Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Elbow “Flare” in the Press

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | March 30, 2021

middle of a press with elbows flared out

There’s a tendency for new or inexperienced coaches to see problems where they don’t exist, or to try to solve a problem using an unrelated piece of instruction due to a misunderstanding of the fundamental issue. An example of this is a disproportional fixation on a lifter’s elbow position once the bar is moving in the press. Specifically, the idea that elbows “flaring” as the bar moves up is a critical issue that needs to be fixed.

I’ve heard coaches instruct lifters who have perfectly good heavy presses featuring a straight bar path to “Watch those elbows” or to “Keep your elbows forward on the way up.” I assume this is a carryover from our instruction to keep the tips of the elbows forward of the bar at the start of the press to ensure an efficient start out of the bottom. But this becomes completely unnecessary once the bar is moving up.

I’m not talking about a lifter who has absolutely no control of his elbows and allows his wrists and elbows to move all over the place while pressing. That happens periodically, but the prevalence of that particular version of elbow position errors is pretty rare since it so thoroughly disrupts the bar path that these folks don’t get very far with pressing until the error is corrected.

What I am talking about is the unnecessary correction of lateral movement of the elbows once the bar is moving up, somewhere around the eyebrows or forehead level of the bar path as the bar moves up toward the lockout. Remember that the primary concern in the press is maintaining a bar path that’s directly over the shoulder joint throughout the press while maintaining balance of the whole system over the mid-foot. Provided that the bar remains in this slot over the shoulder joint and the bar is going up symmetrically, the elbow position once the bar has passed the face will depend on anthropometry and the amount of layback that the lifter is capable of, rather than how badly you want the elbow to stay in on the way up.

Stop worrying about the elbows. Worry about the bar path. Elbow position is a problem solved by the anatomy of the shoulders and elbows, and it's not like the squat, where there are lots of ways to do it wrong. Somewhere on the way up, the deltoids, triceps, and traps become the primary muscle groups responsible for the lockout of the press, whereas the pecs assist quite a bit in the initial movement out of the bottom. As the weight goes up and the bar slows down, everybody solves the problem for themselves. Micromanaging the elbows in an otherwise perfect press is unnecessary and distracts you from coaching the important stuff like bar path, elbow position at the start of the press, and hip movement. Do yourself a favor as a coach and worry about fixing these things that lifters actually struggle with.  

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