Elbow pain while squatting is one of the most common powerlifting injuries.
This is especially the case for lifters who transition from high bar to low bar squats. At first, low bar squatting feels tighter and stronger. But after a few months into your low bar squat training, the elbows start to become sore and tender.
When this happens, you need to address it immediately and aim to get back into a pain-free zone as soon as possible. So how do you fix elbow pain while low bar squatting?
The 8 strategies to fix elbow pain while low bar squatting are:
- Widen Your Grip
- Place The Bar Higher On Your Back
- Improve Your External Shoulder Rotation
- Improve Your Wrist Extension
- Perform A Different Type of Squat Variation
- Adjust Your Training Program
- Flare Your Elbows Back
- Try a Thumbless Grip
There’s no quick answer that will fix your elbow.
But, we can try to understand the root causes and implement solutions that will allow you to get pain-free over time.
Editor Note: Injuries should be taken seriously. If you have pain you should seek advice from a medical professional to understand the severity of your specific situation. You should not take medical advice from this article.
Reasons You Get Elbow Pain While Low Bar Squatting
The question that we’re trying to answer is: what is the most common reason why people get elbow pain while low bar squatting?
It’s important for you to know that pain and injuries are complex. There is no one-size-fits-all reason when it comes to diagnosing elbow pain. This is especially the case if you’ve had a prior elbow injury or trauma to the elbow itself.
However, the most common reason why people get elbow pain while low bar squatting is because of excessive stress on the tissues and structure that surround the joint. This is often diagnosed as a case of tendinitis.
Tendinitis is an inflammation or irritation of a tendon, which connects bone to muscle. It can occur when there is repetitive stress on the affected area over a period of time. This is especially the case when you overuse or do ‘too much too soon’ when the tendons aren’t used to making a specific movement.
This is why it’s common for lifters to get tendinitis when transitioning from high bar to low bar squatting. Even though the bar change is subtle, only being a matter of a few inches, the change in mechanics has far greater effects at the level of the joint/tendon.
Elbow pain can be further exacerbated by the following four reasons:
- Technique: How you set up your hand and upper arm position in relation to the barbell.
- Mobility: How mobile your shoulders and wrists are in relation to the position they need to be in while squatting.
- Load: How much weight you’re lifting, especially if you’ve just transitioned to low bar squatting
- Frequency: How often you’re squatting, especially if it’s several times per week in the low bar squat position
Based on these reasons, you’ll want to implement a solution to reduce the level of pain you experience.
Want to improve your squat technique?
8 Solutions For Fixing Elbow Pain While Low Bar Squatting
Below I’m going to detail 8 fixes you can implement if you experience elbow pain while low bar squatting.
Not all of these tips will apply to everyone equally though. What might work for one person, may or may not work for another.
I suggest taking one of these tips, implementing it into your training over a period of a few weeks, then see if it works. If it does, great. If not, move onto the next tip.
Keep in mind, these are only suggestions and you will want to check with a medical professional for a more accurate rehabilitation plan.
You may also be experiencing shoulder pain while low bar squatting. If that’s the case, check out my article on How To Fix Shoulder Pain While Squatting (9 Solutions).
1. Widen Your Grip
If you squat with a narrow grip, widening your hand placement can lead to an almost immediate relief on the elbow joint/tendon.
When you widen your grip in the squat you reduce how much your elbow needs to bend to hold the bar on your back. If the elbow is bent too much, the tissues are compressed together, often so much that it can cause irritation.
Therefore, taking a wider grip allows the upper arm not to be as ‘compressed’ while squatting.
With that said, there is a trade-off when you widen your grip. As you widen your grip, your upper back muscles will have a harder time staying engaged, which can cause the barbell to move laterally (side to side) on your back while squatting.
In addition, if the upper back muscles aren’t as tight the load can simply feel heavier on your back. This is the idea of ‘proprioception’, which I go into more detail in this article (scroll to point #5).
So try widening your grip, but not so wide where you can’t keep your upper back muscles tight.
If you want to learn more about how to grip the bar for squats, check out my article on Squat Hand Position: 4 Rules To Follow.
2. Place The Bar Higher On Your Back
When low bar squatting, there is definitely a barbell position that can be considered “too low”. If this is the case, consider bringing the barbell up on your back slightly.
If you’ve just switched to low bar squatting, you might have not yet figured out the most optimal barbell position. The barbell should sit somewhere around the top of your rear delt. For most people, this is only a couple inches lower than their high bar squat position.
Regardless if you’ve found the right barbell position or not, you should still bring the barbell up on your back just to see if you get any pain relief. If so, you may need to squat in this higher bar position until the pain subsides.
A lot of lifters combine a wider grip with a higher bar position, and almost always, this will alleviate most of the acute elbow pain you get while squatting.
You may also be interested in reading my article on What To Do When You Can’t Hold Onto The Bar When Low Bar Squatting?
3. Improve Your External Shoulder Rotation
Low bar squatting requires greater external shoulder rotation than other squatting variations. If you have any limitations in shoulder mobility, it can cause additional stress at the level of the shoulder and elbow.
External shoulder rotation is the type of mobility you need to rotate the arm backward (much like pulling your arm back to throw a ball). When you’re in external rotation, you should feel a stretch in the front of your shoulder.
The lower the barbell is on your back, the greater the external shoulder rotation that is required.
You may begin to feel elbow pain if you’re someone who forces the barbell lower on their back when your mobility is not ready to squat in that position yet.
In order to test your external rotation, lie on your side, put your arm at 90-degrees to the floor, and see if you can bring your upper arm to touch the floor.
If you can’t get your arm to touch the floor, or you notice an imbalance between your two sides, you need to work on your shoulder mobility.
If you ever get elbow pain during the bench press, then make sure to check out my complete guide on how to avoid it.
4. Improve Your Wrist Extension
To gain a low bar squat position, you will require additional mobility in your wrist. In the absence of adequate wrist mobility, you can get increased stress at the level of the elbow to compensate for this lack of positioning.
Much like the additional shoulder mobility required, the wrist needs to extend backward to a greater extent when low bar squatting.
If your wrist fails to cock backward comfortably, the elbow and shoulder will need to take on this additional extension, which can lead to greater stress and the possibility of pain and soreness over time. The stress will be further increased if you squat frequently and use heavier loads.
Even though it might seem counterintuitive, prior to squatting you’ll want to implement some wrist mobility drills as part of your warm-up routine. I recommend doing the first 4-minutes of the series in the video above.
You may be interested in my complete Squat Warm Up Routine.
5. Perform A Different Type of Squat Variation
While you’re experiencing elbow pain, you should seek to find a squat variation that allows you to perform the movement without making the situation worse.
Rather than not squatting altogether, as some people might suggest, you should want to try to find a squat variation that limits the amount of elbow pain you get. This will allow you to work around the injury, while still continuing your strength adaptation.
This could be as simple as moving from a low bar squat to high bar squat (as mentioned in tip #2). However, if a high bar squat still causes some discomfort, you could try the following squat variations (click the exercises for my complete guides on each movement):
If you squat more than once per week, you could perform the low bar squat on one workout, and one of these squat variations on the other workout.
6. Adjust Your Training Program
In combination with adjusting your technique, you should look to how you can modify your training program to give your elbow more recovery. There are three programming factors you should look at: (1) frequency, (2) training split, and (3) intensity.
“Frequency” refers to how many times per week you perform the low bar squat.
Low bar squatting multiple times per week can be a leading cause of elbow pain.
When you start to feel elbow pain, consider reducing your squat frequency by 1-2 sessions per week during this period. Your squat frequency doesn’t need to be the same throughout the year. It should go up and down based on your current training context and goals.
Alternatively, you could swap one of your low bar squat workouts with one of the variations I mentioned above (tip #5).
“Training split” refers to how you organize your workouts throughout the week.
Perhaps you notice that your elbows begin to flare up more when you bench press heavy the day prior to low bar squatting, or vice versa. Recognizing these trends throughout the week is critical in developing a training split that is going to work for you in the long run.
“Intensity” refers to the load on the barbell.
In the case of most of the competitive powerlifters I coach, there is going to be a certain amount of exposure to higher intensities that they can handle before they start to feel beat up.
This is usually characterized by how many workouts I program for them at or above 90% loads. Some athletes can handle 3-4 weeks of this sort of loading, other athletes can handle 9-10 weeks, before their body begins to break down.
Recognize that you can’t lift close to your 1 rep max forever and expect to feel healthy. At certain times, you need to pull back the intensity to give your body a chance to recover.
Try and find the point in your programming where you can continue to see progress at heavier intensities, but also what your breaking point is so that you can stop before you get beat up or injured.
7. Flare Your Elbows Back
Playing around with the position of your upper arm while squatting may relieve some tension on the elbow.
You may want to slightly flare your elbows ‘back’ while low bar squatting rather than have your elbows pointing down and tucked into your side.
With that said, I DO NOT recommend this solution for everyone, as it may make the pain worse rather than better. It’s something that you will need to experiment with to see if it leads to a more pain-free squat position.
Also, most people should keep their elbows pointing down and tucked into their side while squatting. So if you make the adjustment to flare your elbows back, try and only make this a temporary adjustment to relieve acute elbow pain.
Once the pain subsides, you should aim to get back to a more optimal elbow position.
8. Try a Thumbless Grip
Using a thumbless grip on the barbell, where your thumb is wrapped over the bar vs under the bar, may relieve elbow pain while low bar squatting.
The thumbless grip is also called the suicide grip, which is where the thumb rests on top of the barbell.
Some lifters who consistently experience elbow pain while low bar squatting will choose to squat in the thumbless grip forevermore.
The downside is that it’s not as secure of a position. So, the barbell may start to slide down the back slightly while squatting. It may also be harder to recruit the musculature of the upper back. However, the benefit is that you can squat pain-free consistently.
I wrote an entire guide on how to use the thumbless grip squat and other reasons why you might want to consider it.
If you feel elbow pain while low bar squatting the first thing I’d do is widen your grip and bring the bar slightly higher on the back. You could then also start to experiment with a thumbless grip and flaring the elbows back.
If none of these things alleviate the severity of the pain, you may need to work on your shoulder and wrist mobility, in addition to looking at how you can modify your training program. Remember, these solutions may take several weeks to take effect.
It is also a good idea to always seek a proper diagnosis from a medical professional who can give you a step-by-step plan to recovery.