Shoulder Position in relation to the bar

I want to share with you my coaching philosophy and thoughts regarding shoulder position in relation to the bar and how I think the sport has evolved. 

As with any sport, things have improved; the way that lifters move; the way that they move the bar; and the way that they position their body are just a few areas that have evolved so that lifters can optimise the weights lifted. Like in other sports, we are always trying to be a bit better and we are always trying to find a way to out-lift our opponents – technique is a key area in helping to achieve these overall improvements, and is something most lifters endeavour to master.

I started the sport as a youngster in the 90s and I’ve seen a lot of changes that have taken place through the last three decades. I want to share with you what some of those changes are, what my coaching philosophy is, and how that has evolved over time. 

Shoulders above or forwards of the bar?

When I started as a 13 year old at school, there was a general style of coaching everywhere. Every coach that I knew around the world coached in a way that was very similar. Most coaches would use the term, “stay over the bar.” What did it mean? Coaches were telling their lifters to keep their shoulders over the bar when in the starting position. “Over the bar” could easily be interpreted as directly above, or forwards of, the bar but what coaches meant was that the shoulders should be forwards.

I coach using the cue, “the crease of the armpit should be aligned with the bar”, as the main coaching cue here. 

Why do I coach differently? 

To me, this position is a fundamental ‘no brainer’.

If you are forwards of the bar, then you’ll need to hold the bar onto yourself in order to keep it in contact. There is no way you can have loose arms because then the bar would dangle away from the body. 

If you are forwards of the bar, it is common for a lifter to swing their shoulders backwards through the second phase of the lift to compensate.  As the shoulders swing backwards the lower back is then in a hyper extended position – risking injury.

If the shoulders move backwards, the hips will travel forwards driving the bar away from the body and causing it to swing.  Any swing on the bar is likely to result in inconsistency overhead.

Keeping the crease of armpit directly above the bar will allow the lifter to relax their arms, drive powerfully downwards resulting in an upward trajectory on the bar, and a smooth bar path that remains close to the lifter’s body. Instead of positioning your shoulders forwards of the bar, or “over the bar,” I coach “shoulders above the bar.” When I say “above the bar,” I mean the crease of the armpit is directly above the bar. 

As the lifter pushes with their legs from the start position, the crease of armpit remains above the bar all the way to mid-thigh. If the lifter can maintain those positions, then they can use their legs to drive powerfully, generating upward momentum and float on the bar providing ample time to drop underneath while the bar continues to rise.

I have always been the kind of person that needs something to make sense for me to follow it.  This is basic biomechanics. It makes sense and this is why I am so passionate about passing this knowledge across.

Tug and Shrug verses Loose Arms

The other cues I commonly hear coaches say would be regarding the first and second ‘pull’.

A coach would often say… “Stay over the bar” during the first ‘pull’. “Grip and go.” “Tug and shrug” through the second ‘pull’.  The idea behind this is to get the bar as high as possible by shrugging and pulling – shrugging the upper traps and pulling with the arms.

This style of coaching is very much about using your upper body and brute strength to pull the bar as high as you could before dropping.

This is how I used to lift, and was the technique taught to me by my coaches in the 90’s. It wasn’t until I was an 18 year old who had plateaued, that I was challenged to look for other ways to be more efficient. One of the contributing factors for me to change my technique was based on my lack of physical strength.  I had to find a different way to move in an attempt to be competitive with some of the best in the world.

It’s not about how high you can lift the bar

For me, it’s not about shrugging and pulling, and how high you can get the bar. I don’t want a lifter to have to pull the bar up towards their chest and then to have to catch it high and ride it in. If you look at a good lifter who shrugs and pulls, they will perform the move really quickly, but they are still delaying the time they drop under because they are holding onto it for too long. 

A lifter that relaxes their arms can generate maximum power from the big muscles (quads and glutes). If you can generate upward momentum on the bar, you increase the time available to drop under the bar.  Rather than trying to lift the bar high, in this scenario, the bar stays relatively low (at arms length).  While the bar continues to ‘float’ upwards with momentum, the lifter starts to drop.  Only as the lifter is under the bar does the bar start to drop.  The height the bar achieves is pretty much the same as a lifter that shrugs and pulls.  The only difference is where the lifter is in relation to the bar when the bar starts to drop.  Once again, a ‘no brainer’ in my opinion.

Compare that to a lifter who shrugs and pulls. The bar reaches the highest point at the same time that the lifter does, and both are rushing to catch the bar at a point that is already quite low.  In this example, the bar will have a head start! Undesirable in my view.

My Philosophy

As with anything, there is more than one way to lift the bar from the floor to overhead. We can pick a bar up and perform something that kind of resembles a snatch. Or we could move really efficiently to maximise the weight being lifted.

Depending on how you have been coached will determine how you move with the bar. I’m a firm believer that there are efficient ways and there are less efficient ways. 

What I am trying to present is how to do so optimally and with safe technique. I want you to be able to enjoy the sport that I’ve enjoyed for many, many years. But at the end of the day, I want you to be able to move as well, and as safely, as you can.

You make the decision as to what works for you.  Feel free to reach out and ask any questions you may have. If you found this useful, make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel. I’m going to be posting loads more videos to help you be the best lifter that you can be!