Whether you’re a high bar squatter or low bar squatter, optimal positioning of the bar on your back and how you support the bar on your back with your hands and arms is factored in when considering the ability to create trunk stiffness, as well as considering the management of wrist, elbow, and shoulder aches and pains in the back squat.
Generally speaking, the position of your shoulders and arms should allow you to maximize the tensioning of your middle back muscles and engagement of the latissimus dorsi during the squat. Shoulder positioning in the back squat is oftentimes overlooked in how it contributes to trunk stability, but lat tensioning plays a major role in trunk stiffness due to its connection to the thoracolumbar fascia. When considering the anatomy of the lats and its connection to the thoracolumbar fascia, we are looking at soft tissue that spans the entire posterior aspect of the trunk!
So if you’re finding yourself constantly dealing with wrist, elbow, shoulder, and/or bicep discomfort following your back squat day, your first few warm-up sets under the bar (and maybe even during your entire session), may feel pretty rough. From a side view of your squat, you may see your neck and head protruding forward or hanging low, shoulders rolled forward, and elbows sticking straight back like chicken wings so the hands can grip the bar. In addition, in efforts to get elbows in a better position, you probably find your wrists have to then extend to an uncomfortable degree of extension just to be able to have a good hold on the bar.
What can you do?
While the shoulders often get referred to as the “shoulder complex,” the good news is that they don’t have to be treated as complex! The last thing we want to do is overwhelm you with a long list of exercises for every shoulder movement possible. The window of prep work you do right before you squat shouldn’t be the time you’re trying to improve the flexibility of all shoulder movements and stretching for max range of motion, but rather mobility drills to get you into the best position for the task at hand… in this case, get under a squat bar. So let’s start with some mobility drills that might provide the biggest global effect first. In other words, how can we target multiple tissues at one time vs. a bunch of isolated tissues?
Mobility in the thoracic spine is important because of the considerable effect it has on the ribcage and scapulae, and how it affects scapula and humeral movement. Improving thoracic extension and rotation can benefit the quality of shoulder joint movement.
But we understand that doing a couple of thoracic mobility drills may not be enough. So then we go to more isolated mobility drills specific to single muscles or joint motions.
Static Shoulder External Rotation
Active Shoulder External Rotation
Next, get those middle back muscles moving! Optimal tensioning through the middle back requires the work of scapular retractors and depressors, so let’s warm them up.
Contract Relax Wall Angel
Banded Pull Downs
These drills are just a few examples you can try. For more instructional demonstrations on how to perform these drills (or discover others that work better for you), check out the Kabuki Strength Movement Library where we talk technique tips, exercise demonstration, and Guided Solutions to common issues/topics we coach.
Once you get into a better position under the squat bar where it doesn’t feel like your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are being destroyed, here are a few external cues we like to coach for lat tensioning:
Lastly, if all the mobility drills in the world don’t seem to help you, another option to consider is taking a look at the bar you are using to train. Unless you are a competitive powerlifter whose sport requires the use of a straight bar, a great squatting stimulus is not limited to a straight barbell back squat. Specialty bars such as the Kabuki Strength Duffalo Bar was created specifically to decrease the stress on shoulders and allow for better positioning of the shoulder complex and trunk. Knowing the importance and exercise benefits of being able to train the squat, the creation of specialty bars such as the Duffalo Bar and Kabuki Strength Transformer Bar provides options for any lifter to squat pain-free. And even if you are a competitive powerlifter, utilizing specialty bars with squatting variations during your off-season or on secondary training days can be a great option to give the shoulder complex a break without having to completely decrease your squatting stimuli. Kabuki Strength C.E.O., Rudy Kadlub, is a great testimony to the use of programming specialty bars to help him manage his shoulder range of motion limitations… pre and post bilateral shoulder joint replacement, Rudy was able to seamlessly move between rehab and training, continually progressing towards his powerlifting goals by utilizing the Duffalo Bar and Transformer Bar in his training as needed. At 72 years old, he’s still taking World Records! So whether you’re a competitive powerlifter or someone who just enjoys squatting to be stronger in life? End goal? Just keep squatting… and let’s make the world a better place through strength!