Article By: Cassandra Strunk
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?
- Active thoracic extension over a foam roll or “peanut” mobility tool at varying levels at the thoracic spine. Placing hands behind your neck as you move in and out of thoracic extension can combine a pec stretch.
- Performing thoracic extension with active arm motions: foam roll horizontal on your back and placed at varying segments of the thoracic spine as you perform shoulder flexion, abduction, and external rotation. Not only do you get active range of motion of the shoulder, but you’ll combine a lat and pec stretch as you move through these motions.
- Thoracic Extension with PVC over Bench: press your elbows into the bench by isometrically contracting lats. As you relax, cue yourself to draw your sternum towards the floor as you extend through your thoracic spine and get a good stretch through lats. Note, your thoracic spine naturally has less extension when compared to the cervical and lumbar spine, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not feeling large increases in range of motion. Focus on the thoracic spine in this drill and don’t let your lumbar spine arch into a lot of lumbar extension.
- The ShouldeRok™ design and application train shoulder mobility on top of training trunk stability. It’s a great tool to improve shoulder function and performance. The ShouldeRok™ will also help you to retrain shoulder mobility without compensating at the lumbar spine to chase more range of motion. This compensation is quite common in the squat; as lifters with poor shoulder mobility force themselves into a position to be able to grip the bar, the lumbar spine ends up having to go into more lumbar extension than required, affecting the entire chain.
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.
- Ex: Taking a small ball such as a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, end of a ShouldeRok™, or Acumobility Balls, place on a tight area on your pec (typically a spot below the collar bone and closer to shoulder joint) and lean into it against the squat rack or in a doorway so your arm can move. While applying pressure into the squat rack or doorway with your body weight, perform horizontal abduction and adduction, reaching back and forward to your tolerance.
- Ex: Take a foam roller and lean over it, reaching your arm over your head and rolling the roller on the lat.
Static Shoulder External Rotation
- Ex: Stretch into shoulder external rotation against a wall (squat rack or doorway works great again) or using a PVC pipe to assist.
Active Shoulder External Rotation
- Ex: Grab some resistance using a band or cable machine, and work into reps of external rotation to get the joint moving against some resistance.
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.
- For the “W,” lie prone on the floor and place shoulders in an externally rotated position, elbows bent. Lift arms off the floor by squeezing into scapular retraction. For “T’s,” place arms straight out to the sides (like you’re making a “t” with your body) and lift arms off the floor by squeezing into retraction. For “Y” make a “Y” with your body like the song “YMCA” and just like with “W” and “T,” lift off the ground while thinking about pulling your shoulder blades down and back (this one might be the least range of motion).
Contract Relax Wall Angel
- Lean against a wall and pretend like you’re doing a snow angel with a bend in your elbows (similar to the position you would be holding a squat bar). Squeeze down into scapular depression and retraction, imagining like you’re doing a lat pull down. Contract your lats for 5-6 seconds, relax and reach up stretching lats.
Banded Pull Downs
- Just as it sounds, perform some light lat pull-downs to warm up your scapular depressors.
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:
- “Push your collar bones back into the bar.”
- “Squeeze ring finger and pinky around the bar and pull shoulders down away from your ears”
- “Pretend like you’re about to pull down into a lat pull down”
- “Armpits into back pocket.”
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!