Last year a promotional picture was taken of me in the bottom of a front squat. As you can see to the left, the barbell is resting on the front of my body (specifically, my shoulders). This is known as the “front rack” position for a barbell. The picture appeared on Instagram and one of the comments given was “elbows up!” The commenter felt my elbows were too low, thereby creating a “soft” and unstable position for the bar. The “elbow’s up” cue is a common one in the sport of Weightlifting and CrossFit because if the elbows/arms are too low, the bar won’t be secure and it may slip away from you. But exactly how far “up” do the elbows need to be in order to secure the bar?
There is no singular answer to this question because anthropometry (proportions of the human body) can restrict your position. If we take a closer look at my front rack position, you can see that my elbows are fairly high up – they are about 20 degrees below parallel to the ground (Figure 1A). If we now take note of my limb lengths, my upper arm (humerus) is 13.5 inches in length while my forearm (radius/ulna) is 12 inches (Figure 1B). Note that for all front rack positions, the hand (which is cradling the barbell) effectively adds a bit of length to your forearm. My forearm, when combined with my hand, therefore happens to be the length of my upper arm (or perhaps slightly less). This enables me to get a fairly high elbow position.
As a counter example, if we take a look at my friend Coach Novak, we can see that in his front rack position, his elbows are pointing about 45 degrees below parallel (Figure 2A). They don’t get as high as mine do. This isn’t because of technique or flexibility. His limb lengths are the driving force. His upper arm is 10 inches in length while his forearm is also 10 inches (Figure 2B). Remember that the hand adds some extra length to the forearm, which means the reach for him will be pushed closer into his throat. Because it’s not comfortable or safe to jam a barbell into your throat, the compensation one makes is to have the elbows sit a bit lower, and this is what he does. It doesn’t mean he’s not pushing up hard. He is.
To further illustrate my point as to why the elbows will generally not be up to such a degree that your upper arm is parallel to the ground, look at Figure 3 below. Here I create the idealized position of elbows up and upper arm parallel to the ground. Look where the bar is positioned in this setup. It’s behind my neck. So, with my body proportions, it’s simply not possible to get my elbows all the way up – I would have to push it through my throat to the back of my body. People who can get their elbows all the way up, generally have forearms that are shorter than their upper arms. Mine are a bit shorter, but not quite short enough.
I should note that at some point, if your elbows are down too far, you will not have a very secure front rack. In this situation, you will run into one or more problems such as the wrists bearing all the load or not enough shoulder support to keep the bar from sliding off. There are ways to offset a rack position that has your elbows too low, such as taking a wider grip on the bar, puffing your chest/shoulders up more to create a shelf, and pointing your elbows up and in at the same time. However, these can only help so much. In the end, if your forearms are too long relative to your upper arm, you may have difficulty with the front rack position (some people might not be able to rack a bar on their shoulders at all).
Returning to the very first picture of me in a front squat, the angle really isn’t ideal for assessing my front rack position, but likely my elbows weren’t high enough (it was a very early morning shoot and several takes in, so I was probably exhausted). Still, the point to take away is that you can’t judge an acceptable and functional front rack position simply by how high the elbows are. It will be rare to find an individual whose elbows will be high enough to keep their upper arms parallel to the ground, but plenty of people can achieve a good front rack position with less than optimal body limb proportions.