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Technique to Hold BB Behind Upper Back

As of recently I have been researching the best way to hold a barbell behind you upper back (assuming the barbell has considerable amount of weight plates added on to it of course) when doing an exercise such as barbell back squats or barbell lunges. However, I have been getting conflicting methods as to how you are supposed to do it. According to some strength training experts such as Rippetoe, you want to place the barbell directly or right below the spine of the scapula or origin of the posterior deltoids and then lift your elbows up to create a nice “shelf” on your back for the barbell.

I know that having the bar in low bar position when doing barbell back squats works the glutes and hamstring muscles more than the quad muscles. I also understand that the reason for creating this “shelf” on your back with your elbows up is that by doing so you significantly shift more of load off your arms and elbows and onto your back. Experts like Rippetoe say that if you hold the barbell on your upper back with your elbows pointed down to the floor then your elbows will end up having unnecessary shear force or strain and your hands will end up having excess compressive strain as well.

So by lifting the elbows up and back in low bar position you not only end up creating a nice groove and “shelf” for the barbell but also you shift a significant load on the hands and elbows to your upper back thereby taking off the unneeded strain on your hand and elbow joints (especially when the load from the barbell is heavy).

Also, I understanding that by shifting more of the load on to your upper back with this method along with gripping the barbell with as narrow of a grip as you possibly can (as I do realize that that is the optimal grip when holding a barbell behind your upper back) your entire body should feel much more comfortable in handling all the weight on your back compared to trying to support more of the weight with your and hands and elbows when your elbows are pointed downward toward the floor.

While the most qualified strength training experts would seem to agree with Rippetoe on the idea that the low bar position is superior to high bar position in a barbell back squat exercise, there are some others strength training experts such as Elliot Hulse who actually advocates for pointing the elbows down instead of up because that way you extend your upper back and lift your chest better. So which is right? Also, with barbell lunges how exactly are you supposed to hold the barbell on your upper back?

Its personal preference man seriously what ever feels the best for you and allows the most weight moved correctly or effectively targets the muscle group your trying to stimulate. I have a short torso and short legs so I prefer using a high bar (roughly mid to upper traps) stance with my elbows pulled down a good bit( I wear wrist wraps to squat in due to stress on the wrists) and a more narrow foot position but I am able to stay upright and use the most amount or weight in this position. But, this position is very hard for alot of people to maintain and they can just move more weight with the bar lower on the traps.

This should be relatively common sense. I really don’t understand why it has become such a huge debate as of late as to which is superior as with every other single factor in weight lifting… what should be used is what is most effective for you and your goals not necessarily what the guy next to you is doing.

As far as elbows up versus elbows down, I don’t think it matters as long as your chest is up.

For barbell lunges, I tend to use a higher bar position since I am more upright when I lunge.

Actually OP, I would say that far more strength coaches advocate elbows down that elbows up. This is for a variety of reasons, but it is much more prevalent a cue.

Rippetoe certainly knows his stuff and knows how to coach a big squat, but I disagree with him here. The increased force on the elbows is not prohibitive–IF you get your upper back tight and traps and shoulder blades scrunched together. If you’re loose, yeah, the elbows get a ton more stress trying to control things.

The primary reason for the elbows down cue is to drive the chest up. This is because the vast majority of people lack the extreme shoulder flexibility to squat with elbows back AND the chest up to the ceiling. Mostly I only see olympic lifters doing this (properly, that is) because they have the mobility at the joint to handle both. If–and this is a big if–you were able to drive the chest sufficiently high while in the hole and maintain elbows back then it would probably be ok to squat like that. However 99% of 99% of people suck ass when they do that and their chest caves over, they lose back tightness, and they fall forward. If not when they unrack, then as they get close to the hole.

So if you want a big squat and you’re not mobile enough to keep your chest up with elbows back, you better slam those suckers down as hard as possible. And if you do think you have enough shoulder mobility to do it, you don’t and you’d better work even harder on gaining that mobility. Everyone who thinks their chest is “up” enough is wrong. It needs to be higher. This is exactly the same as Dave Tate saying “when you think you’re sitting back far enough on the box, you need to sit back another 5 inches further”. Point is, you’re never as “up” or “back” as you think you are.

it’s more instructive to look at what the coaches advocate THE SAME as opposed to what they differ in.

What are the things in common between the “elbows up” and “elbows down” crowd?

  1. shoulder blades squeezed together as hard as you can

  2. head up/forward, not down

  3. chest is popped up to the ceiling

  4. rear delts and traps are both squeezed hard

  5. back is arched

[quote]Aragorn wrote:
it’s more instructive to look at what the coaches advocate THE SAME as opposed to what they differ in.

What are the things in common between the “elbows up” and “elbows down” crowd?

  1. shoulder blades squeezed together as hard as you can

  2. head up/forward, not down

  3. chest is popped up to the ceiling

  4. rear delts and traps are both squeezed hard

  5. back is arched[/quote]

Aragorn, what do you think about “packing the neck”?

[quote]Consul wrote:

[quote]Aragorn wrote:
it’s more instructive to look at what the coaches advocate THE SAME as opposed to what they differ in.

What are the things in common between the “elbows up” and “elbows down” crowd?

  1. shoulder blades squeezed together as hard as you can

  2. head up/forward, not down

  3. chest is popped up to the ceiling

  4. rear delts and traps are both squeezed hard

  5. back is arched[/quote]

Aragorn, what do you think about “packing the neck”?
[/quote]

I like it. No real down side in my mind, forces your chest up even farther. Any way you can get your chest up is a good way in my book. Coaching cues are a very individual thing–there is very limited memory space in a guy who’s about to start to push heavy weight on his back and avoid being crushed–there is a lot of carryover of individual cues (sort of like a big venn diagram). Trick is to find the 1 or 2 cues that make you fix the most problems.

For instance, someone says, “head up” to the guy squatting and he looks at the ceiling but his chest is still down–he bends at the neck. Someone else says, “elbows down!” and the guy cranks the elbows, elevates his chest, and brings his head up. Chances are you should probably use “elbows down!” as your cue even though “head up” is supposed to get the same result–maybe somebody else gets better with “head up” than the guy currently squatting in our example.

You can’t remember a list of 10 different things to keep in mind, as Dan John has said in an earlier article. The Elite have 1-2 (maaaybe 3) cues to remember that help them internalize the greatest number of coaching points. They tend to rotate cues in phases, depending on what they’re working on the hardest or what their weakest technical link is. “Packing the neck” is just another way to remember to do a lot of the same certain things other cues do.

As a bonus, if you’re already doing these other things, “packing the neck” cue can get a guy with tight technique an extra tweak/reminder that might help him get tighter than he already is–sort of analogous to, in the “powerlifting gear” usage, tweaking a bench shirt on somebody already really experienced in using the shirt. tweaking a bench shirt on a newb to equipped lifting won’t get you much if anything…but once he’s dialed in, you add a tweak (or in our example, the cue “pack the neck”), and can get even more results out of your current set-up. Big difference with the coaching cue is it won’t have a downside even if it isn’t the most effective cue to use :).

[quote]Aragorn wrote:
I like it. No real down side in my mind, forces your chest up even farther. Any way you can get your chest up is a good way in my book. Coaching cues are a very individual thing–there is very limited memory space in a guy who’s about to start to push heavy weight on his back and avoid being crushed–there is a lot of carryover of individual cues (sort of like a big venn diagram). Trick is to find the 1 or 2 cues that make you fix the most problems.

For instance, someone says, “head up” to the guy squatting and he looks at the ceiling but his chest is still down–he bends at the neck. Someone else says, “elbows down!” and the guy cranks the elbows, elevates his chest, and brings his head up. Chances are you should probably use “elbows down!” as your cue even though “head up” is supposed to get the same result–maybe somebody else gets better with “head up” than the guy currently squatting in our example.

You can’t remember a list of 10 different things to keep in mind, as Dan John has said in an earlier article. The Elite have 1-2 (maaaybe 3) cues to remember that help them internalize the greatest number of coaching points. They tend to rotate cues in phases, depending on what they’re working on the hardest or what their weakest technical link is. “Packing the neck” is just another way to remember to do a lot of the same certain things other cues do.

As a bonus, if you’re already doing these other things, “packing the neck” cue can get a guy with tight technique an extra tweak/reminder that might help him get tighter than he already is–sort of analogous to, in the “powerlifting gear” usage, tweaking a bench shirt on somebody already really experienced in using the shirt. tweaking a bench shirt on a newb to equipped lifting won’t get you much if anything…but once he’s dialed in, you add a tweak (or in our example, the cue “pack the neck”), and can get even more results out of your current set-up. Big difference with the coaching cue is it won’t have a downside even if it isn’t the most effective cue to use :).[/quote]

Thank you for the detailed response, I understand what you mean :slight_smile:

Do you think the coaching cue to “sit back” into a squat has less value for raw lifters? I’ve seen a lot of debate about this recently.

[quote]Consul wrote:

[quote]Aragorn wrote:
I like it. No real down side in my mind, forces your chest up even farther. Any way you can get your chest up is a good way in my book. Coaching cues are a very individual thing–there is very limited memory space in a guy who’s about to start to push heavy weight on his back and avoid being crushed–there is a lot of carryover of individual cues (sort of like a big venn diagram). Trick is to find the 1 or 2 cues that make you fix the most problems.

For instance, someone says, “head up” to the guy squatting and he looks at the ceiling but his chest is still down–he bends at the neck. Someone else says, “elbows down!” and the guy cranks the elbows, elevates his chest, and brings his head up. Chances are you should probably use “elbows down!” as your cue even though “head up” is supposed to get the same result–maybe somebody else gets better with “head up” than the guy currently squatting in our example.

You can’t remember a list of 10 different things to keep in mind, as Dan John has said in an earlier article. The Elite have 1-2 (maaaybe 3) cues to remember that help them internalize the greatest number of coaching points. They tend to rotate cues in phases, depending on what they’re working on the hardest or what their weakest technical link is. “Packing the neck” is just another way to remember to do a lot of the same certain things other cues do.

As a bonus, if you’re already doing these other things, “packing the neck” cue can get a guy with tight technique an extra tweak/reminder that might help him get tighter than he already is–sort of analogous to, in the “powerlifting gear” usage, tweaking a bench shirt on somebody already really experienced in using the shirt. tweaking a bench shirt on a newb to equipped lifting won’t get you much if anything…but once he’s dialed in, you add a tweak (or in our example, the cue “pack the neck”), and can get even more results out of your current set-up. Big difference with the coaching cue is it won’t have a downside even if it isn’t the most effective cue to use :).[/quote]

Thank you for the detailed response, I understand what you mean :slight_smile:

Do you think the coaching cue to “sit back” into a squat has less value for raw lifters? I’ve seen a lot of debate about this recently.
[/quote]

Oh hell no! Most people are so fucking poor at technique if you try to tell them to sit straight down between their legs they’ll slide the knees so far forward they can’t even get to parallel. It’s a fucking nightmare.

I have no bloody clue why there is so much debate about this point. It doesn’t even matter in one sense whether you’re wide or narrow stance, low bar or high bar, or whatever. Even if you squat like an olympic lifter the initiation involves, in some way, the hips and hamstrings before you sink low.

There are always two variables to consider when coaching–1) what is actually happening and 2) what the lifter perceives is happening. #2 is almost more important than #1 in many cases, because what the lifter perceives is where they start from mentally in trying to understand what your coaching cue is (related to my last post). Perception is Reality. It filters whatever you try to say to them. If you use the wrong language, even if you are describing perfectly accurately what is happening (“sitting between the legs” on a narrow stance squat), they sometimes won’t understand you. Conversely if you use the right language for their mental filter or perception (“feel your hamstrings” or “sit back on your heels”, or anything similar to “sit back”), even if that describes a “wrong” reality, they fix the problem anyway.

Case in point is a 64 year old gentleman that I am coaching. I taught him to squat shoulder width or slightly narrower stance. When he started he couldn’t even front squat 95 lbs anywhere close to depth. Hell he couldn’t even squat the bar properly. Last week after about 5 weeks we back squatted 5 singles with 225 to depth. Now, this is a narrow stance squat and it involves plenty of healthy knee glide forward because he is actually sitting DOWN instead of back. At parallel and below parallel the knees are out, the back upright, and the weight on the heels, but the shin angle is forward. Reality being the exact opposite of a true sit back box or wide squat.

BUT–in addition to using the wall squat and goblet squat as technique teachers in intensive warm-ups, the primary cue I used with him was “sit back” or a variation of that–usually something like “hips backwards!” or “hamstrings!” or “hamstrings and heels”. I did it because it mentally addressed what he needed to hear, not what was happening. This is why sometimes I will say things on here that people disagree with because it doesn’t reflect the objective truth of the matter (I remember one thread a while back regarding front squat and knee glide). In one sense as far as they’re concerned you have just spoken gibberish even though you are “right”. So instead of spending a lot of time banging your head against the wall wondering why the lifter isn’t responding to the correct cue (and I see this with “chest up” a lot in DL instruction from trainers–when they move the chest up the knees slide forward and you lose hamstring tightness, it’s a mental disconnect. And hamstring tension is much more important than a high chest when learning to DL), change your language or imagery. And equally important get them to feel the muscle group you want or action you want to instruct.

Another case in point–I remember a Nick Tumminnello blog talking about the fallacy of “squat like a baby”. Great read btw, recommended. And he’s right on point. However, most people don’t use the analogy because it’s scientifically valid–it doesn’t hold up-- or because it represents an ideal that every person can achieve–they can’t. They use it because it mentally creates a picture of what you want to use as your goal, and provides a handy framework if you just think about it casually. It is used because it resonates with many people’s “filters”, and addresses the fact that we do unlearn a lot of things through watching bad examples of others and daily life.

Point #1 is self-evident–if you’re teaching a wider stance squat you probably want the hips back anyway :). If the reality of the situation is what you are fighting, then obviously the “hips back” cue was appropriate in the first place. And yeah–I like “hips back” for wider raw stance because again even though it might not be as FAR back as an equipped squat is pushed, you absolutely need to take advantage of those hamstrings and glutes as much as you can anyways and statistically speaking the vast majority suck ass at doing this, so it makes sense to pound on it in coaching.

So, in a very long winded and pompous round-a-bout way all this is to say that “hips back” is a good cue regardless of squat type in my opinion–the rub is how you apply it and to whom. Some people won’t need it (again, related to my last post on coaching cues being individual), so I suppose in one sense it might have “less value” in the absolute sense of the word for some people. But often times it doesn’t matter whether the person actually needs to sit back or not to execute properly, because what is actually “hips down” in life feels like “hips back” to them. When you address perception you address the weakness.

(This is also one reason I try not to confuse a lot of beginners with detailed things like intermittent fasting as a diet or anything, the perception of advising them to only eat 1x a day–even though thats not what we say–gets them in trouble when they already only eat 1-2 meals a day, reinforces a bad habit even though it is sound methodology for a lot of more experienced people. Fundamentals first, respond to their perception and mental game/habits.)

I hope this makes sense? I felt like I started strong but faded out on the finish lol.