How Elbow Position Can Make or Break Great Squats

Missing squats from falling forward can mean a number of things. Here's why elbow position is so important for strong squats.

Typically when I watch people squat, I see one of two errors:

  • They don’t brace properly.
  • They fall forward in the hole (hips shoot up before shoulders).

Now, oftentimes, the first problem causes the second, and that’s fortunately a straightforward fix. (Note that I said straightforward, not easy!). Unfortunately, there are actually a lot of underlying issues that can cause you to fall forward in the squat, and it’s not always so easy to identify those issues.

Usually, you’ll hear people tell you that falling forward is a symptom of not properly using the glutes and hamstrings to drive out of the hole. And oftentimes, that is indeed the problem. Weak glutes have plagued new and experienced strength athletes alike.

But, as Greg Nuckols rightly points out, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, falling forward can be caused by lack of proper knee extension — either because of incorrect timing and execution of knee extension out of the hole, or because of weak quads. And then there’s the upper body. While many people overlook the role of the upper body in the squat, it’s actually crucial to finding the perfect technique for your individual leverages.

The Importance of Elbow Position in the Squat

The overarching thing you want to remember here is that your upper body supports the weight when you’re squatting. While the squat is generally thought of as a hip and knee extension, if your upper body isn’t in the right position, you won’t be able to squat — or at least, not squat well.

So, what is the right position for the upper body? Generally, it’s the one that allows you to hold the bar in place with as little effort as possible while still allowing you to balance the load efficiently across your quads and posterior chain. That last part is crucial, and predominantly involves torso angle.

When your torso angle decreases (i.e., your chest and shoulders fall relative to your hips), you shift emphasis to the posterior chain. For posterior-chain dominant lifters, this is good — to a certain point. Too much forward lean and you’ll fall forward! For quad-dominant lifters, it’s bad, as you want to keep more emphasis on the quads by staying upright.

If I’m going to generalize even more: Your torso angle should be pretty upright.

How does the upper body come into play? Well, take a look at this picture:

View this post on Instagram

🔴ELBOWS WHEN SQUATTING🔴 – If you play my squat videos with sound you’ll hear my teammates constantly yelling “ELBOWS!” Do you ever think about your elbows when you’re squatting? How to place them? What’s their role? How could they “damage” your squats? – ✅ Keeping your elbows neutral (down) is the best/safest way to squat: this because when you keep your elbows down, the bar’s load is evenly distributed perpendicularly on your body, placing most of the stress on your quads, decreasing the stress on yor back as long as it’s being kept tight. You can also think about pushing the bar up with your hands as your elbows tuck down. . ❌ Instead, flaring your elbows backwards will draw the load forward aswell in an anti-clockwise motion, decreasing the stress on your legs, while increasing the stress on your lower back for you not to fall forward. . Always keep an eye on your elbows and make sure you keep them down & not back. Sure, lots of people are very flexible and can keep the load evenly distributed even with their elbows backwards, but, that doesn’t apply to most of us! . 🔥 TAG somebody who needs to squat right! Awesome visual by Eugene @pheasyque

A post shared by Dr. Stefanie Cohen, DPT ⚡️ (@steficohen) on

Your elbow position is going to do quite a bit to determine your torso position. If your elbows are under the bar, your torso will be fairly upright. The farther back the elbows, the more forward lean you’ll tend to have.

The Wrist Bone Is Connected to the…

So why doesn’t every lifter squat with elbows directly under the bar? Well, many beginner lifters push the elbows back because it tends to make the rear delts “pop” a bit more, creating a nice shelf for the bar to rest on. However, if you train your rear delts properly, you should have plenty of shelf without needing to push your elbows back.

More often, I hear lifters complain that pushing the elbows under the bar causes pain in the wrists or shoulders. In fact, this is incredibly common, because to get your elbows under the squat bar without an excessively wide grip, you need excellent shoulder mobility, which can be limited by tight pecs, lats, shoulders, biceps, and forearms. That’s quite a list, and most lifters are going to have at least one inhibiting tightness.

Here’s where the hands and wrists come in. Remember, no matter what style of squatting you prefer, the weight should rest on your back — not your hands. Your hands are only there to help balance the bar. And, as it turns out, you can change your hand position to allow you to get your elbows under the bar without needing to improve your mobility at all.

It’s simple: just drop your little finger under the bar instead of wrapping it over the bar.

While this might seem strange at first, doing so will allow you to rotate your wrists slightly, which in turn allows you to better externally rotate the shoulders while still holding on to the bar — even if, like me, you have tight pecs and lats. This might not make sense at first, so watch the “talon grip” in action:

Want more on the talon grip? Check out Ben Pollack’s Talon Grip Guide!

View this post on Instagram

Yesterday @steficohen posted a great explanation of why you need to keep your elbows UNDER the bar when you’re #squatting heavy. I know a lot of lifters who think they lack the #shouldermobility necessary to do that, but if you just drop your little finger under the bar and focus on externally rotating your shoulders, it becomes MUCH easier to get in the right position. @staciardison and I made a YouTube video explaining in more depth, and it’ll drop on my channel later tonight — so make sure you go follow me using the link in my bio! And also check out the little #victorydance after my light #frontsquats today 😂 I’m still taking it easy but excited for when training does pick up, just gotta five my body the rest it deserves till then 👍 #firedup

A post shared by Ben Pollack, Ph.D. (@phdeadlift) on

Putting It All Together

One word of caution when using this technique: while it’s just as secure as a traditional grip, it probably will feel awkward at first. For that reason, I recommend starting off only using the talon grip on your warm-ups until you really feel comfortable with it and with the resulting change in your torso position. Otherwise, you risk missing lifts or even getting injured.

Finally, just because this method will allow you to effectively increase your shoulder mobility, I strongly recommend that you not ignore any tightness in your upper body. Tight pecs, lats, biceps and forearms can all easily lead to injuries in their own right, and the fact that you can now work around those limitations in the squat, you’ll still benefit from addressing them outside of your squat training.

Have you used the talon grip before? Share your tips in the comments!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from Ben Pollack YouTube Channel.