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Squats and Shoulder Pain
Squats are a great functional lower body exercise and a staple of any well-rounded weight training regimen. But for some folks, the shoulder pain experienced while doing squats detracts from the exercise, making it difficult to execute a squat with the perfect form necessary for safety and effectiveness. Before you remove squats from your routine, consider some adjustments and alternatives for your weight load.
Bar Placement for Squats
Whether done with an Olympic bar and rack, a barbell and spotter or a Smith machine, the most common form of squat is done with the weight load resting across the upper back. Correct bar placement is critical to both form and comfort. Incorrect placement can place pressure on bones and nerves and can force the trunk into a biomechanically disadvantageous position, causing pain and potential injury to the spine, shoulders and other joints. Place the bar across the top of the scapula, or shoulder blades, not on the neck. While squatting, keep the chest elevated and pull your shoulder blades together toward your spine.
Alternative Weight Loading
If shoulder pain persists, even with correct bar placement, try alternative ways of squatting. A front squat places the bar in front of the chest, taking the stress off the shoulders. For correct position, let the bar rest in the crook of your elbows and cross the arms at the chest, touching the bar to the clavicle. Another alternative is the back squat using a hack squat machine. The machine places the weight load on the shoulders at the side of the neck with the arms resting at the sides, reducing compression at the acromium process. A third alternative is to use dumbbells held at the sides instead of a bar.
Shoulder Range of Motion
Individuals with limited range of motion in the chest and shoulders often experience pain when attempting to do squats with a bar. Avoiding bar squats is one alternative, but increasing chest and shoulder range of motion through specific stretching exercises should be a priority for individuals with this condition. Tight muscles at the chest and shoulders can lead over time to rotator cuff issues and postural misalignment of the upper spine that can be painful. Try doing squats with a body bar or very light barbell to begin, adding more weight as range of motion improves. Focus on balancing the weight atop your shoulder blades rather than supporting the weight with your arms.
Rotator Cuff Issues
The rotator cuff is a cluster of muscles that work together to rotate the shoulder joint. An injured or inflamed rotator cuff can be painful while doing squats. A narrowing of the space between the acromium and the rotator cuff can cause bursitis and tendinitis, placing pressure on the nerve and causing pain. Muscle tears from injury or overtraining may require surgery and/or rehabilitation. If you suspect you have injured your rotator cuff, seek diagnosis and treatment before continuing your weight training program.
- Starting Strength: Platform -- The Squat Bar Position
- ExRx.net: Barbell Squat
- Project Swole: How to Avoid Rotator Cuff Injuries
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Rotator cuff tears. Updated March 2017.
- Physiopedia. Rotator cuff.
- Mihata T, Morikura R, Hasegawa A, et al. Partial-thickness rotator cuff tear by itself does not cause shoulder pain or muscle weakness in baseball players. Am J Sports Med. 2019:47(14):3476-3482. doi:10.1177/0363546519878141
- Harvard Health Publishing. What to do about rotator cuff tendinitis. Updated May 19, 2019.
Michelle Matte is an accomplished fitness professional who holds certifications in personal training, pilates, yoga, group exercise and senior fitness. She has developed curricula for personal trainers and group exercise instructors for an international education provider. In her spare time, Matte writes fiction and blogs.