Elbows Up! Is this Necessary?

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For many years I’ve seen coaches constantly screaming cues for their athletes to keep their elbows up in lifts like the front squat, press, and jerk. I’m here to tell you to stop it before you make the same mistake. What if that athlete has certain restrictions that don’t allow him/her to get into the position YOU want, but they’re still able to maintain the proper rack position? You’re missing the forest for the trees! Take a step back and look at the big picture. I’ll say that these are obviously just my opinions and this topic is definitely one of the debated ones between strength and conditioning and weightlifting coaches.

“But what about supporting the bar? Don’t they need their elbows high for that?”

You shouldn’t only be looking at elbow height for proper positioning in these movements.

1) Vertical chest and thoracic spine

Keeping the chest and thoracic spine “tall” allows the athlete to be centered properly over the base of support. The instant that these positions are compromised, usually in flexion, you will see a shift forward. This will most likely lead to the rack position being lost or, if the athlete holds onto the bar, they will lose their foot position.

2) Front Squat: Feet flat on the floor

Even though we are discussing the elbows, this is an area you can never overlook. Why is it important to keep the feet flat on the floor? In the simplest terms, the more surface area you have to push through, the more force you can produce. Another cue we often here is “heels, heels, heels!” Meaning, push through the heels or keep them on the floor. If the heels lift off the floor as the athlete shifts forward, they are no longer able to push through the heel and lose the ability to use the hips. This pushes all the force requirements to complete the repetition to the knees, which is why we see so many people with knee issues from squatting. It’s not the squat that inherently hurts your knees; it’s how YOU squat that hurts your knees!

Make sure that your athlete follows #1 above. Yes, keeping the elbows up can alleviate this problem but, if they cannot get their elbows up that high to begin with they should be maintaining the height they CAN reach.

3a) Press/Jerk: Forearms near-perpendicular to the floor

Notice I didn’t say parallel. Where is the bar going? Vertical! Where do the forearms have to move? Vertical! So it only makes sense that you begin the movement in this position. You basically remove a step that you would otherwise have to perform if your forearms were raised. Watch any athlete that has a high elbow position before they perform a press, push press, or jerk. They have some elbow drop before moving the bar vertically. Most of the time, if they don’t drop the elbows, the bar moves toward the face slightly, leading to a bar path that is not as desirable. This movement also would begin with what basically resembles a triceps extension. When the elbows are underneath the bar, the athlete is able to use, not only the triceps, but the entire shoulder and scapular musculature. The utilization of more musculature equals stronger/easier repetitions. Check out the following…

3b) Front Squat: Forearms in a comfortable position that allows for maintenance of rack as well as vertical chest/thoracic spine and flat feet

When I’m watching my athletes front squat, I’m watching multiple areas of the movement, not just the elbows. My feeling is that as long as they can maintain their rack position for the bar, squat to the desired depth with the correct mechanics (neutral spine, feet flat, chest tall), and are pain free than I am a happy coach. It’s really as simple as that…I’m not going to make a fuss because Johnny’s elbows aren’t “parallel to the floor.”

4) Equal elbow position

The one thing that I do look for with the elbows is that they are similar in height; whatever that height may be for the individual. If there is a large discrepancy in elbow height, there may be shifting or rotating in the lift where unequal forces are imparted on the bar. This can ultimately lead to strength imbalances and possible injury due to that rotation or shifting where one side of the body must take on more of the load.

Try to determine what may be causing this elbow height discrepancy to limit the possibility of injury or imbalance. Usually it is tight lats or an immobile shoulder on one side as compared to the other. You’ll often see this in overhead athletes.

I hope this opened your eyes to the possibility of another way to examine these lifts! Let me know your thoughts. Do you fall into the traditional “elbows higher” camp, or can you see what I mean?

2 thoughts on “Elbows Up! Is this Necessary?

  • I think it’s a useful cue for beginners, who tend to catch the bar with their hands rather than their shoulders in the clean.

    By the time they’re intermediate or advanced, surely they have figured out their own way to do things… eg the jerk can be initiated by shrugging the weight off the shoulders, or pressing with the hands… whichever they are more comfortable with. I train beginners though, so…. take that for what it’s worth.

    • I agree with you, Kyle. I was mostly meaning for younger athletes who have lesser experience. Also, I haven’t heard of the “shrugging the weight off the shoulders” cue/movement. I’ve always been taught, and teach, that the legs drive the bar upward and the arms quickly push/punch the athlete downward. Very intriguing, though. I may have to review this technique.

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