One of the problems I see all the time at the gym and get a lot of questions on is the front rack position. Being able to get into a good front rack position is vital for many movements in the gym – front squats, cleans, and pressing/ jerking/ receiving the bar to and from the overhead position. If you lack the ability to get into a solid front rack position, you’re not only going to limit progress, but also putting yourself at risk for injury.
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, the front rack position is when you rack or hold the barbell on your shoulders in front of you. Why is it that so many athletes struggle to accomplish and maintain a good front rack position? More often than not it comes down to mobility issues in the upper body. Many lack the mobility and flexibility to fully achieve the position. The biggest contributing factors are thoracic spine (mid back) restrictions, lat and teres major tightness, stiff triceps, and poor wrist mobility. However, a solid, stable core as well as hip and ankle mobility can play a role as well.
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons why an athlete can suck at the front rack, and it’s easy to go from exercise to exercise and spin your wheels. So, I decided to put together this post to help streamline improving your front rack. Essentially there are two parts: 1 – mobility drills to help improve individual components limiting the front rack, and 2 – mobility drills done in the front rack position itself. I can’t express enough how important it is to spend time in the front rack position itself to improve the front rack. No different that sitting in a deep squat to improve deep squat mobility!
As we start to think through this problem, I want to first call out the most common reasoning error from athletes that I see time and time again. When they struggle with achieving the front rack position, they often feel like their wrist are going to explode! They feel like the wrists are the problem, and immediately begin engaging in various self wrist extension mobilization exercises. The reality, however, is often the wrists are the victim, and not the actual cause of the issue. Forcing the front rack when you don’t have it not only jams the joints and ligaments in the wrist but can cause an extreme amount of neural tension through the carpel tunnel (located right at the base of the wrist) from extreme compression. Ever experience pins and needles the night after a day of high-volume front rack work? Your likely forcing a position your body can’t handle. 9 times out of the 10, it’s not the wrist that’s the issue, so we need look elsewhere.
The following exercises/drills have been beneficial for many of my athletes, clients, and training partners for improving the front rack positioning in weightlifting and CrossFit movements, so I’ve outlined them for you below in order of most common limitations to least common.
1. Thoracic Spine Extension/ Rotation
Many of us sit behind a desk all day in a slightly rounded or hunched thoracic position, making it difficult to extend and achieve a strong, neutral position in their trunk with solid core stability. Thoracic (mid/upper back) extension is a key component of a healthy front rack. While its extension that needs improvement, the thoracic spine facet joints are built more for rotation. Improving thoracic rotation can actually indirectly improve thoracic extension better than directly attacking thoracic extension. Therefore, I recommend you perform an exercise that targets both. Here’s a great example:
2. Latissimus Dorsi Flexibility
The lats (and teres major) play a major role in achieving a full front rack position. In CrossFit especially, these muscle often are over worked and flat out beat up on a regular basis, increasing stiffness over time. Stiff lats can not only prevent you from getting your elbows up, but also limits shoulder external rotation – a KEY component of achieving a solid front rack. Here are two exercises I love to improve this:
3. Wrist Extension Mobility
Last (and probably least), its worth briefly discussing wrist extension mobility. While this is motion is usually not the issue, it can contribute in some cases. Especially if you’ve had a previous wrist injury, and developed some excessive scar tissue, the wrist can get pretty stiff and lead to front rack limitations. Here are two options to help open them up.
Now it’s also important to note that there are other factors can limit the front rack position as well. If you can achieve a solid position in standing, but struggle at the bottom of a front squat or while catching the clean, you likely have a hip or ankle mobility issue (check out our YouTube Channel for great example to improve these). Limitations in core stability, technique and form errors, and inability to generate intra-abdominal pressure, called the Valsalva maneuver, can play a significant role as well.
There you have it. I recommend you pick 1 exercise per body region (choose whichever you fell produces the biggest change for you specifically), make a check list, and spend a few minutes a day 3-5 times a week rolling through them. They are not only effective as a warm-up, but feel free to add them in during rest breaks throughout your front squat or clean session for added mobility work.
Now, this is only half the battle! While adding some additional accessory mobility drills are great, I’m a firm believer that using the loaded front rack position itself, may actually be even more beneficial in achieving that solid front rack position. Not only is working in the front rack obviously going to carry over to using the front when lifting weights, but will have more long term carry over, which is of course most important. No one wants to spend 10 minutes a day for months on end with mobility programs, right? Part 2 dives deep into this topic, see be sure to check it out!
Thanks for reading,
In a society where sitting has become the norm, it’s time we take a STAND! (see what I did there?) But seriously, we as Americans spend way too much time sitting. We sit when we drive to and from work, we sit behind computers at work (or at home), we sit to eat, we sit while we wait, we sit while we watch our kids play sports, and you’re likely sitting while reading this right now haha. The list goes on and on. Not to mention, most of you reading this post probably like to workout. So we go from all that sitting, head straight to the gym (or home gym), and expect to workout and move in a healthy way without pain. I’m sorry to say but our bodies are just not made to be handled this way, which is why I’ve created this post...to outline how sitting is wrecking your body, and what to do about it.
A big thing sitting does is limit your mobility and strength. How? Let’s start from the top down. When we sit, we tend to slouch. This creates rounded shoulders and promotes a forward head position, which in fact is the leading underlying cause of most types of neck pain. Forward head posture leads to stiffness in the uppermost portions of our neck, and weakness of the muscle in the front of our neck. Our bodies will compensate for stiffness with extra mobility elsewhere, often leading to pain.
Additionally, sitting puts the hip flexors (iliopsoas), a muscle that attaches from the lower back (lumbar spine) to your upper thigh (femur), in a shortened position. So after sitting all day, you stand, and your shortened hip flexor ends up pulling your lumbar spine into a more arched position. And one of the most common causes of back pain is due to excessive extension/arching. Similarly, a shortened hip flexor can pull your thigh (femur) forward, which causes the back of your actual hip joint/capsule to become tight causing jamming of the structures in the front of your hip. This is what often leads to that “pinchy” feeling when you squat deep.
Along those same lines, sitting puts your glutes in a lengthened or slightly stretched position. Muscles like to function at a specific length, so if they’re longer than they should be, they can’t contract as well as they should. And the glutes, being one of the biggest and most powerful muscles of the human body, need to be strong! When your glutes don’t fire adequately, you compensate, which leads to poor movement patterns and potential injuries. You end up using other muscles such as your quads, low back, and hamstrings. This often leads to low back pain, hip pain, and even knee pain.
Lastly, typically when you sit, your feet aren’t directly underneath you, they’re in front. Why is this important? Well one of the most common causes of ankle injuries and pain is due to decreased ankle mobility - specifically in the toes to nose direction (dorsiflexion). This is needed to climb and descend stairs, squat deep, lunge comfortably, run properly, etc. With insufficient ankle mobility, we often see tendinitis or overuse type injuries due to the muscles around that joint being overworked while trying to move a stiff ankle. When we sit, we end up sitting with our feet out away from our body or stretching our legs out in front of us which only makes that “toes to nose” direction that much further away.
Besides these few examples of how sitting can affect your mobility and strength, there are alot of other health benefits that you get from standing. Standing has been shown to increase productivity, increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain helping you concentrate longer, and has a positive influence on mood, energy, and overall well being. It has also been proven to reduce blood sugar levels and decrease your risk of developing heart disease. Reducing sedentary time can improve physical, metabolic and even mental health.
With all of the issues that sitting causes, there’s a solution, the good old standing desk. But wait! There are a few things you need to know before buying an using a standing desk.
How to Pick and Choose
There are many different types of standing desks out there. These range from inexpensive stacking of a couple of books underneath your monitor, to simple adapters that you place on top of your own desk, to fixed standing desks, hand-cranked, and powered automatic self rising desks. How do you choose? The bottom line is that you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to achieve the benefits of standing. As long as you’re able to adjust the height to meet your specific ergonomic needs...mission accomplished.
How To Set Yourself Up for Success
Adjustable standing desks are preferred because of just that...they’re adjustable! You can adjust the height to fit your ergonomic needs. It’s important that the top of your computer screen is at eye level. This will prevent you from having to strain your neck or from falling into the forward head posture that often leads to pain. Your keyboard should be positioned low enough to have a comfortable 90 degree bend in your elbow (making laptops not ideal). Your forearms should be able to rest on a stable surface. If your arms aren’t supported, this can lead to neck and shoulder pain from increased tension or prolonged stretching of those muscles surrounding those joints.
Aiming for Symmetry
Most of us that go and try to stand for long periods of time, end up standing in what’s called “swayback”. This means you let your hips drift forward causing your body to “hang out” on the ligaments in the front of your hips (not good), all while your muscles are not well engaged. This is very efficient from an energy standpoint and is what allows us to stand for a long time, but causes strain and creates issues throughout the body. One big issue is that it places enormous strain on your lower back because of the extension moment it creates. Similarly, it isn’t healthy to stand asymmetrically on just one side all day. If your weight is shifted to one side too much or you have only one leg propped up all the time, this can lead to a lot of other imbalances and issues. If you do this, keep things balanced from side to side, spend time on both legs. The best way to stand is to “unlock” your knees (a.k.a. keep a tiny bend in your knees) and stay symmetrical. This engages your muscles and helps protect your joints.
A Different Type of Interval Training
As you’ll notice, this new active way of standing will get tiring! That’s why we recommend easing your way into this whole standing thing. The benefits are GREAT, but you won’t get those same benefits if you’re doing it wrong. So if you suddenly go from sitting all day to standing all day, you run the risk of developing back, leg, or foot pain; it’s better to ease into it by breaking it up into intervals such as 30 min sitting / 20 min standing / 10 min walking (or whatever you find works best for you!).
This is where we share our expert opinion on hot topics in physical therapy, injury prevention, sports performance, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and sometimes other random thoughts. Enjoy.