Can you fully extend your elbow or do you have a bad lockout?

Are you sure you can’t fully extend your elbow?

You may suffer from a bad lockout. There is a difference. Everyone knows there is a provision in Weightlifting that allows lifters who can’t fully extend an elbow to make their problem known. The point of the rule is to create a level field in officiating for the rare someone who physically cannot straighten the arm(s).

It drives me crazy when a lifter in a Weightlifting competition points to an elbow prior to the start of a lift then promptly punches a weight out with little issue. This usually happens on an opener. By the time you see red lights after a second or third attempt the telltale signs of a bad, though not anatomically flawed, elbow lock will have appeared.

A bad lockout is not necessarily an inability to do it. This often gets confused when lifters point to their elbows.

On the first day of lifting at the USA Weightlifting National Youth Championships, I noticed a few coaches telling their lifters to point to their elbows as they approached the bar. It happened enough that it got me wondering why or how several little kids had anatomical lockout problems? I quickly got my answer. They didn’t.

Almost to the lifter, the kid sheepishly pointed to his arm then punched out the lift on (maybe) wobbly elbows. Not one of them had a clear inability to straighten their arms. They were just a pre-teenagers, aka puppies, still growing into their paws. They needed time and a little more experience, not help from the referees.

Physical gifts versus bad luck

Some lifters are blessed with a solid, visually appealing, lockout and overhead position. Others, not so much.

We’ve all known lifters who suffer from bad overhead positions. No past injuries or trauma. No anatomical defects. They punch a lift out then bend for no clear reason. No matter what they do their arms just don’t play along as desired.

It’s unfortunate, maybe unlucky, but a physical inability to lock out the arms when completing a snatch or clean and jerk isn’t the same as a weakness in doing it. The rule doesn’t create leniency for that problem.

It’s easy to read this and get bent out of shape (pardon the pun). If it was for this purpose, why not impose other rules to benefit lifters who aren’t as gifted as others with certain physical attributes?

The elbow extension rule and how to use it

With major rule changes, like the elimination of the bodyweight advantage for placement, it’s easy to miss other subtle rule changes when they occur. The IWF tends to update it’s rulebook (TCRR) every quad and some changes don’t get much attention. This is one of them.

In the 2013-2016 TCRR lifters with a problem had to point to their elbows while approaching the bar. Here is what item 2.2.4 said in the prior version: “An athlete, who, for any reason, cannot fully extend the elbow(s), must report/display this fact to all on-duty Referees as well as the Jury prior to the start of each lift. This is the sole responsibility of the athlete.”

Here’s what it says now under 2.4.4 (new number and bold emphasis mine): “An athlete, who, for any reason, cannot fully extend the elbow(s), must report/display this fact to all on-duty Referees as well as the Jury prior to the start of competition and may remind them of this fact prior to the start of each lift when on the platform. This is the sole responsibility of the athlete. The Jury may call the Doctor on Duty to examine it.” 

Under both iterations, the key phrase is “cannot fully extend the elbow(s).” That doesn’t mean a weak elbow lock, bad technique, or inconsistency with the bar overhead. It means a physical inability to straighten the arm(s) to full lockout. Wherever the arm lands, if bent or straight, it has to stay in that position because it’s incapable of going further.

You may read the revision and think it’s ridiculous. In reality, it’s a deterrent from use. Why? Because now only lifters who’ll go out of their way to have the rule considered are those convinced, or willing to let a doctor say, they can’t fully lock their arm(s). At competitions with juries, a doctor can, in fact, be called over to make a determination.

Most local competitions don’t have juries. Speaking to the refs prior to the start of competition can be difficult. Even if you know who the referees are they generally don’t get to their seats until the competition is about to start. If it means a brief disruption to your warm-up or the start of the competition you have to do it then.

As a coach, your athlete has to be with you to show the officials the problem. You can’t go over to the refs and let them know on your own.

If you are an athlete and you didn’t speak to the referees and/or jury in advance do not point to your elbows on the platform. Ever. Referees don’t have to consider it, and all you are doing is advising them to look harder at the problem area.

Though it’s not clearly specified in the rule sometimes reasonableness or common sense will prevail. If you didn’t say anything prior to the start of the snatch you can go over before the start of the clean and jerk. No guarantees but referees should play ball on that.

Keep it low key on the sideline

If you are the coach of an athlete with a suspect elbow lock don’t draw attention to it. Consider a lifter on the platform. A quieted crowd waiting. Everyone watching. The single worst thing you can do, and I’ve seen this happen, is yell out something like “really focus on that left elbow.”

You just did this to your lifter’s left arm.

If a reminder is necessary, say it quietly as your lifter approaches the platform or chalks up. Don’t broadcast it.

Whatever the rulebook says on this rule there is a downside to using it. Once you seek out referees to tell them about your arms it can’t be undone. If you really have a limitation and must make it known you have to do what’s necessary. However, at whatever level you compete, a label as someone with an elbow problem isn’t easily shaken.

A reputation for soft elbows can stick to you over a career so be careful about putting it out there.