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Fixing Droopy Elbows in the Jerk
Matt Foreman  |  Olympic Weightlifting  |  July 28 2014

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Fixing Droopy Elbows in the Jerk, Matt Foreman,
Droopy elbows in the jerk…it’s often a HUGE problem with beginners.
 
Let me describe what it is, although many of you probably already have the visual image in your head because you’ve seen it a lot. A lifter has the bar on his/her shoulders, preparing to jerk. The elbows are in an appropriate position and it all looks pretty stable and solid. During the dip phase, the elbows drop. Sometimes it’s a relatively minor drop, they just kinda sag down a little bit as the knees are bending. Other times, it’s a major problem where they plunge down really far and the bar actually sits on the sternum for an instant instead of the shoulders.
 
This ain’t good, brothers and sisters. It’s a problem that leads to a lot of failed jerks, and maybe even some shoulder pain. Some athletes can develop a little funky technique where their elbows drop and they still complete the jerks, but the problem still has to get fixed because you’ll never graduate up to really big weights with this kind of movement. 
 
So let’s go through the problem-solving process. There are two questions we need to answer:
 
1)    What’s causing the problem?
2)    How do we fix it?
 
 
What’s causing the problem?  
 
There’s no one single answer to this. Droopy elbows could be caused by a variety of things, including:
  • Weakness in the torso Everybody likes to use the word “core” these days, but I still like saying torso. I’m referring to your whole trunk, from your waist to your armpits. Front, sides and back. If you’re weak in any section of your torso, it could result in droopy elbows.
  • Weakness in the muscles of the pectoral/shoulder girdle We’re talking about the muscles that surround your shoulders, chest, and upper back (shoulder blades).
  • Technique problems in the dip phase The problem might not be caused by any kind of muscular weakness. It might simply be happening because the lifter isn’t moving correctly during the dip phase (or possibly the set-up prior to the dip).
  • Other variables Humans are complex. The droopy elbows might be triggered by some factor other than the ones I’ve listed. But in my experience, these are the major culprits.
 
How do we fix it?
 
There are a lot of good weightlifting coaches out there, and you could find multiple ideas for how to solve the droopy elbow problem if you talked to them. I’ll give you a few of my personal favorites:
 
  • Technique The first thing you need to do is make sure the droopy elbows aren’t being caused by improper movement. 
    • The lifter might not be set up properly prior to the dip phase:
      • Shoulders are slouching
      • Butt is sticking out behind them
      • Weight isn’t on the heels
    • Or the problem might be coming from the way the athlete is performing the dip phase:
      • Not inhaling a good breath prior to the dip
      • Lunging forward onto the toes during the dip
      • Not dipping the butt through the heels
  • Strengthening movements If you feel pretty confident that the athlete’s technique is solid, then the droopy elbows are probably coming from a strength deficiency in some area. Here are a couple of exercises I’ve successfully used to fix this nightmare:
    • Dip-pause-push press- This is exactly what it sounds like. The athlete performs a push press with a one-second pause in the bottom of the dip. Often, the droopy elbow thing happens during that transition from the downward dip to the upward drive. The quick change of direction is too much of a jolt for the athlete, and their elbows flop down like a dead fish. Performing a push press with a pause in the bottom of the dip is a good way to simply practice holding and maintaining the proper posture.
    • Dip-pause-hold with jerk max weight- This exercise is performed with the same weight as the athlete’s top jerk. This is exactly the same movement as the dip-pause-push press…only without the push press at the end. The athlete is just performing the dip phase, holding the position for one second, and then standing back up. There doesn’t need to be any explosion or fast drive on the upward phase or anything. This exercise is done for sets of five reps. In other words, you’re dipping and holding with your maximum jerk weight for five reps. If somebody saw you doing these, they would kinda look like partial front squats with a pause. Needless to say, proper positions have to be maintained throughout the entire set.      
Let me explain the rationale for these two exercises. I’m a big believer in postural strength. When you think of “posture,” you think of the correct stand-up-nice-and-straight position we’re supposed to live with. Think of a soldier standing at attention when they hear a drill command like TEN HUT!… the back straightens and the chest goes up. This is a lot like the kind of position you want to maintain when you’re performing a jerk.
 
The exercises I described (Dip-pause-push press and Dip-pause-hold) are basically forcing the athlete to practice holding the correct posture. When I have athletes do sets of five in the Dip-pause-hold exercise with their maximum jerk weight, they often tell me afterwards that their core (torso) feels trashed. That’s good, because the exercise is supposed to develop ALL of the muscles that stabilize the body during heavy jerks. Their POSTURE is being strengthened. In my experience, you can get some good results with these little tricks.
 
Note #1: As always, other coaches might use these same exercises and refer to them by different names. Weightlifting is like that. Some coaches will call something a “Dip-pause-hold” and other coaches will call it a “Hungarian Belly Slammer” or whatever. Some of the more annoying coaches in the sport will act like their particular name is the handed-down-from-Jesus official one.  Whatever. The names I use for them are simply…the names I use.
 
Note #2: As I mentioned before, these are just a couple of suggestions to fix the droopy elbow problem. Other coaches will have additional ideas, and many of them are really useful. My thoughts aren’t the ONLY thoughts. They’re merely part of a wide range of possible fixes.
 
Feel free to give them a try. If they work, please send me a cashier’s check for $500. Don’t try to screw me over. I’ll get my lawyer and he’ll sue your ass off.    
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Matt Foreman is the football and track & field coach at Mountain View High School in Phoenix, AZ. A competitive weightliter for twenty years, Foreman is a four-time National Championship bronze medalist, two-time American Open silver medalist, three-time American Open bronze medalist, two-time National Collegiate Champion, 2004 US Olympic Trials competitor, 2000 World University Championship Team USA competitor, and Arizona and Washington state record-holder. He was also First Team All-Region high school football player, lettered in high school wrestling and track, a high school national powerlifting champion, and a Scottish Highland Games competitor. Foreman has coached multiple regional, state, and national champions in track & field, powerlifting, and weightlifting, and was an assistant coach on 5A Arizona state runner-up football and track teams.
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6 Comments
Celeste 1 | 2014-07-28
Matt, I'd gladly give you $500 if my droopy elbows from hell disappeared. But really -- breaking the technique down is really helpful. I think running through a mental checklist of the standards (inhale, weight through heels, etc.) will be beneficial. Great article, always.
Celeste 2 | 2014-07-28
Someone get that girl a proofreader...
Jeff 3 | 2014-07-28
Great article and I love the breakdown into the problem & solution, along with the sub-points related to each. Out of curiosity, is there a similar article related to the clean? I've had an issue with one of my athletes at my CrossFit box who keeps hitting her sternum on her cleans and I suspect it's also related to droopy elbows but would be quite interested to hear your thoughts as to whether it could be attributed to another fault, as well as potential fixes. Thanks!
Greg Everett 4 | 2014-07-28
Jeff - Search in articles for one called Improving the Clean through a Better Turnover
Jeff 5 | 2014-07-29
Thank you, Greg! That article was very helpful and included some great drills. In particular, it sounds like the 'scarecrow clean' would be an excellent drill to start with to ensure my athlete is getting the barbell properly placed on the front rack position without hitting her sternum. The subsequent movements you listed in the article seem like an ideal progression once the athlete understands where the barbell should land. Thanks again!
Tony L 6 | 2014-07-30
Matt Great article as always. I really get a ton from your articles, as well as your book based on some past articles. I also live in Phoenix. Do you have anywhere in AZ that you teach weightlifting classes or give seminars? With your experience in both lifting and coaching I would be eager to attend. Thanks.
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