Issues in Front Rack Position

What is the front rack position?

The front rack position is a lifting position in which the elbows are high, upper arms are parallel to the floor, the upper part of the athlete’s chest is up, and the barbell is resting on one’s shoulders. The position is the optimal position when completing front squat, cleans, presses, jerks, & thrusters.  Depending on the particular movement, the elbows will move slightly up or slightly down to optimize that movement. The front rack position if done correctly can increase the athlete’s potential to hit a PR on a clean, rapidly move into a split jerk, or complete a heavy front squat. If completed incorrectly, the front rack position could be a detriment to that athlete and hinder/decrease optimal performance. Often times when treating these athletes that have a poor front position they are not seen to fix this issue, but an issue or issues brought on by this poor positioning. One of the most common is the hand and wrist, which could eventually lead to numbness. Let’s discuss below how fixing our front rack can decrease pain in these areas.

Why does my wrist and hand hurt during the front rack position?

As discussed poor front rack positioning can lead to wrist and hand pain when completing a movement.

WHY?

When receiving load in the front rack position if done correctly the load/barbell would land on the athlete’s shoulders across the chest with the athlete’s fingers as a simple guide.

Unfortunately, What ends up happening is that poor positioning causes the load/bar to land on our wrist/hand during a clean or a constant loading during a front squat. This repetitive load like many others cause wear and tear on our joints and eventually pain in these areas. Many athletes in lieu of these injuries began focus on their wrist/hand believing that is the culprit and they have to “loosen” them up. I have seen countless athletes spend 10-15 minutes of band stretches, wrist extension rocking movements, soft tissue work at the forearms without any avail of symptoms once the bar is loaded. Do not mistake me for saying that completing these movements before a front rack set is not important, they are, but they may not address all of the issues! Remember, the front rack position includes many other structures that also will need to be addressed to optimize the position.

Techniques to improve front rack position?

Shoulder and upper back:

Shoulder positioning and lack of mobility are primary reasons the front rack is not in an optimal position. The athlete’s mobility should be such that when they are in the position the knuckles are able to touch the shoulder.

Starting with the upper back, we need good mobility in the spine in our upper back in order to have a good upright torso and allow our shoulders to move properly.  Without the good spinal mobility, the shoulders have to work harder to get into position, especially when under load or needing to move quickly, such as when performing a clean.  Over time, this increased activity of the shoulder muscles (primarily the lats and part of the rotator cuff) cause tightness, trigger points, and result in pain or symptoms into the arm.

The lats are a large muscle that run from the shoulder to our pelvis (through fascial attachments).  The rotator cuff consists of several muscles, but two specific muscles (teres major and infraspinatus) tend to get the tightest in CrossFitters and Olympic lifters because of all the pulling activities that those athletes do.

When the lats and/or rotator cuff get tight, it limits our ability to both elevate the arms comfortably to get into the front rack position as well as our ability to get into position quickly, which is required for both lifting the bar in a clean and receiving the bar from an overhead position.

One technique you could use to improve the motion due to shoulder tightness is partner contract-relax in this position found here. This assists to increase flexibility and allows the knuckle to shoulder position we want.

Elbow:

Unless you have injured your elbow in the past and have some sort of boney block in the elbow joint, the elbow is likely not the cause of you being limited in the front rack position.  If you have pain in the elbow in the front rack, it is likely due to compensations being made at the elbow due to the shoulder or wrist not moving properly.

With that said, if your triceps are tight, bending the elbow the range necessary may be difficult and cause a pulling sensation on the back of the elbow.  And if you have tightness in your wrist extensors, that can cause pressure when you bend your elbow, which can make holding the position uncomfortable.

Wrist and hand:

The wrist does require a certain amount of extension in order to get the bar to comfortably rest on the shoulders and still maintain grip on the bar.  Most people who are new to CrossFit or Olympic lifting are limited in this motion just because it is not a motion that is challenged in our day to day tasks.  With some regular stretching, this should loosen up and become comfortable to be able to maintain.

What frequently happens, though, is the shoulders get tight and can’t rotate through.  This forces increased extension at the wrist, placing pressure on our wrists, carpal bones, and the nerves that pass through the wrist and into the hands.  Over time, if the tightness is ignored, it can develop into other compensations in your arm, muscle tightness, and numbness into the hand.

So, long story short…a lot of things play into the ability to get into the front rack position and maintain the position comfortably.  If the upper back and arms are not moving optimally, pain and numbness can develop anywhere in the extremity, but frequently in the hand and/or wrist.

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