It would be quite the disservice if we left the topic of improving overhead and front mobility without talking about the benefits of simply EXAGGERATING these positions. Exaggerating means you are going to make a position harder in some way; you will aim to go beyond what you’re currently comfortably capable of to help increase the comfort of the position or orientation of your regular position. This is the same concept of the “elevated toe squats” we previously covered. One typically feels an immediate sense of greater ease of the regular position once they go back to it, and as these reps add up over time they can help make long-term change as well.
Specific exaggerations can and should play a role in general maintenance and insurance for the overhead and front rack positions. This is essential even if you/once you’ve passed all the mobility tests. We’ve talked a lot about “molding” to chip away and make change towards creating more ideal positions; but, once we’re there, we want to avoid “cementing” our ranges and abilities to these positions. To ever be truly comfortable in a position, to own that position, and for it to be optimally usable, you should have some excess range and/or ability. If you do not spend some time BEYOND that range or increase the difficulty of the position, your body will ingrain (or “cement”) to a limited range. For example, the life-long powerlifter who only ever squats to his competition standard of “parallel” will likely be limited to that specific depth and those ranges in the ankles and knees.
Along the way, I myself have fallen victim to some “cementing.” For most of my career as a competitive weightlifter I front squatted, cleaned, AND jerked out of my fingertips (meaning the bar was rolled as far out as it could be without the pinky or any other fingers slipping out from underneath the bar). I remember having the ability to hold the bar comfortably with a fuller grip, but it just wasn’t something I even considered necessary since that’s not how I clean and jerked. When I started coaching, I recognized that my front rack position was by and far the most limited position within my lifting. I realized this was a perfect example of the body locking to specific ranges or positions used constantly, and over a long period of time. Since holding the bar in the fingertips requires less mobility than holding it in the palm, this position that was once a partial range for me became my end range. This affected my elbow flexion by tightening the triceps. With an empty bar I could barely keep the fingertips under, and it took at least 70 kilograms (“2 reds”) for the bar to sink into my front rack enough to get my elbows up to an ideal position. Not pushing BEYOND for just some of my repetitions left me short of both better overall mobility, and maintenance of the most solid/comfortable/usable position, both of which provide insurance against injury, and improve health and longevity.
With this realization I became very curious as to why my overhead position had not been negatively affected in this way. In fact, my overhead position was VERY comfortable compared to my front rack. How can someone so comfortable overhead, which is seemingly the harder of the two positions, be so uncomfortable and limited in the front rack? As I thought about what my programming looked like through the years, and specifically what I was doing for overhead work, there was a lot of “exaggeration” beyond the snatch-grip overhead position. The primary exercise was Jerk-Grip Overhead Squats; with the hands more narrow than my snatch grip, this was a solid exaggeration. A few others included Behind-the-Neck Jerk-Grip Strict Press and Snatch-Grip Squat Press (aka, “Snatch Sotts Press”). Both of these added difficulty to the ultimate position. Additionally, I found myself regularly screwing around on my own in training or showing off by doing overhead squats with my hands touching (another stupid weightlifter trick). These are just a few of the exaggerated exercises I was doing regularly that contributed to my overhead ability. (Of course, I realized there was NOTHING similar I was doing for the front rack, but more on that in a minute.)
Being that most athletes I came across at that time had more trouble with their overhead position (or at least that’s what was more easily observable to me as a young coach), I started experimenting with these exaggerations in an attempt to help their overhead ability. But the problem was that these exaggerations were either very difficult for them (resulting in compensation) or impossible at that moment in time. Some of them had difficulty with a regular (snatch-grip) Overhead Squat, at least to a very minimum level of quality. So what could we do to get them more comfortable there and then head towards the ability to do some of these other exercises? I desperately wanted THEM to be capable of “stupid weightlifter tricks” because I knew that was how they’d reach their potential with the Olympic lifts. This certainly sparked my passion for mobility, and there began my journey and mission to learn as much as I could on the topic. What, if anything, could be done with a barbell as a prerequisite to these higher level exercises and as drills to help improve mobility?
Well, I now have a program called “Barbell Mobility” that combines exaggerated, loaded positions with specific mobility drills to help athletes increase their Olympic lifting potential. A big part of this program is also using progression. For example, progressing into a Jerk-Grip Overhead Squat over time by starting with both hands only about 1-inch more narrow than their snatch grip. Or starting even more simply: holding the bar overhead in different ways in the standing position. (How about we crawl before we walk, or rather, stand correctly before we try to squat): For example, mobility-wise, holding the bar overhead with a jerk-grip is an exaggerated position – or one of higher difficulty – than the snatch grip. Additionally, if you think about what makes an overhead squat harder than holding the bar overhead while standing, it’s that the torso angle changes, therefore the angle between the torso and arms becomes smaller, and requires more mobility to keep the bar overhead while descending. So, I started mimicking this angle change in the standing position, and working toward the athlete being able to go BEYOND what it would need to be in a squat. (I’ll present this exercise in the next post). These progressions and exaggerations have become a great source of maintenance for me as an athlete (and just a solid, meaningful warm up for the Olympic lifts) since I am not doing as much jerk-grip overhead squatting (or showing off) these days.
Exaggeration in the Front Rack
I was witnessing the power that this exaggeration had for the overhead positions of others, so I started trying to exaggerate my own front rack position using the same principles. I started by simply trying to hold the bar with a fuller grip while front squatting. At this point I had cemented to the fingertip grip so much that I could not do a full-grip front squat without my elbows dropping to the extent that they would touch the knees, and any grip wider or more narrow was painful. Additionally, with reps, the grip would relent and it frustrated me that I could not maintain the exaggeration. I needed to take some steps back, and find the most basic form of exaggeration for the front rack just as I had done for overhead.
Around this same time I was working with a few athletes whose grip we had widened in the clean. With this change, their hands would always slide right back in while a few fingers would slip out from under the bar – right back to where they were before. (Their body had cemented to that front rack position). This was before I knew much at all about how to assess and address mobility and instead I was trying to fix them with cues and encouraging them to front squat with this wider, better grip. But even with their front squats, it didn’t take long for their hands and fingers to wander off. After many months of this I started threatening to duct tape their hands to the bar to keep them at the width I wanted and to force the fingers to stay under. I was of course joking, but I literally wanted to find a safe way to leave them with no choice but to maintain. As I was performing clean deadlifts with pulling straps, a light bulb went off in my head. (Straps are very common for clean and snatch deadlifts especially when doing higher repetition and/or tempo work so that the athlete can focus on the movement and/or tempo without having to worry about the grip). I became very aware that the straps were tightening my hands to the bar and allowing me to maintain that solid, full grip through my entire, heavy 10-rep set. I reasoned that they certainly could and would force the same with the bar in the front rack.
Now, weightlifters also very regularly use straps for snatches, but I’d only heard of athletes using them in the clean a few times. One of those times involved a lifter cleaning from blocks, and because he was locked to the bar in this way, when he missed a rep and the hands could not come free, he broke BOTH of his wrists. (We’ll talk more later about where and why straps are appropriate and how to safely use them). That said, cleaning with straps did not seem a safe option – and to this day I recommend against it at any load – but light front squats with straps might accomplish the goal and would be much safer (especially since using a controlled movement as opposed to a much more dynamic one).
I immediately started playing around with this. It was initially very uncomfortable and difficult and I learned that I needed a good upper-body warm up and some time in the straps just holding the bar (with some weight) in the standing position before I could even think about squatting with them on (progression!). Still I was able to work up to the ability to accumulate some good reps with full front squats pretty quickly. I would do (and still do to this day) just a few light front squat sets with straps before doing anything out of the front rack and I noticed that my front rack and grip was more comfortable going into the rest of the workout than it had been in any training towards the end of my high level career. Thus, I discovered another new, usable exercise for myself and something I could give to others. I named it “Front Squats with Straps” (and you can call me Captain Obvious) and we’ll cover it in more detail in the next few posts.
Both of the exercises I developed are “catch-alls,” and will challenge the body in multiple ways. This means that whatever part of your body is most limiting the overhead or front rack position, is where you’ll feel it/be taxed the most. For example, when I perform front squats with straps I feel it mostly in my triceps as this is my greatest limiter (the triceps are keeping me from bending my arm as much as I would need to to be able to comfortably maintain a full grip on my own). Since I know that my triceps are my greatest limiter, I can do some specific tricep mobility BEFORE my front squats with straps sets (alternating as indicated in the previous assignments).
Next, we’ll consider some ways that these can be incorporated into your training, or even as performance-enhancing warm ups or drills in competition. Whether you are looking to improve your mobility, get more comfortable in your regular overhead and front rack positions, or maintain in general, there is a protocol to fit your needs. For each exercise, we’ll first confirm the base set up and how to perform them, as well as what to look out for to ensure you’re getting the most out of the drill. Additionally, we’ll cover how to increase or decrease difficulty to find your starting point or match your current level.
BE SURE to tune in tomorrow for the 2nd of this 3 part series, and then on Friday for part 3!
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW