By Dave Thomas
Front rack is a very difficult position to settle into comfortably as it requires mobility in four main areas. The annoying duality of it is that it’s also one of the most common as we need it for front squats, thrusters, cleans and sometimes jerks depending on your preferred set up. Without the ability to catch the bar or begin in a solid front rack all of those exercises will inherently be limited or flawed. And, limited or flawed means no progress. I’m pretty sure we don’t all train just to flat line.
Problem is, modern man and the workplace have made it very difficult for us to easily reach that position as it requires many abilities that your work desk is prohibiting all day long.
- Mobile T-spine (the upper-ish part of the back known as the thoracic spine, T-spine for short)
- Properly functioning externally rotated shoulders
- Flexible triceps under load
- Flexible wrists
Lack any one of these four capacities and it’s like walking into a bar wearing Tevas.
You simply have no chance.
You’ll be unable to achieve the requisite amount of mobility for any heavy clean or front squat, and no amount of in-class coaching on mechanics will be able to help you. It’s flawed mobility under tension and the only way you can even implement the right mechanics is by working on your mobility.
It’s like trying to repair a car as it’s driving. Impossible. It needs to be taken into the garage and have all of the diagnostics run on it, so that’s what we’re going to do here today.
Before we get started, here’s an overall break down of the front rack and where we want to be.
Now, let’s take a look into the positioning, shall we?
Understanding Front Rack and Why It’s Difficult
First, hop out of your work station and on two feet like the bi-pedal manner of our evolution as we are going to run through our baseline test. We first saw this type of positional suggestion from Kelly Starrett and it makes a whole hell of a lot of sense so we created this baseline test using it. This is the position we just watched Caitlin settle into.
Step #1: Standing erect, externally rotate your shoulders so that your palms naturally rotate open and are facing away from you. Your arms should be hanging down in a V type of position, thumbs pointing away from your body.
Step #2: Now, curl your hands up as if you were doing a barbell curl.
Step #3: At the top of the R.O.M., flip your palms outward and drive your elbows up.
You should feel your scapulae compacted, your thoracic back musculature (T-spine) condensed and supportive of your shoulders. In this position, the bar will be sit lightly against the throat and comfortably across the deltoids.
If you cannot hold this position of elbows 100% parallel to the floor, downward scapulae and neutral spine like Caitlin exemplified, then you will not be able to hold it under tension. It indicates you have a tight upper back (immobile T-spine), tight shoulders, tight triceps or all of the above.
What we’re shooting for is that perfect thoracic extension (standing tall) and externally rotated shoulders (not caved inwards).
Tell me how many times you engage in this while hunkered down at work for 8 hours? Probably not many as your boss most likely doesn’t give a rats ass about your front squat. This is precisely why a lot of folks suffer from that rounded upper back, turtle look. It’s death by T-spine flexion and internal shoulder rotation all day long at work, two things directly caused by sitting and typing and what we absolutely want to avoid in front rack. This chronic positioning is what leads to the eventual creation of the dreaded Upper Cross Syndrome.
Further, if you are just now starting an active lifestyle and a reformed video gamer or couch potato, your upper back and shoulder mobility are going to be just terrible. They just are, and the only way around it is to work on what we provide you today.
We’ll be coming back to this baseline test throughout and re-testing. After each requirement and the drills suggested, re-test this baseline and see if it helped mobility in the test areas.
Now that we have established proper positioning and a bit of background on what’s fighting against, let’s get to how to correct it.
Quick Fix: Widen Your Grip?
Sometimes, the problem is far easier than we give it credit for and in this case a lot of folks can correct their front rack by simply widening the grip. The reality is that we want a much wider grip on anything front rack than most of typically use.
While attending one of Bob Takano’s USAW weekend courses, Coach Cullen-Carrol walked by my front rack and saw that I was having issue maintaining external shoulder rotation at bottom under full tension, so he simply widened my grip out two inches on each side and presto. It was like the magic front squatting fairy came by and sprinkled hypnotic lifting dust all over me.
Problem instantly solved.
If your fingers are scrunched in by your shoulders it means you are internally rotating the shoulders. Let them space out a bit further along the knurling. Taller guys have absolutely no business being inside the knurling with their grip. Widening the grip will slowly rotate the shoulders outward, allow for better ease in getting the elbows up and move the pressure away from the wrists and onto the meat of the shoulders.
Requirement #1: Mobilize Your T-Spine
We’re going to start with musculature and joints furthest away from the point of contact with the bar and move inward. If there’s something wrong with the core of the movement, it doesn’t matter how capable the extremities and levers are, your potential will be greatly limited. In this instance the first potential weak spot for front rack is the aforementioned restrictions in our T-spine, or upper back musculature.
Foam Roll Lats in External Rotation (via Columbus Weightlifting)
Lacrosse Ball T-Spine Soft Tissue Roll
Requirement #2: Properly Functioning Externally Rotated Shoulder
A front rack position is all about starting with an externally rotated shoulder, and holding that position comfortably. If you cannot get into maintained external rotation under tension, while holding the bar comfortably across the shoulder meat then you have tight shoulders.
Refer to that test position from the introduction. If you do not start out using this position of external rotation then you are priming the movement incorrectly from the get go.
Here’s How to Get Better at Holding External Rotation
External Rotation w/ PVC Pipe Stretch
There are also banded variations out there that address this same principle. Kelly Starrett has some good banded variations floating around YouTube and his MobilityWod page, but we find the PVC to be a bit easier in execution.
Requirement #3: Flexible Triceps
We can have the most mobile upper back and properly functioning shoulders all day long, but if the levers are limited then the finishing front rack is still going to be flawed. In my humble opinion, tight triceps are the easiest to fix and most noticeable once it’s fixed. So, now that we have restored the engine it’s time to fix the wiring and the finishing touches.
Here’s How to Get More Flexible Triceps
Triceps Roll Out & Extension with Barbell (via Kelly Starrett)
As you will see, the re-test after just a few seconds of rolling is remarkable. We’re talking two inch gap between unrolled and rolled triceps, and this was just during a basic demonstration. Imagine what this can do with daily attention.
Dynamic Triceps Drive w/ Barbell (via Mark Rippetoe)
Requirement #4: Flexible Wrists
Without flexible wrists we cannot properly extend in front rack and the result is a wrist joint that becomes compacted and pressurized when it’s not equipped to do so. In reality, we don’t need much from our wrists to achieve proper front rack since, as we have just corrected our back, shoulders and triceps, the bar should sit somewhat comfortably across the deltoids with your fingers simply guiding it into place.
Still, we want to ensure that all checkpoints across the position receive an “A” score and the wrists are part of the team, too. Your wrists to forearm relationship is similar to the calf to ankle relationship. If the joint is immobile and/or sore it’s largely tied to the preceding musculature so simply forearm stretching can do wonders.
Fortunately, this is one we can work on all day long at our jobs and not look like a total freak in the workplace doing so.
Here’s How to Get More Flexible Wrists
Static Wrist Flexor Stretching (via Greg Everett)
You can do this variation kneeling, as well. You simply plant your palms into the floor in a position of all fours and rotate the inside of your wrists outward.
There you have it, P360 Nation. Is this going to cure all that ails you? Maybe, maybe not. Mobility limitations are a complex beast but this is a very thorough and comprehensive start. There are dozens more resources out there that some Google and YouTube searching can accomplish.
We recommend going through these drills and stretches at least four times per week if it’s corrective, and twice a week if it’s preventive. You are more than welcome to use the bands and rollers before class in the outdoor space by the two racks, and if you want to really step your game up the overall investment of all of these tools will be under $40 at Play It Again Sports.
If you cannot achieve this position, there is absolutely nothing we can do for you during the workout. If you take this stuff seriously, then you need to take ownership of the mobility work around it and make the investment of time and money. Most of us are unwinding years of sitting and hunching, and it takes work and attention to do so.
You’ll be rewarded almost instantly.
Be vocal if you like this entry. If so, we’ll start doing them more regularly and a bit more intensive of specific movements and positions. If you read, we’ll write. But we need to know!
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Dave is co-owner and coach at Performance360 in Mission Beach, San Diego, as well as a Level I USA Weightlifting Coach.