Many people – myself included – struggle with keeping elbows up in the front squat. This is an extremely important part of front squat technique however and needs to be learned, improved and executed at all times.
There are a few problems that can arise when our elbows drop in the front squat. All of these link to each other:
Your back rounds
If your elbows drop, your upper and mid back will round and your abs will no longer be able to support you. If the back rounding is excessive, the bar will fall off your shoulders and you won’t be able to complete the rep.
Something more important to be aware of though, is that allowing your back to round like this can really strain your back muscles and your spine.
Your hip drive will be inhibited
Your hips are everything! The hips and glutes are very strong and generate a lot of power. If your elbows are dropping, causing you to lean forward or your back to round, your hip drive will be killed. The squat will be far harder than it ought to be and you will be using the wrong muscles to come out of the hole.
Your knees might cave in
Low elbows that cause the chest to cave and the back to round can mean the glutes are inhibited.
If your glutes are not working properly to get you out of the hole, your knees are far more likely to cave in. Glutes ought to be able to control knee movement and one of the ways they do this is through hip abduction. Knees caving in is poor technique, and over time can lead to the development of poor movement patterns and/or, even worse, knee damage.
As you can see, any of these problems can occur when the elbows drop, but they all link to one another as well (this is because the abs and back are what connect the hips and the shoulders). You may find you have one or all of these problems.
How to fix elbows up in your front squat
Assuming that 1) your front squat technique is good and that 2) you have good mobility and that it’s not because of immobile shoulders/wrists that’s causing your elbows to drop when you front squat, there are a few things you can do to improve this issue. I have listed these below.
A simple point to understand is that it is your upper and mid back that rack the bar, not your shoulders and not your arms.
N.B. If your front squat technique is poor or you think your shoulders/wrists are what’s limiting you to maintain the high elbows position, see a PT or coach for assistance.
Set your upper back
Your upper back is a very important stabiliser in the front squat. Read our drill on how to set it before you front squat and do it before every workout.
Activate your rotator cuffs
If these muscles are not activated, your elbows are likely to drop. Look up some simple exercises you can do to activate your rotator cuffs and do them frequently or before you front squat.
Improve your thoracic extension (work on your “hunchback posture”)
Your mid-upper back (thoracic spine) is what keeps you nice and upright. If your normal posture is hunchbacked, you will automatically find it so much harder to keep the elbows up during your front squats. Work on your posture always, throughout the day every day, whilst going about your daily life. Stand tall and proud.
Foam rolling your mid-upper back often or before you do front squats can help mobilise this area of the spine.
You can also lie on your back on the foam roller with your arms out to extend the thoracic spine (and get a nice chest stretch at the same time!).
Build your abs
Your abs are key stabilisers in your front squat. If your abs are weak, you will not be able to stay upright – your back might round, your abs might cave, your elbows are likely to drop.
Strong abdominals are very, very important for front squats. Indeed, they are often the limiting factor to how much weight you can lift and will fatigue sooner than your legs do.
My suggestions on how to build your abs? Front squat more. Front squat at a weight that allows you to keep a very upright posture. Your abs will develop quickly.
Another trick is to do front rack holds, which are a sort of weighted upright plank. Get into the rack, rack the bar on to your shoulders as though you were setting up for a front squat, and just hold the weight statically for 60-90 seconds. Focus on your abs doing the work.
Build your entire core
Your core is between your shoulders and your hips. Because the weight is front loaded in the front squat, your core is worked far more than in the back squat. Focus on good quality reps every time you front squat and over time you will build a very strong upper back, mid back and abdominal muscles, which are two of the most important stabilisers in this exercise.
Front rack holds will help build the upper and mid back too.
Get used to the high elbows position
Learning the correct elbow position in the front squat can take some time and often feels awkward at first. Take the time to get used to it by doing lots of front rack holds and front squatting at lower weights that allow you to keep your elbows very high.
Use the front rack position for other exercises as well, such as lunges, Bulgarian Split Squats and step ups. Since these exercises require you to use a lower weight than for front squats, they’re all perfect opportunities to practice the high elbows position.
During your front squats, have cues in your head or have someone else shout out cues at you. Find a cue that works for you. Some ideas might be:
- “Elbows!” (reminds to keep elbows high)
- “Chest up!” (chest up means elbows high)
- “Hips!” (encourages hip drive/glute activation out the hole which can stop elbows dropping)
- “Knees out!” (encourages glute activation which can stop elbows dropping)
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for sorting out the elbows problem. Front squats are hard. Keeping the elbows high is hard. Most lifters will struggle to keep their elbows up, especially at heavier weights. You will find that it is your core (abs and back) which is far more likely to limit your front squat progress than your legs. A strong core means high elbows and high elbows mean a strong core.
This high elbows position can definitely be improved however and I hope the tips listed here help you. I’m a firm believer in keeping things simple and think that, in so many cases, the fix for many of the problems we encounter is to just do that particular movement more often. I don’t think you need to do any particular “fancy” other exercises in order to learn how to keep the elbows up. Just front squat more!
A strong front squat greatly helps your clean. Nail your form down in your front squat and reap the rewards in the carryover to your clean. Standing up from a clean with your elbows dropped makes things excruciatingly hard… and that’s before you’ve even done the jerk.