We have all heard this cue (elbows up, meaning 90 degrees/perpendicular to the torso) during the jerk, where a coach or fellow lifter repeatedly urges the lifter to drive their elbows up while holding the weight in the front rack, dip, and drive phases of the jerk.
While this is a common coaching cue, is it the best for all lifters?
While teaching the jerk positioning, dip, and drive phases, there are some factors that can affect the elbow position in the jerk:
- Stage of Development
- Mobility Limitations
- Grip Width, Comfort, and Sense of Stability
Therefore, in this article we will discuss factors that can influence the angle of the upper arm/elbows in respect to the torso, and what are the implications they may have on jerk performance.
The Purpose of Elbows Up
Generally speaking, the elbows up cue attempts to promote:
- An upright torso position that allows the barbell to be kept as close as possible over the midfoot.
- An upright torso that does not allow for a forward lean in the dip and drive phases of the jerk due to the barbell slipping out of the front rack via collapsed thoracic extension/dropped elbows.
- Leg dominant dip and drive phases of the jerk by not allowing the arms and shoulders to become the primary movers in the dip and drive phases of the jerk.
While these are the three main reason why we generally suggest elbows up as a viable technique for most lifters, there are some other factors to consider before going all in on this common coaching cue.
Below are factors that coaches and athletes need to take into consideration when applying this general coaching cue on a highly individualized basis.
Stage of Development
When coaching beginners and intermediate lifters, I often urge them to all assume the highest elbow positioning the can take (parallel to the floor), primarily because these lifters often use their upper bodies when attempting to jerk. By forcing them to take their upper bodies out of the equation during the support, dip, and drive phase, it often helps them develop a more leg-dominant vertical patterning. As they progress, I often urge athletes to play with elbow positioning that best allows for lat engagement and active upper back and arms, yet does not alter their vertical, leg dominant dip and drive performance.
Often, lifters come to weightlifting classes and sessions with some sort of mobility issues that limits their ability to assume the “elbows up” position. While many factors can influence what is that individuals ideal “elbows up” position, tightness in the anterior shoulder, triceps, lats, and traps may not allow for a comfortable and stable rack positioning. In the event they are having issues, I often have found two things that can be immediately addressed. First, they may be taking too narrow of a grip, and therefore widening will allow for a more stable and comfortable rack position, however the elbows may not be as upright as one may hope. The second, is that they may be lifting their elbows as vertical as they can at the expense of stability and comfort (often the lack the upper back strength to stabilize), which can be just as detrimental as dropping the elbows in the jerk.
Grip Width, Comfort, and Sense of Stability
Briefly discussed above, the width of their grip on the barbell can drastically affect their ability to have the elbows at the highest point that allows for comfort, stability, and vertical positioning. When coaching some functional fitness athletes and beginners who are transitioning into formal weightlifting, I often find they assume to narrow of a grip, which forces their elbows to collapse inwards and often lack the upright support they need during heavy jerk training. While the narrow grip may allow for the elbows to be parallel to the floor, it does not allow for a strong and stable rack in these athletes. By moving the grip wider, we often find limited mobility that impedes the elbows from coming up as high throughout the jerk, but increases stability and comfort of the lifter. By altering a lifter’s grip width, you can help to individualize their positioning in the jerk so that they are able to maintain an upright, stable, and comfortable position in the dip and drive phase.
How to Determine the Best Elbow Positioning
There will always be anomalies and exceptions to the rules in weightlifting. That said, lifters can start with the understanding that the “elbows up” term serves the purposes stated above, however in most cases needs to adapted for find the best setup for the individual lifter. Many lifters may find the dropping their elbows (by 10-30 degrees below perpendicular to the torso) allows them to create maximal lat and back engagement and decrease the amount of time needed to fully extend their elbows under the barbell (as the lower they are the less they need to drop first then extend). When determining the best positioning for you or your athletes, the lifter needs to be able to maintain a stable, upright, and comfortable positioning during the support, dip, and drive phases of the jerk. Most importantly, that positioning cannot allow for any forward sway or additional dropping of the chest and elbows during the dip and drive phases.
To the extent to which one’s elbows should be up in the jerk is highly individual based upon the reasons above. Many coaches and athletes may differ upon what the best practices are, however most should be able to agree upon the correct support, dip, and drive positioning, which can be negatively impacted by dropping elbows in the jerk. Therefore, rather than coaching and cueing “elbows up”, I challenge many coaches and athletes to better individualize the positioning by analyzing the mechanics of the support, dip, and drive phases to then determine how a lifter’s elbow and torso positioning can be altered (either elbows raise more or dropped more in setup) to increase their jerk performance.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
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