When your elbows and upper back collapse in the clean

Last year I wrote about the importance of keeping your elbows up during front squats. Reading this article back now makes me realise how far I’ve come in my technique! As well as strength getting better for front squats, technique has also improved enormously. I like to put this technique improvement down to the Smolov squat routine making me front squat high volume, high weight four times a week!

I do however, still have a tendency to drop my elbows, often in the front squat and all the time in the very bottom position of the clean. This is terribly frustrating for me because when my elbows drop, my upper back collapses, the bar falls forward and I miss the lift.

Having spoken to Neil Dougan, an experienced weightlifting coach, he has suggested that this particular problem can usually be attributed to two things:

  1. Glute medius activation
  2. Tight lats at the connection to the humerus

Let’s look at each of these in more detail:

Gluteus medius activation

In the bottom position of the front squat, the purpose of the gluteus medius is external hip rotation and the gluteal group does not fire until the athlete is in the bottom position of the squat. Proper activation of the glutes abducts the hips and allows the athlete to ascend out of the squat with good form. When this muscle is inhibited, the ascent becomes more difficult – knees can collapse inward, the pelvis can lose stability, elbows drop and the back ends up collapsing.

There are some good ways to activate this muscle group before weightlifting. Glute-ham raises (GDRs) and squats with a mini band just below the knees are two of the best. The squats are demonstrated here in this video:

Tight lats

People who front squat the first time often find themselves with back DOMS! This is because the lats are used intensely during front squats in order to stabilise the body and keep the torso as upright as possible. For someone to keep their elbows up during a set of front squats, requires intense activation of the latissimus dorsi muscles, particularly at their insertion to the humerus bone. You can feel this part of the lats by putting your arms out in the clean-grip front squat position and feeling just underneath your underarm on the side of your back. When your arms are in this position, your lats need to be tight and solid in order to keep the barbell stable and the torso vertical.

There are some good exercises to activate and strengthen the lats. Upright rows with a very narrow grip help strengthen trapezius and the rotator cuff muscles. The rotator cuff is a group of four tendons that covers the humeral head which is the area of muscle we are interested in (where the lat inserts to the humerus bone). Another superb exercise would be the snatch-grip deadlift. This exercise is a good technique for teaching athletes how to activate their lats during the snatch/clean pull – and this “feeling” of lat activation will carry over nicely to the “elbows up” position in the front squat/clean.

Neil Dougan recommends this lat stretch:

To activate your lats before lifting, another trick is to use a resistance band or mini band. Put the band on a chin up bar and stand beneath it. Raise your left arm overhead and place your right foot forward for stability. Now pull very slightly but firmly on the band and you should feel your lat working. Change arms/legs. It’s a very slight movement but very effective. Be sure not to use your arms or anything else to fight the resistance, this is a specific lat exercise.

Hope these tips help.