Long Forearms in the Squat

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | February 16, 2022

The best grip in the squat is going to have the lifter's hands grabbing the bar with as narrow a grip as the shoulders can tolerate. This will produce uncomfortable (but not painful) tightness in the shoulders. This will also produce a stable, unmoving bar position (Figure 1). This is critical because the bar should be pinned against the posterior deltoids by the hands with the bar just under the spine of the scapulas.

Figure 1. Correct grip – narrow width, neutral wrists, stable bar position.

This position can be produced in another, but less stable, way – with a wide grip (Figure 2) and elbows lifted or "cranked up" with the bar sitting on the humeruses (Figure 3). This should be avoided. The shoulders have to produce more moment force in extension to keep the bar from falling as the weight gets heavier and heavier. Eventually, the weight will get too heavy for the shoulders to hold safely. Additionally, shear force on the elbow produced by this position will cause elbow tendonitis. Everyone who has taken too wide a grip in the squat for long enough knows how painful and annoying elbow tendonitis is.

Figure 2. A loose grip.

Figures 3. A loose grip with cranked up shoulders.

Elbow tendonitis doesn't just affect the squat. It makes benching painful. It can make pressing and deadlifting painful. Most commonly, lifters think that their elbows and shoulders hurt because of the bench press – they notice that their pain is exacerbated in the bench. However, the root cause is almost always the squat grip.

Some lifters have extremely tight shoulders where a narrow grip cannot be taken, and there are solutions for that. Typically, these people need to take a wider grip, but one which will still produce tight shoulders and a stable bar position. They may also need a thumbs around grip as opposed to the ideal thumbless grip. Some lifters may not be able to get into position at all without immediate pain or instability, and may need further modifications.

Long Forearms

Some lifters have long forearms relative to their upper arms. This is most apparent in the press (Figure 4) and power clean. A common modification for these lifters is that they will power snatch instead of power clean, because the long forearms make it difficult to rack the bar in the clean. Typically, these lifters also have tight shoulders. They take the tightest/closest grip they can in the squat, and that produces a stable bar position.

Figure 4. Typical proportions in the press (top). Long forearms in the press (bottom).

Long forearms and flexible shoulders

For a small portion of lifters – maybe one in a thousand, and probably not you – long forearms combined with flexible shoulders will require a different set up. These lifters can get their hands very close to their shoulders, but because of their long forearms, the bar position will not be stable in the typical narrow-gripped position. The bar will always tend to move up toward the neck because the forearms are so long. Additionally, these lifters may experience immediate elbow pain trying to shove themselves into that position as a result of the unbalanced forces on the elbow.

Figure 5 shows forearms which are roughly the same length as the distance between the elbow and bar on the back in the low-bar squat - this is most common. All of these configurations are possible with sufficient shoulder flexibility. However, as mentioned earlier, the most narrow grip (bottom panel) is the best grip here.

Figure 5. Typical forearms with a wide (top), moderate (middle), and narrow (bottom) grip in a stick figure representation of the squat rack position.

Figure 6 shows long forearm segments (exaggerated) with no other changes. Obviously, a very wide grip (Figure 6, top) is possible, but not necessarily desirable. A moderate grip (Figure 6, middle) is probably ideal. An extremely narrow grip (Figure 6, bottom) is not even anatomically possible. This is because of the geometric constraints produced by the bar and its position on the back. The ends of the wood planks which represent the hands of the lifter cannot physically be in contact with the bar at such a narrow grip width - even with this exaggerated representation where the elbows are close and the shoulders abduct until the humeruses are past parallel.  

Figure 6. (Top to bottom) Long forearms with a wide, moderate, and narrow grip in a representation of the squat grip.

There is a simple solution. They will have to take a wider grip – a grip that will not produce tight shoulders, but one which will be stable without elbow or shoulder pain. These lifters must maintain a focus on not lifting their elbows at any point during the squat. For most lifters with long forearms, this will happen without much thinking because of the tightness in the shoulders. But lifters will long forearms and flexible shoulders will have to actively pin their elbows to their torso.

It bears repeating that this is an extremely uncommon intersection of two physical traits. For almost all lifters, the solution to elbow or shoulder pain in the squat is to get the grip as narrow as possible and keep the elbows against the torso.  

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