Another gold standard of the grip we are aiming for is keeping all fingers underneath the bar. At a minimum, the tips of your four fingers all stay under the bar through all front squat reps and hopefully your clean reps as well. This is important in your clean because you don’t want to have to spend time and energy bouncing the bar up and down off of your shoulders trying to get those fingers back underneath so you can then jerk it (it’s pretty tricky and an interesting expression of skill to do so, or else a very painful attempt to jerk with any fingers out from underneath the bar). Therefore, it’s important in front squats for insurance and development for application in the clean. Also, since it requires more mobility to keep all fingers under the bar, you get front rack mobility work out of simply maintaining the standard.
But why do so many athletes front squat with only one or two fingers under the bar, and why are so many coaches teaching them or allowing them to do so? Because they are prioritizing a higher elbow position for the front squat over what will ultimately best transfer to the clean and jerk as a whole. This higher elbow position usually feels better and more comfortable to the athlete, and the front squat “looks” better to the coach, but this is a “band-aid” that I strongly urge you not to use.
A few of the most common questions I get about Olympic lifting in general are about the fingers sliding out from under the bar and/or the hands sliding in within the reception of the clean. My initial step in addressing the issue(s) is to ask, “Can I see your front squat?” Since these athletes have not yet made the connection that you should be squatting the way you want to receive, they are a bit confused as to why I’m looking at their front squat. But still they approach the bar and take the bar out of the rack the same old way without thinking about it. I am immediately able to confirm what I would have bet millions of dollars that I would see; something DIFFERENT than what we’d ideally like their grip to be within the clean reception. For example, the athlete only has their index finger under the bar with it touching the outside of the shoulder, or some extent of the hands being too narrow without all fingers under the bar.
After pointing this out I hear, “That makes perfect sense, I’ll start front squatting with my clean grip,” or, “But when I put my hands out that wide and keep all my fingers underneath in a front squat it is not comfortable, I cannot get my elbows up as high, I feel like my torso is too far forward, and it does not feel right.” My follow up question for them is, “So then how do you expect to ever keep your hands from sliding in and fingers popping out from under the bar in a clean?” I know that the “simple” maintenance of all fingers under the bar at their measured clean grip in all front squat reps will make them far more comfortable and effective in the clean, but ultimately the choice and change over time is up to them so I want to give them more than just words of a debate. I want to show them what they’re capable of, and create a physical and emotional feel that will deliver the motivation and understanding to work on the changes moving forward. To promote change, I encourage athletes to perform some front squats with the following adjustments:
- Before you take the bar out of the rack, position your hands at the width of your clean grip.
- As you position your body under the bar and take it out of the rack, keep all fingers underneath the bar with thumbs on the other side.
- Your key emphasis is to maintain all fingers under the bar throughout the set at all cost (meaning if it feels wrong in any way, if you think your torso is too far forward, if you think your elbows are too low, etc., keep forcing it anyway!).
About 95% of the athletes I come across are able to keep all fingers underneath the bar through an initial set and any follow up sets. Many of those athletes in this scenario come off of the first set and say, “oh, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be!” But, even if it feels like the worst front squat they’ve ever performed, the point is still the same: it was POSSIBLE for them to front squat with all of their fingers staying under the bar. Let me confirm that maintaining all fingers under the bar did not lessen the quality of their squat as a whole from what it was before; for many of them it immediately IMPROVED it. Some of them still lose the specific grip width that they started with as their hands slide in a little through the set, but in any case, their job/homework now is to FORCE what they now know they are capable of within all of their front squats. Of course with reps it will get easier and more comfortable AND this counts as mobility work at the same time (since it requires more mobility to keep all 4 fingers under the bar vs just 1, 2, or 3). For those that are not yet able to achieve this, more specific and individualized mobility work will be in order as a prerequisite step.
Let’s take this a little further with yet another debatable topic: should you front squat and clean with a FULL grip, or is a fingertip standard sufficient? “Full grip” means that the bar is all the way in the palm with the fingers completely wrapped (as it would be overhead) as opposed to just the fingers/fingertips under. Being able to front squat with a full grip requires more mobility and translates into the capability and comfort of other skills, i.e., the Olympic lifts. That said, less than 50% of the athletes I come across are able to keep the full grip vs the 95% with just the fingers/fingertips. If you are very comfortable with a full grip in front squats and cleans and a full grip is maintained in your cleans without thinking about it (you OWN that action), then by all means don’t change it. But, if you are not currently capable of a full grip in the front squat (and this means either at all or with overall quality), then to try and force that in the CLEAN would be disastrous. In this instance, think about how the full grip feels and looks in a front squat (i.e., if it causes your elbows to drop so much that they touch your knees while you’re in a squat, if it doesn’t allow the bar to even touch the front rack, if it causes your upper back to round, etc.), it is not going to magically be better in a clean. If you force a full grip under these circumstances, it creates hesitation that will slow down your pull under the bar and turnover with the elbows.
In the end, some athletes will be better off cleaning with a full grip and some better off releasing the grip and rolling the bar to the fingertips in the turnover. Later, we’ll discuss in more detail instances where we would work to change what is automatic in the reception and how we would drill and develop that change. For now, here is a list of what I feel you MUST do:
- You MUST front squat with all fingers under the bar if you’re capable (remember, 95% of you will be able to do this).
- If you are not capable of maintaining all fingers under the bar, then you MUST relentlessly work toward being able to do that.
- If you are not capable of front squatting with a FULL GRIP, I’d say that having this ability is beneficial enough to your overall potential that you MUST work toward being able to do so.
- If you cannot maintain the ideal rack position during the clean (all fingers under the bar) you MUST be consistent with supplementary mobility work (on top of the consistent work with the minimum grip standard in front squats).
Now, if you are holding the bar appropriately at the recommended width, the other critical characteristics that we want to see in the front rack are all likely taken care of as a by-product so let’s not even worry about them. Just kidding, I’m sure you know by now I could never do that; we still need to explore other aspects of the position. Are you placing the bar deep enough into the shoulders and clavicles, and are your elbows in the position of greatest potential? Let’s find out.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW