Updated: Aug 16
by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
The bar will not roll down your back. I promise.
We've talked a lot about the Superman Chest--how critical it is to every one of the big compound barbell exercises. The Superman Chest ("proud chest, big chest, chest-up, King Kong chest, whatever) sets the upper back (the thoracic spine), and when the upper back is set, the lower back is more likely to come into line. On the other hand, if the upper back is not set, then a strong lower back configuration becomes almost impossible.
In the case of the squat, a strong, extended upper back (Superman Chest!) has another dimension, besides helping us set our spine into rigid extension. The upper back is where we carry the bar.
Read that again: the upper back is where we carry the bar. We don't carry the bar in our hands, or under our wrists, or in our elbows. We don't carry the bar in our upper extremities at all. That's because we lift so much weight with the squat that carrying any significant percentage of that load in our hands, or with our arms, is a very, very bad idea.
In the standard SS low bar squat position, we carry the bar on the back, with a thumbless "grip" that has the heels of the palm over the bar, trapping the barbell in space between the inferior edge of the scapular spine and the posterior deltoid.
So...it's not really a "grip" at all, is it? It's a trap for the bar--it's some extra friction that keeps the bar pinned to your back....where all the weight is borne. This is why we usually call it the "rack position."
This position can go wrong, however, and often does, when the wrists creep under the bar and start to push up, supporting some of the weight. This comes out of the primal and irrational fear that one somehow has no posterior deltoids like other people, or that the weight cannot possibly be supported by the upper back, or that all loads must be borne in the hands.
Such is the manner of wickedness the Cosmos must visit upon a culture in which nobody carries their own water or firewood anymore.
But I digress. When we let our wrists slip under the bar and apply force to it in a misguided attempt to "keep it up," we may end up repositioning the bar in a bad place--too high. More likely, we will simply impose a maladaptive stress on the tender joints and ligaments of our wrists and elbows. This will lead to fuckery, particularly in the form of tendinitis. Which can be very, very stubborn.
In an exercise of untoward beneficence and compassion, I have granted unto some of you the special and quite gracious dispensation to use a thumbs-around grip on the squat. You have demonstrated decreased shoulder mobility, making the standard "squat rack" position untenable...or at least your Mom has sent you to the gym with a note to that effect (e.g., "Please excuse Rupert from the standard rack because he came out of me sideways and his shoulder just ain't right").
I've given you and your Mom the benefit of the doubt in these matters, and so you are permitted to use the thumbs-around grip.
Am I not merciful?
But this dispensation does not extend to loading the bar on your wrists. In fact, it is even more important for you thumbs-around folks to bear the weight of the squat on your back, because the thumbs-around grip represents a temptation, of Satanic proportions, to hold the bar in the hands. This cannot be permitted. The bar is still on your back, and your hands still serve only to trap the bar there, not to bear it.
In both of these scenarios, we see clues that the bar is not properly borne by the upper back and that there's too much weight on the wrists. One is an overly extended wrist, allowing the bar to be carried on the heel of the palm instead of under the heel of the palm.
The other is elbows jacked way up behind you, almost horizontal. Both of these configurations are Unclean, and they tend to go together. All that's needed to complete the Classic Syndrome is a rip-roaring case of elbow tendinitis (medial epicondylitis/golfer's elbow or lateral epicondylitis/tennis elbow, both of which are recalcitrant and complete bastards).
Rippetoe has gone on at length about elbows-down in the squat--correcting an early emphasis on elbows-up which was found to be counterproductive. And Nick Delgadillo has an awesome cue to help prevent migration of the wrist under the bar in the standard rack. Seriously, go look at that.
Finally, our own beloved Coach Noah Hayden frequently uses a terrific cue which has become part of my own cuing repertoire: Weightless Hands. Your hands should be weightless. Whether it's thumbs-over or thumbs-around, you need to cultivate the feeling of the bar on your back and weightless in your hands.
Lowering your elbows is critical to keeping your wrists out from under the bar and your hands weightless, and it also promotes and facilitates the squeezing together of the shoulders under the bar, the presentation of the Superman chest, proper squat mechanics, freedom and dignity for all mankind, peace on earth, and a stable stock market.
If you've picked up these bad habits, they won't go away overnight. But neither will elbow pain, once it appears, and the time to start pruning this weed is now. As you do your lighter warmups, cultivate the elbows-down, weightless-hands, bar-weight-on-the-upper-back configuration and sensations.
The bar will roll not down your back. I promise. Prove this to yourself with heavier warmup and workset weights until it becomes second nature. We, your coaches, will help you. It will make your back stronger, your squat stronger, and your mind stronger, and it will help us prevent an annoying shoulder or wrist syndrome that can needlessly mess up your training.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.