DISCLAIMER: The information presented below is not written by a medical professional or coach, but is based on personal experience and research. If you notice any signs or symptoms of EIUI, please consult with your doctor to explore a potential diagnosis or rule out anything serious. It is also recommended that you check with your doctor or coach before performing any of the suggested exercises.
Imagine this: you’re competing in an Olympic Weightlifting meet and you’re approaching the platform to attempt a heavy Clean and Jerk. You set up on the bar, get your hook grip on and everybody watching just goes quiet – you pull strong, rack the bar and get into the squat! You use all your strength to stand up, and just as you start, you feel a little bit of pee making its way down your thighs involuntarily.
You have no idea how much you just peed, and you can’t just bail because you’re about to finish the clean, but the only thing on your mind is that you’re hoping no one noticed! You feel utterly mortified and flushed! And just as you complete the lift, you glance as quickly and subtly as you can at the platform to check on how much embarrassment you have just faced.
Exercise induced urinary incontinence (EIUI) has multiple names including exercise-induced urinary leakage and stress urinary incontinence, and is probably a more common issue for women than it is for men. If this has happened to you, don’t worry; you’re definitely not the only one who’s been through that. Many athletes, even elite CrossFitters, involuntarily pee during heavy exertions. Though this article is focused mainly on the Cleans, this also happens often while doing heavy Deadlifts, double-unders, trampolining, and running. Some of the suggestions to correct it could therefore help if you experience this during other forms of exercise.
Now that you feel somewhat reassured, it doesn’t mean that you should allow this to continue. EIUI is an issue firstly because it indicates that there is an underlying problem either in your technique or in your core strength, and weaknesses need to be addressed before they lead to bigger issues like injuries. Secondly, it is embarrassing. Thirdly, it could affect your performance because you’re going to worry about it and hesitate during the lift, not to mention that it affects your choice of clothing as you will probably start to avoid wearing light colored bottoms when you know you have heavy cleans in your workout!
Strengthening Your Core
Many people immediately assume that doing sit-ups and crunches are the equivalent of what strengthening the core means. In reality, these kinds of exercises are not sufficient, and so while you may have ripped abs and look fantastic (jealous!), that doesn’t always mean you have a strong core. A helpful way to understand what the main “core” is composed of is to think of it as a canister consisting of the muscles between the diaphragm and pelvic floor. It is important to note that your core mainly acts as a stabilizer and not a main mover.
I found that one of the most effective exercises that transformed my core is the weighted plank. Initially my coach incorporated this exercise in my program to help core stability during back squats, but I found that since I started consistently strengthening my core, I haven’t experienced any EIUI.
One recommendation would be to add planks after each session as accessory work. If your planks are quite strong already (for example you can hold a solid plank for at least a minute), then you could start by placing a small plate of a few pounds on your mid/lower back and do three sets of 30-45 seconds. With consistent training they should start to feel easier, meaning you can start to add some more weight and/or hold it longer.
If holding a solid plank is difficult for you to begin with, then start without weights and do three sets of 30-45 seconds until you’re able to hold a solid plank for over a minute. We all started somewhere, and with consistent training and a gradual build-up that suits your needs, you will get there.
Another exercise that helps build core strength during cleans is the Pause Front-Squat (FS). Rack the bar, get into your bottom FS position, hold it there for a couple of seconds then stand back up. It’s a great exercise to reinforce the ideal motor pattern of a FS and train your body to withstand heavy exertion.
The core should be continuously engaged throughout the movement to keep the body safe and efficient. If you “lose your core,” it puts you in a disadvantageous position, thus increasing the risk of injury and making it more difficult to successfully complete the movement.
One of the technical errors athletes make in a clean is letting the bar crash on them. A common reason for this is when they swing the bar out once it meets the hips rather than pulling it up with their elbows and keeping it close to their body. The core has to then exert more effort to lift the weight and stand up, thus potentially causing EIUI.
To correct this, firstly make sure your hips, back, and shoulders are aligned correctly in each of the clean positions. If your hips are too high or your butt is coming up too soon in the first pull, the bar will inevitably get away from your body after it meets the hips because of its initial inward direction. Secondly, clean pulls help with strengthening the full extension and learning to pull up rather than out. Finally, muscle cleans can help reinforce proper turnover of the bar.
Another reason the bar is crashing on you might be that you are dropping too soon into the squat instead of meeting the bar with your shoulders. That could be more of a mental thing where you don’t feel confident that you are able to pull the bar up high enough to meet it, and so you drop too low too quickly to ensure that you do. In this case, working on power cleans could help in learning where to meet the bar and building that confidence. Another small detail that I found helped me is to keep the hook grip on during the turnover, as that helps you stay connected to the bar. Be aware that this does require very good wrist and shoulder mobility.
This is clearly a very unusual topic to be reading about. Believe me, it was also strange writing about it! But if we keep avoiding talking about difficult or embarrassing matters, we will never progress and be healthier and happier individuals. We need to put our embarrassment aside and address this issue for fitness and safety reasons. Remember that everything needs to be built on a strong foundation, otherwise it can crumble and fall apart. So before you start treating the symptoms and ameliorate the image, take a deeper look inside and work on the true core.
I would like to thank my coach Alyssa Sulay from Catalyst Athletics for continuously helping me become a better athlete, and my training and life partner Eugene Bo Babenko for his knowledge and constant support. Much of the information provided in this article was inspired by what I have learned from them.