The front rack is possibly the most common point of contention for any athlete. It is uncomfortable, it can be painful, and if you do not already have it, it is difficult to achieve. However, the path to a good front rack does not have to be so treacherous. Often, the prescription is stretching and time with the bar. While this is certainly an effective way to progress front rack mobility, it is not entirely necessary. Not everyone is ready to support the bar in a full front rack on their first day, or even their first several months, and that is okay. Mobility, much like technique or fitness, takes time to develop. Attempting to force the front rack when it is not feasible (meaning the bar cannot be rested on the shoulders while maintaining contact with the grip) is simply unsafe and does little to progress the mobility required.
It goes without saying that a proper front rack is something that everyone should strive for, so how should one go about doing it? We recommend using dumbbells instead of a barbell whenever a front rack is required. Some feel that doing so waters down the intensity and will result in a less effective workout, but that could not be further from the truth! Just ask anyone who has done 95-pound thrusters with a bar versus 50-pound dumbbells. Here are a few reasons we think dumbbells are the best option for those struggling with the front rack.
Safety. In the front rack, it is vital to be able to support the load on the shoulders with the elbows up. Failure to do so will result in excess stress on the wrists. Likewise, if the elbows are too low and make contact with the legs at the bottom of a clean, front squat, or thruster, serious injury can occur. Dumbbells make it significantly easier to support the load on the shoulders and push the elbows up.
Effectiveness. Even though you may struggle greatly with the front rack, it is very likely that you can still support the load on the shoulders and push the elbows up by using dumbbells. Doing so will allow you to squat to full depth, perform shoulder to overhead work more efficiently, and develop strength and mobility in the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The unilateral aspect of dumbbells will also result in improved stability. This will translate to the barbell front rack.
Comfortability. No one likes to be in pain, and you should not be when making fitness. Dumbbells allow you to focus on the task at hand instead of your wrist pain.
Although dumbbells make the front rack more accessible, they do not make the workout any less effective or challenging. Someone who struggles with the front does not need to force themself into a position their body is not ready for; they need to feel the proper front rack, spend time in it, and develop strength and mobility in the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Dumbbells allow us to do just that. If you cannot get the bar to your shoulders in the front rack, give dumbbells a swing!