When I take a beginner through a teaching progression for the clean, the first exercise in that sequence is what is known as a “Frankenstein Front Squat” or “Zombie Squat.” This is performed by placing the bar across the front of the shoulders with arms extended straight out in front of the body (like a tranced Frankenstein or Zombie). More specifically than just across the front of the shoulders, the bar should be on the clavicles and into the base of the neck, with the bar buried into and touching the entire front rack space from the edge of each shoulder. The idea is to show the athlete where we want the bar to be in the regular front squat, as well as received in a clean, then supported through the stand (not to mention the ensuing setup and execution of the jerk).
This type of squat is always a great “conversational piece,” and it starts with this question, “Is the bar supposed to be choking me?” My conditioned, go-to response being, “not necessarily, but it can take some getting used to.” Be aware that if the shoulders are shrugged up or one is not able to relax the upper body (or coordinate appropriately), the bar will be floating above the clavicles/higher on the neck which intensifies the discomfort. Placing the hands underneath as in a regular front squat will likely diminish the choking, but still one should get comfortable and strong supporting the bar and load Frankenstein-style to achieve their greatest potential in the clean (and jerk). So, we’ll need to adjust the bar and/or cue the athlete as needed (finish that conversation) to achieve the best position possible. The bar should be snug up against and into the body, and once the hands are underneath, it is not necessary – or desirable – to support the bar with the arms at all.
Most athletes will be able to find this ideal bar placement through this method in the standing position, but many will lose this “slot” at some point through the descent of the Frankenstein squat. This can be due to simply lack of repetition, hesitation to keep the bar against the neck, mobility in the upper body, or mobility in the lower body that causes the torso to pitch too far forward. The more the torso pitches forward, the more the arms have to be lifted to keep the bar from falling, which at some point will elevate the bar off the clavicles and out of the most solid and supportive position. In front rack (or clean reception), the athlete will have to lift the elbows higher to accommodate, and/or some of the load will have to be supported with the arms. (This is undesirable because it will not take a whole lot of weight to overcome the arms in this position.) If you struggle with this type of a squat, or even initially finding the “slot” where there is contact with the bar throughout the entire front rack, then consider which one(s) of the above-mentioned culprits you need to address.
To improve bar positioning within the Frankenstein – and for better carry over to the regular front rack – position your thumbs UP. (Externally rotate your arms out from the shoulder in the direction of tightening a light bulb with your right hand, and loosening one with your left). This is comparable to the desired external shoulder rotation in the overhead position, and we also want external rotation in the front rack. The amount of external rotation one needs will be dependent on elbow position in relation to the hand. With the grip width we’ve recommended (2-4 inches outside of the shoulders) and looking from the front, we want the elbow to be inside of the hand (with our points of reference being the elbow and index finger).
With the elbow inside of the hand, notice the triangle that is made between the forearm (the radius and ulna), the upper arm (the humerus), and the bar. With a triangle on each side, let’s call these the front rack “triangles of support.”
In a perfect world for each individual these match up (symmetry) and are “isosceles” (a triangle of two equal sides: the forearm and the upper arm). This means that the point of the elbow would be right in the middle of the index finger and edge of the shoulder. But, any type of triangle is far more supportive than no triangle at all in structure AND engagement. With triangles intact, there is more of the arm in front to help offset the position and load, and just like the arms being twisted back (external rotation) with the bar overhead, the lats are more turned on to strengthen the entire structure underneath (the torso). If the elbow is out even slightly – say, in line with the index finger – the triangle is smashed and the integrity is compromised. The further the elbow goes out from there (in relation to the index finger), the front rack changes and becomes less supportive. Give this a try:
- Position one arm out in front of the body.
- Bend the elbow completely (hand as close to the shoulder as possible with palm facing up), keep elbow directly in front of/in line with the shoulder, humerus parallel to the floor.
- Look down and take note of the shelf that is created with the shoulder in front of the body. Also, reach over with your opposite hand and feel your lat engaged under that shelf.
- Now, move your elbow all the way out to the side (with the hand still as close to the shoulder as possible).
- Note how the shelf has changed. Imagine the bar and see how the support has shifted away from the body. Again, reach over with your opposite hand and feel your lat; you will notice that less of your lat is wrapped around the rib cage and it is softer.
With this lack of engagement, compensation will surely ensue. There is greater likelihood for the bar to slide down and the load to lead the torso forward without the elbows in front to offset it. Also, the back is more likely to round with the lats off and the remaining structure unable to withstand.
Additionally, when the elbows drift out to the side they also tend to drop towards the ground. One of the most obvious characteristics of a front squat or clean is a high elbow position. I’m sure you’ve all heard “elbows up!” at least once, if not hundreds, thousands, or millions of times. Just in case my assumption of “obvious” is mis-measured though, let’s try another test:
- Repeat steps 1-3 from above.
- Now move your elbow all the way down instead of out as you did in step 4 from above.
- Note once again that the shelf is different and less supportive the lower the elbows drop.
All this being said, that go-to cue of “elbows up” is not enough for most athletes; it is only a bandaid to the compensations that come with a grip that is too narrow. (Remember the extreme but common example is with the index finger touching the shoulder and an elbow that is swung too far out.) This is why the grip range of 2-4 inches outside of the shoulder is so important (ideal) and the first part of your setup. Simply putting your hands on the bar within this range outside of the shoulders makes our recommended elbow positioning more automatic, easier to achieve, or possible in the first place (if the index finger is touching the shoulder, there will be no triangle). “Elbows up” is certainly not wrong or unwarranted, but should be accompanied by the appropriate hand positioning, and for most athletes, cuing the “elbows in” as well. “Elbows up and in, elbows up and in” has become the most common phrase for me when cuing front squats.
To summarize, to create and maintain your “triangles of support”
- Use clean grip (hands 2-4 inches outside of shoulders).
- Force all fingers to stay under the bar throughout each squat rep.
- Apply the cue of “elbows up and in”.
This brings us back to coordination of the front rack when setting up or moving. Like the overhead position and bottom of the squat, this is about being appropriately engaged, but mostly relaxed and comfortable with end ranges and skeletal structure supporting the load. Next, we’ll confirm those end ranges and leave you with a summarized checklist to help you use and develop the best front rack position for your front squats, cleans, and jerks.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW