The front rack is a very strange movement. It’s very specific to olympic weightlifting. You really only see this position for barbell movements like the clean and jerk, thrusters, push press and front squats. For some it’s very easy to get into and for others it’s downright impossible. One thing is for certain, front rack mobility will be imperative for mastery of these movements.
The front rack also comes in all shapes and sizes. Some lifters use a very wide grip with the elbows relatively low like Cheryl Hayworth (bottom image) and then others like Chad Vaughn (top image) use a front rack position with the elbows much higher.
The basic goal of the front rack is to form a nice solid platform to propel the barbell up overhead during jerks and push press movements. It also serves as the platform for the barbell during front squats and catching the barbell during a clean.
Because of the front rack’s obscurity it also gets a little confusing to figure out how to fix when it falls apart. Some common front rack issues people face in the gym:
- Trouble getting the barbell to rest on the shoulders
- Trouble getting the elbows up high enough to create a stable platform
- Elbows dropping at the bottom of the clean / squat
- Elbows dropping and back rounding out of the hole of a clean
- Wrist, elbow or shoulder tightness and pain
If we want proficiency in these lifts and joints that aren’t mad at us all the time we’re going to need to figure out what the issue is and how to fix it. Fortunately for us, we can easily break down the front rack to figure out where these issues lie and can easily implement front rack mobility and strengthening drills to correct it.
First and foremost, understanding which areas of the body need attention is imperative when breaking down front rack mobility issues. The key areas of focus will be:
- The Wrist
- The Elbow
- The Shoulder
- The Thoracic Spine
- The Shoulder Blade
- Every Else Downstream (hips and ankles mainly)
What’s important to understand is that all areas need to move well in the front rack and if one area is particularly stiff or isn’t doing it’s job, the stress will fall onto another area to try and pick up the slack.
Front Rack Mobility: The Wrist
The 1st area of concern when breaking down front rack mobility issues is the wrist. You’ll obviously need to be able to extend the wrist well (and the fingers) in order to get into an adequate front rack.
The wrist is a relatively small joint and although you’ll need enough mobility here, I often find people having pain in the wrist during exercises that utilize the front rack. This is often because the wrist is actually moving too much to make up for a lack of mobility elsewhere. Since the wrist is a small joint it usually can be forced into extra movement when other joints are stiff and not performing their job properly.
That being said, we still need to assess for wrist mobility deficits. Here is a very easy test I originally picked up from my colleague Dave Tilley at www.shiftmovementscience.com
The goal here is getting the crease of the wrist below the level of the elbow without the palms separating. If you can accomplish this, then you don’t need any more mobility in your wrists. You’ve got enough to get into a nice front rack position.
Now if you don’t have the range of motion, you’re probably limited in 1 or more of several potential areas:
- The forearm flexor muscles
- The wrist joint
- Wrist boney limitations
Pictured above are the forearm wrist flexor muscles. Collectively when stiff they can limit wrist extension and the front rack. Notice some of these muscles run all of the way to the finger tips. Since the fingers wrap around the bar in the front rack we’ll need mobility for all of these muscles and this bit of information will becomes more relevant when choosing mobility exercises.
Now, the wrist is fairly complicated and consists of several carpal bones that connect to your radius and ulna bones. The joint itself is meant to have motion when going into extension (which is needed for the front rack). What is interesting and important to understand is that motion in the wrist itself can be limited by boney structures on the back side of the wrist.
When we extend the wrist, the carpal bones get closer to the radius and ulna. If we extend enough (and if we aren’t limited first by our muscles) our end range of motion can be limited by those two boney surfaces meeting together. In severe cases, excessive compression between these 2 surfaces can create something called “dorsal impaction syndrome” which is basically these 2 surfaces getting irritated from being compressed together too much.
My favorite mobility exercises usually consist of a combination of soft tissue work (like foam rolling and lacrosse ball work), static stretching, eccentrics (muscle contractions while the muscle lengthens) and then utilizing these new positions during training. For a primer on why I like to use a combination of these interventions check out these articles below:
- Evidence Based Guide to Eccentrics for Mobility
- How Often Should I Stretch?
- Does Foam Rolling Create Long Term Mobility?
Here are a few of my favorites to start with:
Front Rack Mobility: The Elbow
The next joint downstream to the wrist is the elbow. We’ll need to bend (flex) well from the elbow for a great front rack. An easy test for elbow mobility is the knuckle to shoulder test.
Basically can we touch the 1st knuckle to our shoulder? If yes, great. You have plenty of elbow mobility and don’t need to spend more time here. If not, we have some work to do.
Now if you don’t have the range of motion, you’re probably limited in 1 or more of several potential areas:
- Compression of the forearm and biceps muscles
- Triceps muscle tightness
- Joint and boney limitations
Similar to the wrist, we’re going to be having a combination of restrictions coming from the joint, muscle and bone in the elbow. The way I tend to assess which structure is the major limiting factor is by simply just bending the elbow repeatedly and assessing for what’s called “end feel” when the joint reaches it’s end range of motion.
If the “end feel” feels like compression or “mushing together” of the forearm and bicep, there’s your limitation. You better stop doing bicep curls or you’ll never be an all-star with the front rack. (Kidding aside this can be a pretty challenging obstacle in muscular lifters) If this is the case we’ll be forced to try and gain motion from other areas. (i.e. the shoulder or wrist)
If the end feel is “springy” in nature (Imagine the pulling a rubber band apart) then chances are the limitation is muscular in nature and is probably coming from the triceps muscle. People with this end feel often feel restriction coming from the tricep. Eccentrics, static stretching and soft tissue work works well for improving mobility in these folks.
If the end feel is “hard” (basically the elbow stops abruptly at end range) then the limitation is more likely coming from the joint or boney limits to motion. This is especially true if a restriction is felt inside of the elbow joint.
For these folks I’m not a fan of aggressively stretching the elbow because we’re probably stretching out structures that hold together the joint (which we need for stability of the joint and don’t want to compromise this) or we’re just compressing bones together the same as in the wrist example covered previously. I tend to use mobility drills that work a combination of elbow mobility (elbow flexion) and shoulder mobility (shoulder external rotation) at the same time. Be on the lookout for those in the upcoming shoulder section of this article.
The last principle to understand is that athletes that use a wider then shoulder width grip will be placing additional stress on the inner ligament of the elbow (the UCL or “Tommy John” ligament) and having major limitations in either elbow or shoulder mobility can increase stress here.
We’ll go over some of my favorite mobilizations for the elbow in the shoulder section below…
Front Rack Mobility: The Shoulder
Now, I think shoulder mobility is very poorly understood when it comes to the front rack. I think the big misconception comes from people stating that you only really need around 90 degrees of shoulder flexion for the front rack (and most people can lift their arms to 90 degrees).
Here’s the thing, the issue isn’t purely flexion of the shoulder. It’s the combination of flexion and external rotation. If you need to use a wider grip (potentially for technical reasons or if you have elbow mobility problems and can’t get the bar to rest well on the shoulders) then your shoulder is forced into external rotation.
Lastly as you descend into a squat and the torso inclines forward, you actually need quite a bit more shoulder flexion (especially if you have trouble keeping your torso upright during squats and cleans).
On top of that, in the bottom of the squat your lower back will round (flex) slightly (also known as butt wink). This is important for 2 major reasons. We’ll discuss the first now and save the second for later on.
The lat muscles attach from the arm bone (humerus) down to the lower back to something known as the thoracolumbar fascia. The lat muscles are stretched with a combination of lower back rounding (flexion), shoulder flexion and shoulder external rotation. Funny thing is, the front rack position in the bottom of a squat requires shoulder external rotation, shoulder flexion and lumbar flexion.
What do you think happens when the lats are stiff when trying to perform cleans? Generally the elbows drop (limited shoulder flexion), the fingers (starting with the pinky fingers) will slip out from under the bar (limited shoulder external rotation) and your clean will look like a mess.
When the lower back flexes, this stretches the lat muscles. If the lats are tight, this will pull the elbows down and internally rotate the shoulder (opposite of what we want). So what we end up seeing are the elbows dropping towards the bottom part of the front squat or the rock bottom catch position of the clean.
To complicate things slightly, the lats are not the only shoulder structure that limits mobility in the front rack. The shoulder capsule does as well. The shoulder capsule is a series of ligaments that crosses over the shoulder joint to help keep it stable and healthy.
Now, the reason why we should mention the shoulder capsule is because we want it to stay strong and stable. Again, it is very important for stability and health of the shoulder. It probably isn’t a good idea to aggressively stretch the shoulder into external rotation because we could potentially be stretching out the shoulder capsule. For this reason (and just like the elbow joint) I like to keep mobilizations here mild and to stop if any pain results.
So bottom line is we need adequate lat and shoulder mobility for the front rack. How do we measure this? Well here is my favorite way to assess it. I like to have my athletes seated in front of a rack with the barbell set to shoulder level. The seated position mimics the lumbar flexion you’ll need in the bottom of a squat and the bar set at shoulder level mimics the height you’ll want your elbows during the clean and jerk. From here we assess how much external rotation range of motion is present:
So, if we pass this test with flying colors, we don’t need shoulder mobility. If we do then we’re going to need some mobility for the lats and shoulder joint. Here are some of my favorites:
Some of my best articles with lat mobility drills:
- 3 Hacks to Get the Most Out of Your Lat Stretches
- Are Lat Stretches Dangerous? With 5 Better Ways to Build Overhead Mobility
Lat mobility is also extremely important for overhead lifts. I have a few more articles to help with overhead mobility if that is an issue for you:
- How to Assess and Fix Overhead Mobility Limitations for Strength Training in the Gym
- 5 Minute Overhead Mobility
- 6 Principles to Finally Fixing Your Overhead Mobility
Front Rack Mobility: The Thoracic Spine
The next piece of the puzzle needed for an all-star front rack is going to be thoracic spine extension mobility.
Having too much thoracic flexion will drive the elbows down in a clean or front squat.
Of course it makes sense like in any other part of the front rack we need to assess for mobility of the thoracic spine. My favorite way to do this is to have an athlete lay on their belly and press up (leaving the hips on the floor). From there have the athlete relax their spines completely allowing gravity to extend the spine maximally. From there use your hands to feel the spine and see if the spine extends well or if areas of the thoracic spine are stuck in flexion. I made a video of how I like to assess this you can check out below:
As in any other area, only apply mobilizations if you actually find mobility restrictions present. Keep in mind that gravity and times tends to make this area stiff and having mobility here is incredibly important for olympic lifting. It’s often an area of low hanging fruit for most athletes. Here are a few of my favorite mobilizations for this area.
A few more old articles about thoracic mobility if you’d like:
Front Rack Mobility: The Shoulder Blade
The next area we’ll discuss is the shoulder blade (aka the scapula). Now, generally the scapula doesn’t need a lot of mobility per se but actually needs to be in the right position to help support the barbell on the shoulders. A lot of times this is more of a technical issue and less of a mobility issue. So, the motion we need at the shoulder blade during front rack movements will be:
- Scapular upward rotation
- Scapular posterior tilt (combined with thoracic extension discussed earlier)
- Scapular protraction
- Slight scapular elevation (shrug)
Now, describing scapular motion is actually fairly complex and is beyond the scope of this article but here are the movements we’ll be needing in a nutshell:
Now, this bit of information is way too complex for most people to get anything practical out of. I really just like a few cues to help people get into the right position for the front rack. You can help people get into a solid front rack position with the cues below:
The other piece is that you can add a few drills to help athletes feel what it’s like to be in a proper position. These next few drills will help with that and also serve as phenomenal warm-up drills prior to performing clean and jerks and front squats.
Downstream Mobility for the Front Rack
Another very important consideration for the front rack, especially for cleans and front squats (doesn’t apply the same for jerk variations) is downstream mobility (Mobility in the lower half of the body). For example, if we’re limited in mobility in say the ankles, this will force the torso into more torso inclination. Unfortunately for us this will also drop the elbows and make our front rack look poorly (when in reality the limitation is coming from the ankle instead). Check out the video below to help understand this concept:
So just make sure you screen your athlete’s hips, knees and ankles prior to assuming they have a front rack issue when they run into trouble during cleans.
Need more help with squat mobility and checking downstream structures?
- Mobility and Stability Drills to Improve the Snatch and Overhead Squat
- 5 Minute Hip Mobility
- An Overlooked Reason for Toe Out in the Squat
- Which Ankle Mobility Drill is Best for Me?
After going through these assessments now you can’t figure out exactly what are of the body needs front rack mobility and you can get to work. If you want some help figuring out how to create a mobility program CLICK HERE for some help.
Is it a Strength Problem or a Mobility Problem?
Lastly, I really want to point out that not all issues in the front rack are due to mobility problems. A big chunk of these issues are coming from either a lack of strength or also a lack of proper coaching for the lifts. You can’t automatically assume mobility as the culprit when you find a front rack problem. If someone lacks strength they’ll need more strengthening to improve things. If they move poorly from years of bad habits and a lack of proper teaching progressions then a better coach is your best solution.
For more on this check out some of these articles:
- 5 reasons Your Elbows Drop During Heavy Cleans and Front Squats
- How to Tell the Difference Between Mobility, Strength and Technique Problems When Someone Has Poor Technique
Also keep in mind that strength issues, mobility issues and technique errors can all co-exist together. It’s up to us to figure out where the issues lie and apply the correct fix for the problem. Hopefully after reading this article you’ll be armed to figure out if anyone has specific mobility issues and to start applying some good mobility drills to correct the problems.
Hopefully you enjoyed this article and thank you for reading!
Want a completely done for you 4 week mobility program to fix your front rack? I’ve got a program to do just that.
I’ve got front rack exhaustion from this article,
Dan Pope DPT, OCS, CSCS
P.S. I have completely done for you 4 week long mobility programs for the front rack, overhead and squat mobility as well. Click HERE to check them out