SQUATS: Upper-back Tightness + Elbow Positioning

24 Aug , 2018  

It’s not that a close grip is bad, because it may be perfect for YOU. However, it can create a ton of pain, inflammation at the wrist, elbow, bicep, and shoulder for many athletes – while not really teaching them how to contract the right muscles, just teaching how to jam muscles and tissue into each other to create tension.


I hope today’s blog is helpful in bringing you closer to your goals and further away from injury as we drill down a little bit more on grip and elbow positioning for the squat. 

I tend to see a lot of discussion on this topic and wanted to chime in on my approach when using your grip and elbow positioning to maximize your squat performance and even longevity. First things first, I am more interested in your ability to brace and have an efficient bar path than talk about what your hands or elbows are doing. However, this seems to be a pretty useful way to help you find and create tension in the right areas and cue yourself to be in a better position. So I am going to talk about the major issues at hand and then help you understand why grip/elbow positioning can impact your form in a positive or negative way.



You know the feeling when the bar is packed with heavy weight and trying to fold you over, crush your chest in and slam you into the floor…well maybe I’m being a little dramatic?

Either way, weight is weight.

We want to avoid that happening at all cost.

The term ‘Upper back tightness’ is thrown around a lot with little understanding of what it really means. It is often overlooked or applied incorrectly. First understand that upper back tightness/tension’ is a part of a bigger puzzle and starts first by understanding how to implement Breathing and Bracing.

Upper back tightness is just one aspect of bracing.

After we understand and correctly implement our breathing to create torso tightness; we then add the icing on the cake and lock the torso down by using our musculature to create tightness where we need it.

While there are many drills, cues, and other means to help lifters learn how to create upper back tightness, beginners tend to find it the easiest when they adjust their grip width closer in. It has been well known in the powerlifting game for years that a closer grip creates a tighter upper back. However, I only use this tip with beginners and later begin transitioning them away from that thinking and into learning how to brace by contracting the muscles and priming the neurological connection. It’s not that a close grip is bad, because it may be perfect for YOU. However, it can create a ton of pain, inflammation, and tendonitis at the wrist, elbow, bicep, and shoulder for many athletes – while not really teaching them how to contract the right muscles, just teaching how to jam muscles and tissue into each other to create tension. I would agree its helpful in the beginning to aid in creating tightness and even help show them what tightness feels like, but it is not necessary. 

Do you need a close grip to have a tight upper back? No.

Those two things are not a package deal, you can achieve one without the other! 

When you are starting out you can have a close tight grip. As you learn how contract and brace more effectively and you begin to handle more weights you may want to shift the grip out to reduce elbow inflammation, only if you are experiencing this pain. If the close grip is working for you and you are bracing with no issues, don’t change it, however, you should still work on creating the tightest upper back possible with your musculature.


Using the positional placement of your elbows is ok as a learning tool, however, learning how to contract the right muscles at the right time is far more beneficial long-term for the lifter. 



To achieve a strong upper back position and brace we need to put our shoulders into external rotation, relative horizontal and vertical abduction while also trying to achieve scapula retraction and depression.

In order for us to effectively grip the bar we are forced to enter into certain movements; if we want to create maximum rigidity through the torso and safety in the lift we need to find a way within this movement to use the muscles involved to create tension.

Here is the rundown:

We use 3 out of 4 Rotator Cuff muscles to externally rotate the humerus: Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus & Teres Minor, some of these aid in horizontal abduction too.

The posterior deltoid to externally rotate and horizontally abduct the humerus.

The Trapezius to depress the scapulae and the Rhomboids to depress and downwardly rotate the scapulae.

The Latissimus Dorsi to extend the shoulder adduct the humerus.

These are the muscles that we are using to create proper upper body tightness.



Let’s review some common ideas about elbow positioning in the squat. The standard rule of thumb is to have your elbows back. Mark Rippetoe, an industry standard when it comes to coaching, teaches us to have the elbows behind the bar and wrist straight (not excessive extension), trying to remove any weight of the barbell over the elbow joint leaving that the load of the barbell over your back. This makes sense and works for a lot of people, however any room you lose in the wrist joint you’ll need to make up in the shoulder joint, so for some larger athletes, this may not be a viable option. It has become very common for lifters to have shoulders problems due to heavy low bar squats; so we tend to find it is common for people who have tight shoulders or lack shoulder mobility to go with the bent wrist approach, which tends to works best with wrist wraps.

Take a look at Elite Powerlifter; Andrey Malanichev’s wrist + elbow position in this video:

When we are squatting we come up against some hard mechanics. The bar is on your back and wants to drag you forward while you fight to hold your set up. A couple of flaws I often see when people are squatting is a compromised brace or a nonefficient bar path. What does that have to do with elbows? Well, you will be surprised.

These issues can come about due to many factors, including mobility issues, neurological deficiencies, muscle recruitment problems or bad mechanics. However, sometimes you can see issues arise that an elbow positioning cue may be able to fix. For example, It is quite common to see the athlete’s hips shoot back and chest fall forward when trying to fight their way out of the squat. Although this can be an issue primarily rooted in posterior tension, quad/hip strength and motor pattern it can also be attributed to poor bracing and torso rigidity. When working on torso bracing I’ve found some athletes have more torso control and can remain more upright while maintaining their brace when they bring their elbows down and forward under the bar. By having your elbows in this position, it tends to help the athlete leverage their chest up. On the contrary, when teaching a lifter to push their elbows back, we can cause them to fall forward in the squat.


A good medium tends to be back and down, depressing the shoulders and maintaining a neutral ribcage to hip position while creating a healthy amount of thoracic extension. 


In Summary:

  1. A closer grip width can help beginners create upper back tightness and can be used as a cue.
  2. More importantly, the athlete needs to learn how to create that tightness with their musculature.
  3. Those 2 don’t go hand in hand and can both exist without the other one. For example, just because you have a close grip doesn’t mean you have great upper back tightness and just because you have a wide grip doesn’t mean you have no upper back tightness.
  4. For the average lifter, the most common and effective cue I’ve found for elbow positioning is ‘Back and Down’ – meaning that your elbows are back, down and locked into position while your shoulders are depressed and tight also.
  5. Bringing your elbows forward and under you can help with torso positioning but at the risk of wrist, elbow, bicep and shoulder inflammation.


My best advice would be to try things out under the supervision of a coach and find out what works best for your mechanics, body type and levers.

I hope this blog has been informative and helpful and thanks again for stopping by.

As always, feel free to contact me on @BroganSamuelWilliams or if you have any questions.





Written by Brogan Williams

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