by Geoff Rand
I had the following conversation with a shift mate several months ago after she told me she lifts on her own at her local gym and I told her I do CrossFit. I’ll use her initials here.
SB: How much do you squat?
Geoff: Which type of squat?
SB: What do you mean? Like a normal squat.
Geoff: Front squat, back squat, or overhead squat?
SB: Oh, I don’t do anything but back squats. The other ones look too hard.
Geoff: That’s why we do them…
Maybe SB lacks the confidence to lift something overhead and squat with it, or maybe she’s uncomfortable being uncomfortable in the positions you need to maintain to properly hold a squat. Perhaps she lacks the mobility needed to hold the front squat. I’m not sure. I didn’t get too far with her. I think she just wrote me off as one of those “crazy CrossFit people.” In any event, she could probably benefit from having some good coaching. And, I’d bet money that on her first front squat, her coach would tell her, “Elbows up!”
We’ve all heard this cue before, but what exactly does the coach mean when they say elbows up? That cue addresses a number of things. Let’s dissect it.
Probably the most obvious correction that the elbows up cue makes is to remind the athlete to keep their chest up and prevent it from falling forward as he or she descends into the squat and stands up out of it. Your goal should be to get the elbows and upper arms to approach parallel to the floor. Take a look at these photos:
At the bottom of my squat, my elbows are way down and my back is rounded, and if I began to stand, my chest would be set up to fall forward every time, which will cause unneeded pressure to be placed on my lower back and knees.
At the bottom of Amanda's squat her elbows are parallel to the ground, and she is able to maintain a flexible, yet stable spine and chest kept high throughout the lift.
Even though I’m exaggerating a poor body position in my photo, I do still struggle at times to maintain a proper elbows up stance. But some athletes don’t find this stance so difficult to hold. So why is it harder for some and easier for others?
First, while the elbows up cue reminds us to lift the chest by raising the elbows, really, the ability to keep the chest up comes from having flexibility in the thoracic spine, and being able to maintain core stability throughout the lift.
If lack of T-spine flexibility is affecting you, a foam roller can be your best friend. Spend a few minutes pre-WOD and roll out that back and get a good full-body stretch in once you’re warmed up. If you do this regularly, you’ll see improvement in your spinal flexibility. Definitely do it before WODs involving front squats. Or, come to yoga class. A lot of our routines focus on lengthening the spine.
Don’t forget about core stability. Many of us have a tendency to let it all go as we let gravity take us down to the bottom of the squat. Core stability is set at the top of the squat, in the rack position, not something you pick up and start doing along the way. Some coaches will tell you to lock your rib cage into your hips. Others will say to hold your inhale and press your diaphragm downward into your pelvis. Don’t forget your lats. They are part of your core as well. Keep them engaged as you lower into and out of the squat.
Another component of being able to keep the elbows up is wrist mobility. If you’re in need of some wrist work, you can turn your palm up and grip your forearm with the opposite hand, pressing the thumb hard into various areas of the soft tissue, all while flexing and extending the wrist.
You can also mobilize the wrist by flexing and extending your wrist in various positions on a box or against a wall.
If getting your elbows up in the rack position is difficult for you, even with just the weight of a PVC pipe, you might need to work on your overall shoulder mobility. Dave shows how to use a PVC pipe to get the shoulders to loosen up and to work on getting your elbow higher.
Doing wall front squats can help with thoracic spine flexibility, core stability, and elbow positioning all at once. The wall will correct you if you start to fall forward.
Don’t forget your lower body's role in the front squat. Ankle mobility is necessary to maintain proper position, and if you lack it, your foundation is compromised and it can easily cause you to hunch forward.
To work on ankle flexibility, roll out your calves with a lacrosse ball. Sometimes tight calves limit the mobility of the ankle. Dave also shows how to roll out the front of the shin to achieve better ankle flexibility.
These exercises are not a one-time fix. They are something you’ll need to work on pre or post-WOD over a period of time, and are examples of what you’ll find yourself doing if you happen to attend one of our mobility classes.
So once again, we’ve seen why our coaches use cues. Can you imagine them trying to explain all this before a WOD?
There’s a lot that’s being addressed when a coach tells you “elbows up.” Hopefully with a little better understanding of the mechanics of the movement, you can become more efficient and lift heavier loads more safely, ultimately making these “other squats”, as SB would call them, not “too hard.”