Elbows up and front squats

Recently I’ve been having problems with staying upright during front squats. “Elbows up” has been the most successful cue for me to keep as vertical as possible.

The benefits of front squatting

It’s an obvious one, but (for myself at least) the biggest benefit of front squatting, is how helpful it is in its carryover to the Clean. If you are primarily training the Olympic lifts, front squats should be an essential, core part of your training programme. A sensible Olympic lifter will always make sure his or her front squat is better than their clean. In my mind, the basic sequence of the Clean & Jerk lift is 5 movements, which are: 1) Pull 2) Receive 3) Front Squat 4) Recovery 5) Jerk

Notice that the front squat is number 3 out of a total of 5. You do not want to be failing the front squat part of the Clean & Jerk. You have already expended energy on numbers 1 and 2, but you still need lots of energy for numbers 4 and 5.

So that being said, if your front squat is a good weight more your clean, you will have a greater chance of having a successful Clean & Jerk. Most Olympic lifters can clean about 90% of their front squat. At the moment, I am only able to clean 85% of my front squat. And it shows. I am often unable to front squat up out of the clean during training. Hence I am working on improving my front squat. Ideally, I would feel most comfortable with my max front squat being about 10kg more than my max clean.

My weakness in the front squat – the forward lean

The front squat demands excellent stability to cope with bearing a front load. Because the weight is on the front of you, you need to push back into your heels in order to counterbalance the forces that are pulling you back and forward.

In order to do this, it is key to keep the torso as vertical and upright as possible.

This diagram shows the angles involved in a back squat (left) and front squat (right). Notice the larger hip angle in the front squat that is necessary for the more upright position:

back squat front squat forward lean

Image from http://www.precisionnutrition.com

The negatives of a forward lean

  • It puts stress on your spine
  • The weight might be held on your wrists, which can injure these small muscles
  • The bar is highly likely to roll forwards off your shoulders!

There are various methods of reducing a forward lean when front squatting, but the one that has worked best for me is the “elbows up” cue.

Elbows up

“Elbows up” is important throughout the movement, particularly in the bottom squat position when the bar will want to roll and drop off you the most. When I think about keeping my elbows up (or when someone is shouting “elbows up” at me during the lift!), I am near forced to raise my chest and keep my torso vertical.

Compare this girl’s elbow positions:

Elbows down (left), elbows up (rigtht)

Elbows down (left), elbows up (right)

I never recommend using the Smith machine but, I think it might have some benefits when learning front squat form, and I actually wish I had access to one… just for this purpose! A Smith machine looks like a Power Rack except the barbell is fixed and only moves in a vertical trajectory – straight up and down. Now, I imagine that if you tried to execute front squats on such a machine, you wouldn’t have to worry about the bar rolling off your shoulders – instead you could put all your focus into maintaining an upright posture.

What else can help you reduce your forward lean?

  • Practice front squats with a broomstick and use a mirror to check how upright you are
  • Improve your thoracic mobility – if your thoracic spine is curved you need to work on improving thoracic extension through mobility drills and foam rolling
  • Improve erector spinae stability – the erector spinae is key in keeping your torso tight and erect. I have found Good Mornings to be most beneficial in improving spinal stability (mid rep range/5-8 reps and focus on technique and keeping tight)
  • Keep your knees out. Keep your knees on the way down but even more so as you begin to ascend upward. When knees are out and elbows are up, the mid back is less likely to cave in
  • Push through your heels – the weight will move forward if you use your toes rather than your heels (make sure your heels don’t come off the floor!). You’ll lose balance, lean forward and probably drop the bar.

How about you? What has helped you reduce your forward lean?