Imagine performing a 100-meter, overhead walking lunge with an axle bar (this type of barbell is fatter/of greater diameter than a regular barbell). How would you hold the bar to give yourself the best chance to finish the task without putting the bar down? First of all, your wrists will be forced back (extended like in a push up) so that there is sufficient base to support the fatter bar in the palm. If you kept your wrists completely straight you would have to hang onto the bar entirely with your thumbs. Additionally, your arms are likely locked straight and your shoulders relaxed (down/un-shrugged). Bending the elbows and/or shrugging the shoulders upwards leads to a less stable “muscled” support of the weight leading to early fatigue and the need to set the bar down much faster.
Athletes will be able to support a loaded bar overhead for a longer period of time with the wrists back, elbows locked, and shoulders retracted down as these are end-range, “un-muscled” support positions. This is no different for a regular-sized barbell. You can see this in any photos of elite fitness competitors holding a bar of any size overhead EVEN THOUGH it was not likely what they were taught. Common teachings in the fitness and weightlifting communities dictate that the wrists should be straight and the shoulders shrugged up. But, being the incredible athletes that they are, their bodies have figured out ways (whether they are aware of it or not) to be more efficient and effective for the task of holding the bar overhead.
You can see these SAME characteristics in photos of elite weightlifters after they’ve completed a snatch and are standing waiting for the down signal, as well as in the bottom of the snatch reception after the bar has just landed overhead. So, this stronger, long-term support position is ideally used for the immediate and shorter-term support of a snatch (and jerk) as well. I like to solidify these points by saying that I am personally not strong enough to receive, stand up, and wait for the down signal with straight wrists, bent elbows, and shrugged shoulders, just like I’m not strong enough to stop myself from going as low as my body can physically go when receiving even a medium snatch weight. Remember the “complete compression” concept we previously covered – these upper body end range characteristics are unavoidable and optimal for the task.
As mentioned above, there is no doubt you will hear some coaches and athletes preach straight wrists and shrugged shoulders. I believe you need to understand more completely where these opposite viewpoints come from and what they typically lead to with heavier weights so you can move forward with more confidence as you work on your overhead end ranges.
First of all, the idea or concept of shrugging up into the bar is something that is cued and exaggerated as a way for a coach to teach an athlete (especially a beginner) to be tight and aware with a bar overhead. I’ve observed this being taken too literally (i.e., one thinking they need to physically receive and hold the bar with their shoulders shrugged upwards, which would literally elevate the bar higher). As it passes down through many coaches and athletes it becomes THE actual technique instead of a temporary exaggeration or teaching cue. Unfortunately, the cue is being taught as the literal action, instead of adjusting the cue for the individual and to the level/moment.
Investigating A Common “Press Out” Scenario
On Day One, a beginner is taught and cued to shrug up (the literal elevation of the shoulders and bar) anytime they have a bar overhead. They are initially capable of holding this elevated position with the PVC pipe or light weights they are learning with. As time goes on and more weight is put overhead, the shoulders begin to compress down whether the athlete realizes it or not. This shoulder shrug action can hinder the best “lockout” coordination as the load bears down in the reception overhead and results in a “press-out.”
“Press-out” is a term used in weightlifting for when the elbows bend anytime the bar is overhead in a snatch or jerk. Even if the elbows ultimately straighten, in a competition it is considered a no-lift. The lifter must catch the weight with elbows fully extended and they must remain extended until the down signal is given – this rule exists for safety and quality purposes.
Let’s put this athlete in the moment of pulling under the bar: the body is going down and as the arms reach full length, the shoulders are elevated. As the athlete continues to descend, the load is being cushioned with the legs down to lower body end ranges. Once that complete depth is reached, the shoulders will now relent and compress to end range. This creates a jolt up the arm that the elbows cannot sustain and they bend; the weight is not halted and continues to descend to the ground, leading to a miss. Or if the athlete is able to cushion the jolt, and restraighten the elbow, the athlete is now guilty of a press-out.
The ideal reception of a snatch needs to be one where we “stick the landing” in regards to the upper body. This means when the elbows lock, the shoulders should already be down at end range (along with the “core” completely braced), and then the load absorbed/cushioned ONLY with the legs down to those lower body end ranges (as we’ve previously established). Complete compression should be reached with the bigger and stronger muscles of the lower body as opposed to those final inches being a “give” in the shoulders.
So for the overhead position, if anything, the effort should be on the elbows. When I say “if anything,” REMEMBER, every action within the reception is optimally a reaction (meaning there should be no cues or focus energy going to the reception portion of the lift), and this reaction as a whole will need to be conditioned. Commonly, the sole focal point/emphasis for an athlete within a snatch is to “punch with the shoulders.” This violates two critical principles: 1) Insufficient focus on the pull and excess focus on the reception, and 2) A forced, uncoordinated reception. You can see how this adds up to double trouble and a greater chance for compensation, a press-out, and/or a miss.
Some lifters will appear to have shrugged upwards as they secure the barbell in the overhead position for two reasons. First, the shoulder blades naturally have to upwardly rotate slightly in order to provide stability for the humerus. Second, the upper traps are engaged to help provide tension for the arm as it supports the barbell overhead. The appearance of an upwardly rotated shoulder blade and engaged upper traps gives some the impression that the lifter is actively shrugging their shoulders upward, especially if they have a very muscular upper back. However, this is often not the case. Excessive upward shrugging of the shoulders can lead to early fatigue of the supporting musculature that stabilizes the joint. Simply put, overemphasizing a shoulder shrug is an inefficient approach to stabilizing the barbell overhead.
The other end range that we’ve discussed and needs to be a part of “sticking the landing” is the wrist. As the athlete is pulling under, the wrists should be at least slightly flexed which helps keep the bar close, and is a stronger orientation to pull the body down with. When the bar reaches the level of the chin, the portion of the pull under called the “turnover” has been initiated. The turnover is all about transitioning from using the hands to pull on the bar, into using the hands to support the bar. As the body continues down and the bar lands overhead, the wrists should continually move from a flexed position all the way to fully extended so that the palm can support the bar.
Another advantage of wrists all the way back compared to completely straight is it positions the bar a little further back, as well as lower (since the body is more compressed as a whole). Give this a try: Place one arm overhead and with a comfortably closed hand, position your wrist straight and note where the bar is (or where it would be if you were holding one). Then, extend your wrist back as far as you can; if you can move your wrist at all, you’ll see that the bar is further back in this second position (circa an inch). This means that you can position the shoulders that much further forward to assist the overall position. The further back the shoulders are, or rather the smaller the angle made with the torso and arms (a straight, 180-degree angle vs one that is closing), the more difficult it is to keep the bar overhead and the more potential compensation there will be. Think how much easier it is to hold a bar overhead in a standing position vs a squat position. (More on shoulder rotation and arm positioning in relation to bar alignment coming soon.)
Common scenarios where straight wrists are seen and cause confusion: 1) With a PVC pipe or light weights, positioning and maintaining the wrists straight is more possible (easy) and a common thoughtless action that is applied (unfelt with the athlete completely unaware of whether the wrists are straight or flexed). 2) Some athletes have limited wrist mobility which can make it look like the wrists are not back at an end range. 3) If the athlete is wearing wrists wraps it can take more weight to force the wrists all the way back, and of course lend to the look of a straighter wrist. 4) Some athletes have weak wrists lending to hesitation or “guarding” with attempts to keep the weight off by maintaining the wrists in a straight or straighter position. This guarding can be in the form of a “death grip” on the bar, and no matter the basis of this extra grip tension, it can straighten the wrists to different extents and bleed tension down the arm and into the body. This can also contribute to a press-out; we want extreme tension here in the lock of the elbow so unnecessary tension anywhere else will limit that effort and strength in that area.
Think of the wrist position a gymnast must assume in order to maintain a handstand. The extended wrist position is a vital requirement for creating a sufficient platform to bear weight (whether a gymnast is stabilizing their bodyweight in a handstand or a weightlifter holding a barbell overhead). If an athlete is unable to position their wrist in an efficient weight bearing position while pushing or pulling a barbell or dumbbell, the body is unable to function at an optimal level. Failure to sufficiently extend the wrist when lifting overhead can lead to excessive forces on smaller structures of the hand/wrist (such as the thumb joint) and down the “kinetic chain” (such as the elbow) to make up for this lack of stability. Not only is this suboptimal for positioning and performance, but over time this increase in force can lead to an injury.
I’ve challenged you many times up to this point to take some time to observe reality, to put what has been covered here and what is continually debated to the test. “See for yourself” so to speak, and therefore strengthen your understanding and purpose. In regards to these overhead end ranges, you can do this by finding an athlete that is demonstrating shrugged shoulders and straight wrists with lighter weights (either with purposes of teaching others, or attempting to implement them within their own lifts), and then see what’s happening in those areas within their heavier snatches. I am confident that you will surely see differences, now with the shoulders compressed down and wrists extended back. These are comparisons I’ve sought out many times through the years, not to call other coaches and athletes out, but with curiosity and purpose as a student of the sport. I want to know what is realistic in the heat of battle and if that differs from what is being taught and/or practiced with different amounts of weight; and ultimately, what I can say to others to help them achieve their goals.
So, consider that your homework. My hope is that this will all be enough to confirm that the unavoidable characteristics of your overhead position are these specific end ranges: wrists back, elbows locked, and shoulders down. Next, we’ll intertwine a few other points for the overhead position that are more optional: shoulder rotation and bar alignment.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW
Thanks for this. I’m not doing any olympic lifts but just trying to learn how to shoulder press is a way that keeps shoulders healthy. I’m confused by the mixed advice. Some like Mark Rippetoe say you MUST shrug at the top to avoid impingement. Others like you and many PTs say you need to keep the shoulders down and externally rotate some at the top. I know that your take here promotes stability with a heavy load but my question is, is there any risk of impingement if you keep the shoulders down and don’t shrug up?