The Misguiding “Elbows in” Queue

Why the Queue “Elbows in” Does Not Work for Everyone


Let’s talk about back training.  I know, you’ve been doing this for years, you know what you’re doing… but have you been doing/teaching this optimally?


I want to talk about a specific queue often given for back training and why it’s misguiding and… well… unfitting.machine-cable-seated-low-row

You have heard this since you began working out.  Keeping those “elbows in” and tucked as close to your torso is the key to target those lats on back exercises. Does this apply for everyone? How can such a general piece of information determine how every single person is supposed to do these movements?


Ok, get this. You’re 30 minutes into your back workout and you’re feeling great – loud music, good sweat, pumped biceps, and invisible lat syndrome mode has been engaged. You decide to get on the low row machine and one of the more “advanced” guys walks over and gives you a few pointers; one of the most reiterated being to keep those elbows closer to your sides since they are flaring slightly during the exercise.  You comply, and on your next set you really focus on keeping those elbows as tucked and close to your torso as possible, but you start to notice a little shoulder pain and discomfort.  Why?


First, let me explain a few necessary anatomical pieces of information:


Your humerus is the large, singular, upper arm bone connected at both your shoulder and your elbow.  Movement of the humerus is essential to all varied activities of the arm.   As your arm moves closer or further away from your body, a few things are happening. First of all, the lateral movement of your arm away from your body is referred to as shoulder abduction. Two of the primary shoulder abductors are the deltoid and the supraspinatus. The movement of your arm closer to the midline of your body is referred to as shoulder adduction. Two of the major shoulder adductors are the latissimus dorsi and the teres major.



Your humerus is connected at the shoulder to a joint called the glenohumeral joint – which is a synovial ball and socket style joint that provides movement in four planes: abduction-adduction in the frontal plane, flexion-extension in the sagittal plane, internal-external rotation and horizontal abduction-adduction in the transverse plane (Bushman, Battista, 2014). As specified, one of the functions of this joint provides the upper arm the ability to externally and internally rotate, meaning the ability to rotate the humerus at the shoulder, either in or out.




Lets talk about what caused that shoulder discomfort. If you force your humerus into an externally rotated position, without actually having the ability to rotate your glenohumeral joint that far, your body begins to compensate in other areas. Obviously, with compensation comes less focus on the area you’re actually trying to target. If you force your humerus into this rotated position without actually having the shoulder mobility to do so, then your entire shoulder will drop to compensate for this forced position


As previously stated, one of the major shoulder adductors (movement of humerus towards the midline of body) is the latissimus dorsi – which is the large fan-shaped muscle on the back that inserts at the intertubercular groove of the humerus (Bushman et al. 2014). So, yes, it does make sense that having your elbows tucked by your side is the proper way to engage your lats. However, understand that everyone’s body is different.  With that, understand that everyone’s individual mobility, flexibility, limb length, bone structure, and active range are different.


It is important to know that your specific active range for a particular exercise should be massively influential in determining your arm position and range of motion for that movement. Forcing a position because someone told you that you were doing it incorrectly can be very detrimental to your body and progress.


The queue “elbows in” is very general and could injure those who don’t understand what forcing their humerus into this excessively rotated position is doing.  So when doing back, to optimally recruit those fibers, learn to maintain your proper position of external rotation; doing so will massively increase the amount of tension and torque at your lat. Keep those elbows tucked as far as your personal shoulder rotation allows, before it compensates by dropping the entire shoulder.  Everyone’s ability to externally rotate at the glenohumeral joint is different, however, this is what should ultimately determine the path your elbows travel in. I am by no means saying you should not tuck your elbows on movements, because adduction at the shoulder is largely due to the lats. I am saying, however, you should not force a position that is not in compliance with your body. Now learn and understand the optimal position for you and stop listening to all of those gym “gurus” out there. Get training.

























  1. K. Saha (1971) Dynamic Stability of the Glenohumeral Joint, Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica, 42:6, 491-505


American College of Sports Medicine., Bushman, B. A., & Battista, R. (2014). ACSM’s resources for the personal trainer (Fourth edition.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health.

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Patrick Burns

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