When we perform front squats for strength work, we do so for two main reasons. The first is because they are a functional movement, renowned for boosting leg, core and even upper body strength. The second is a direct result of the first—they help to improve an athlete’s posture and front rack position in the clean, not to mention your ability to get out of the hole. However, have you considered that the grip you use when performing front squats can have a dramatic impact on your posture—and therefore your mechanics and strength in the movement? I’m talking about two-finger front squats versus a closed-hand grip. Let’s explore this topic.
The problem with two-finger front squats
When performing front squats, most coaches will tell their athletes to avoid ‘death-gripping’ the bar, and that holding the barbell in the front rack position with two fingers will suffice. This is because a two-finger grip is a relatively easy position to maintain, requiring less shoulder, wrist and lat mobility. Furthermore, if a metcon asks for multiple reps of a clean or front squat, trying to hold on to the bar can get tiring. However, the comfort one gains by employing two-fingers in the front squat is arguably overshadowed by a loss of stability in the upper torso.
As Olympic Weightlifting veteran Matt Foreman explains, when you front squat with two fingers, there’s a much higher possibility of your upper back rounding forward. This is because it’s harder to keep the barbell in a stable position on the shoulder ‘shelf’ (i.e. your clavicle), and the lack of wrist mobility will place more strain on the forearms and shoulder joint, pulling your shoulders forward and causing your upper back to round into a ‘turtleback’ position. You’ve probably experienced this yourself. When attempting to front squat a heavy load with a loose fingertip grip, as soon as you drive out of the hole you feel a loss of stability in your upper back, and you begin to round as you stand up.
The consequences of rounding your upper back as a result of a loose fingertip grip not only means that your front squatting and cleans will be affected, but also your jerks. This is because even if you do manage to stand up a clean with a rounded upper back, your shoulders will be hunched forward—which is not a mechanically sound position from which to attempt an overhead lift, as your power output and bar path will be compromised.
Force yourself to front squat with a closed grip
The benefits of front squatting with a closed grip—or at least four or five fingers around the bar—include improved stability and control of the bar (as it will be harder for the bar to roll forward) and improved postural alignment (i.e. a vertical torso). I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s much easier to squat when you maintain a broad, upright chest instead of a hunched upper back. Lastly, Foreman writes that it’s important to create a wide ‘shoulder spread’ for the bar to rest on when attempting heavy jerks, which means you need to ensure your shoulders are nice and high. And the best way to do that is by employing a full or closed grip on the bar.
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Now, keeping a closed grip on the bar doesn’t mean you need to be squeezing it tightly—which is only really feasible if you have good flexibility. You can keep a relaxed grip, but try to keep as many fingers on the bar as possible as that will help to maintain a wide shoulder shelf. Of course, this can be a hard position to maintain for many people, which means that two things need to happen:
1. Lower the weight.
Because it’s more comfortable to squat with two fingers, this usually means you can move more weight—albeit at the expense of good posture. So, if you want to become more competent in your cleans—and clean and jerks—practice front squatting with a lower weight and a closed grip on the barbell.
2. Work on your mobility!
As has been mentioned multiple times in this article, athletes will employ a two-finger grip when front squatting because it’s more comfortable—that is to say, they lack the proper mobility in the shoulders and wrists to get more fingers around the bar. A lack of mobility holds far too many people back in numerous lifts. If you knew that spending 20 minutes everyday working on the mobility of the aforementioned joints would translate to heavier cleans and jerks, wouldn’t you want to stretch? Of course you would. Here are a few drills to help you get started:
3. Wrist Rotations
This is very basic. Wrap your fingers together and move your wrists around in every possible direction. Hold any position that feels a little tender/limited for a few seconds. Repeat often throughout the day.
Stand up and place your hands together in front of you, as if in prayer. Maintaining contact between your hands, lower them. Go as far as you can. The longer you can keep your hands together, the better you’ll stretch the wrists. At the bottom, reverse things so that your fingers point downward and your hands remain together. Come back up.
5. Static Holds
Pull your wrist back into extension and/or flexion and hold for at least 20-30 seconds.
- Front squat rack position. If you have pain when trying to hold a front rack position, or can’t even get into it in the first place, you need to get your wrists working through the range of motion required for the front squat. Even though it’s your shoulders holding the bar in place rather than your wrists, you still need good wrist mobility to get the bar sitting correctly on top of your shoulders in the first place. Load a bar on a desired rack setting. Set up in a rack position, with your elbows pointing as far forward as possible and weight sitting on your shoulders. Pick up the bar and rotate your elbows forward, then re rack the bar. Repeat this process until you see a change in your rack position.
I’m sure that some of you out there will point out that you’ve seen Olympians front squat with two fingers and maintain perfect posture. That’s certainly the case, but they are Olympians for a reason—they possess a far higher skill set than most of the people on the planet, and have the mobility to match. But then again, you’ll find plenty of top international athletes who maintain a closed grip on the bar when front squatting or cleaning too. Sure, it’s not going to be fun at first, and no-one likes to strip plates from the bar, but if you’re thinking about the long game rather than an immediate payoff, strive to get comfortable with a closed grip on the barbell.
Photo courtesy of Greg Cullen/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0