The Best Mobility and Stability Exercises to Improve the Front Rack: Part 1 – Addressing the Thoracic Spine

By djpope

December 9, 2013

Clean, correcting, fixing, Front Rack, Front Squat, Jerk, mobility, stretches, Thoracic spine

rack-positionOne of my recent patients came in after a cervical fusion surgery looking to get back into crossfit.  We addressed the neck issues and started reintroducing crossfit exercises back into his program.  One big issue we found was some subpar position in the front rack position (That and a lack of ankle dorsiflexion we’ve been working vigorously on).

If you lack the motion required to get into a proper front rack you’re going to have issues with a long list of exercises:

  1. Front Squat
  2. Cleans
  3. Jerks
  4. Push Press
  5. Thrusters

This lack of front rack is bound to leave you being far less efficient then you could be (ie: weaker, slower).  If you’re having trouble with the rack and continue pushing through these exercises you also may end up with a pretty nasty shoulder problems too.  Keep in mind that the shoulder isn’t the only area that takes a beating, you can get problems up and down the chain as well.  Anyone else out there ever experience wrist pain after thrusters or some pretty intense upper back stiffness following some front squats gone wrong?  The elbow can also take a beating here too.

I see poor front rack position fairly often and like I mentioned earlier, I actually ended up with some pretty nasty internal impingement (internal impingement explained HERE) symptoms in the winter of 2012 I attribute to a poor front rack.  Healing was slow and it took about 6 months until I was hitting new PRs with cleans and overhead work again.  My symptoms were plenty of pain right in the back of my shoulder whenever I tried to externally rotate my shoulder to end range (Or get into a front rack position).

The front rack (and subsequent push jerk/press) can be especially aggravating to the posterior musculature of the shoulder.  I see quite a few fellow meatheads with similar tender musculature right in the back of the shoulder that is exacerbated by the front rack.


Meaty nerd thoughts:  This area seems very tender in many people doing serious weight training, especially overhead work.  Maybe the posterior shoulder is overactive because people lack full external rotation motion and subsequently overuse the external rotators?  Are some of the other scapular stabilizers weak?  Maybe the muscle itself is weak? Maybe we are getting some internal impingement (Of the infraspinatus) from end range external rotation needed in the rack position?  These are my thoughts, not sure what the true reason is.

Anyway, I wanted to provide some information on what a good front rack position requires and my favorite do it yourself mobility and motor control exercises to improve this position.

First, what does a good front rack position require?

1) Thoracic spine extension mobility and stability


So the first step in getting your front rack inline is getting enough extension in the thoracic spine.  The more upright you can get your upper back the less the bar will pull you forward, minimizing the work your upper back will need to do and maximizing the ability of your lower body to produce force.

After you’ve established mobility in the thoracic spine, you’re going to need some stability in that area to keep the weight from dumping your torso forward on heavy sets (It helps to get the bar right up against your throat, although it doesn’t feel fantastic).

Here’s a nice video of myself showing a bit of upper back “dumping” during front squats (You know what I’m talking about, the upper back rounds, shoulders fall forward, elbows drop and it feels like your eyeballs are going to explode, just me?).  I also feel like I’m a bit weak out of the hole and can’t maintain an upright torso, basically I need to stop being a baby and fix this…

I’ve written pretty extensively about improving thoracic spine mobility and stability.  I usually like to start off with a bit of foam rolling.  Click HERE for my videos of how to foam roll properly.  You can also find a long list of my favorite thoracic spine mobility exercises with video demonstration HERE.  I also like the thoracic spine mobility and stability exercises seen in my squat warmup video you can find HERE (The exercises shown from the start of the video to the 1:50 mark).

Once you’ve built up some mobility in the spine, you’re going to need to start reinforcing it with some stability.  (Keep in mind that not everyone needs more mobility and not everyone needs just stability.  Depending on the person some people are going to need more of either and it’s up to the coach/therapist to figure out what the individual needs)

The few stability drills in the last video link are helpful to build motor control of the spine, but at the end of the day we need to make sure this transfers over to your front rack.   We’re going to need to apply some load to the upper back in a way that’s specific to our needs.  Brett Contreras compiled a few excellent accessory exercises to improve the stability in the upper back you can find below.  A few of these exercises added into the end of a workout should help:

(Interestingly these are a few of the same exercises Dave Tate prescribed to me back in 2005 when he showed me just how bad my squat was)

There are also a few cues I like to use to keep the thoracic spine in a good position during front squats and cleans that can make a big difference:

  • Elbows high
  • Chin in – This helps to flatten the thoracic spine, just be careful not to end up leaning too far forward because your eyes aren’t looking up anymore.  I also feel that this position is safer for the neck
  • Bar against the throat (so romantic)
  • Stay upright

In my own personal experience the thing that helped me most with keeping my upper back from rounding is just using lighter weights.  I’ll calculate my weights for the session based on my 1 rep max WITH GOOD FORM.  Once my upper back starts to round and I can’t correct it I know I’ve gone too heavy.  You might have to check your ego at the door for several months until your upper back gets stronger but in the long run it should pay dividends.  I know it doesn’t feel good dialing back the weight temporarily but over time it should pay off from a weight perspective as well as injury prevention.  I’ve made my case for better technique HERE.  The same thing goes for heavy jerks, if your upper back rounds when you dip for a jerk then you’re also probably asking for trouble and should dial back the weight until your upper back catches up and form improves.

Also as I mentioned earlier (And will touch on later in the article) getting stronger in the bottom position of the squat should help as well.  If you can’t maintain an upright torso in the bottom of the squat as you come out of the hole, the weight will end up dumping forward regardless of how strong and mobile your upper back is.

So there you have it, part 1 all wrapped up.  Get your T-spine in line.  Next week we’ll talk about shoulder blades, elbows and wrists.  Get pumped.  Here’s the link to part 2.

Spinal Erectors of Steel,

Dan Pope, PT, DPT, CSCS

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