct;9(5):307-13 

Li X, Zhou H, Williams P, Steele JJ, Nguyen J, Jäger M, Coleman S. The epidemiology of single season musculoskeletal injuries in professional baseball

6 comments

  • I think there needs to be some division between training and competition injuries; competition injury rates will be higher for all sports and the ratio of training:competition injuries probably varies between sports too.

    • True. For London 2012, about half of the injuries came from taeakwondo and weightlifting, according to a study. However, to the amateur, this doesn’t mean a higher risk of injury. It only means that at a very high level the bigger weights are an additional stress on the body and additional considerations should be taken. Plus. not many people will reach that level. However, any high level competitive athlete is at higher risk of injuries which is reflected by the two studies I presented (elite US lifters vs Children). Even considering that, the cases of dislocation and fractures are still few in comparisons to sprains on the international plateforme. At the end of the day, I think weightlifting can be considered safe or ”safer” than the current way it is seen.

  • There are several other serious scientific studies particularly from the States which showed the intrinsic safety of youth Olympic Weightlifting
    On Jumping Back, which I support. With the degree of extension we see in top lifters and the huge weights I think it is only an extraordinary person who is able to succeed without jumping back. To explain the technicalities of that is a long job and I will not put myself in the coconut shy and invite the world to pick out my errors. Surely looking at top lifters is sufficient, and if the Chinese differ, as they seem to, it is because, perhaps, they are exceptionally strong and very short in stature. Brian Hamill

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