The front squat is an often neglected lift because it comes with its fair share of discomforts such as feeling like the barbell is choking you.
How do you stop the front squat from choking you? While some pressure on the throat is necessary to perform the front squat, if you are finding your breathing to be compromised you can relieve this by changing your grip, adjusting the position of your head and the bar, as well as improving your thoracic spine mobility.
While the discomfort of having a barbell at the base of your neck can easily be misconstrued as actual choking, you should be aware of signs that you are in fact placing too much stress on your windpipe.
In this article, I will cover how to tell whether the bar may be choking you, why it may be occurring and what tweaks you can make to ensure safe execution of the front squat.
You might also be interested in reading my article on Is The Front Squat Bar Slipping? Try These 8 Tips.
Is The Front Squat Bar Choking You? How To Know
If you are experiencing pressure, irritation, or general discomfort at the base of your neck, unfortunately, you may be doing exactly what you need to be doing. However, there is such a thing as too much discomfort that could indicate you are choking yourself. Some signs include:
You’re Having Trouble Bracing Or Breathing
One way to tell that the barbell is choking you is if you’re having trouble breathing and, therefore, struggle to brace properly. Breathing and bracing is a fundamental part of lifting weights and particularly vital in keeping you upright and in the proper position for the front squat.
If you can’t inhale properly then your brace will ultimately be compromised.
Feeling Short Of Breath Easily
Shortness of breath between reps is another sign of the bar potentially putting too much pressure on your trachea, or windpipe.
Even though the bar should be resting at the base of your neck you should still be able to inhale and exhale without obstruction to your airway. You know yourself best, so if you find you’re struggling to catch your breath even on easy sets this may be a sign something isn’t right.
Feeling Like You’re Going To Pass Out
For obvious reasons, if you are not taking in enough air you may start to feel lightheaded or like you’re going to pass out. If you notice yourself blacking out, feeling dizzy or unsettled after sets of front squats you need to make some adjustments to the way you perform the exercise.
Your Breathing Sounds Unusual
Some lifters report hearing their inhales and exhales sound hoarse or as if they are whistling through their throat. Any adjustment in the sound of your breathing means that there is interference with the airflow and as a result may be a sign that the bar is choking you.
If you notice any of the above signs come about during your sets this isn’t the time to just suck it up as you could be at risk for actually doing harm. However, aside from discomfort, if your general breathing is normal you may be fine and are just not yet accustomed to the front rack position.
Reasons Why The Bar Is Choking You Doing Front Squats
There are 4 reasons why the bar is choking you during front squats:
- Your grip is wrong
- You lack upper body mobility
- Your bar placement is incorrect
- Your head and neck placement is incorrect
Your Grip Of Choice
If the bar is choking you during front squats it may come down to the type of grip you are choosing.
With front squats there are 4 types of grips: standard, modified standard, cross arm and strap-assisted.
While none inherently should be causing choking, the cross arm grip may put you at higher risk because the bar is generally more unstable in the position.
Lack Of Upper Body Mobility
The position of your torso and arms are crucial aspects to executing a correct front squat, however, the position also requires a good level of upper body mobility.
Without the ability to stand upright with the bar held in the proper position you may notice the bar slipping or even possibly moving back into your throat.
If your upper body isn’t able to put you in the correct position, the bar may not stay in place and you may be unknowingly leaning back and trying to stabilize the bar by rolling it into your neck rather than creating a stable shelf for it to sit on.
Your Bar Placement Is Incorrect
If the bar is constricting your airflow you may have it sitting in the wrong position.
There should be a sweet spot between stopping your breathing and slipping off your shoulders. That sweet spot probably won’t feel very comfortable either but you should be able to still inhale and exhale normally. Remember, the bar should be supported by the tops of your shoulders and not your neck.
Your Head And Neck Position Is Incorrect
Your head and neck position are important when it comes to front squats as it sets your posture but also determines where your throat is relative to the bar.
If you are leaving your head and neck to just relax and remain passive you may be unintentionally resting your windpipe on the bar and causing a restriction in airflow.
Thoracic mobility may also additionally help you keep a good head and neck position.
5 Tips To Stop Front Squats From Choking You
Here are my top 5 tips for how to stop the front squat from choking you:
- Adjust your head and eye position
- Place the bar at the base of your neck
- Push against the bar with your throat
- Change your grip
- Improve your thoracic mobility
1. Adjust Your Head And Eye Position
If you believe your overall front rack position is good and the bar is stable, a small adjustment you can make is to elongate your neck away from the bar and keep your gaze up.
This small change will not only adjust your posture, but it will prevent your throat from resting or laying on top of the bar. If you press on the base of your throat even just with your hand, notice the difference you feel when your chin is neutral or tucked versus when your chin and gaze are up.
Looking for alternatives to the front squat that target the same muscle groups? Check out my article on the 10 Best Front Squat Alternatives.
2. Place The Bar At The Base Of Your Neck
To ensure the bar is placed in the correct spot, you should check that it is sitting on top of your deltoids and at the base of your neck.
The base of your neck is roughly where your clavicle, or collarbone, is located and while the bar should be resting on the collarbone, it should not be over and behind the bone itself and laying on your throat.
3. Push Against The Bar With Your Throat
In addition to elongating your neck and keeping your chin up, you will want to create some pressure and “brace” your neck muscles.
Similar to when you tighten up your back before unracking a back squat, you want to create some force into the barbell to prevent it from just pressing on completely relaxed throat muscles.
The tip for creating this tension is by pressing your tongue up on the roof of your mouth and tensing your jaw and neck. The actual force will be very slight, but will just ensure all your muscles are engaged.
Using a mouthguard helps with this technique. Check out my top mouthguard recommendations for powerlifting.
4. Change Your Grip
If the bar is choking you when in a cross arm grip position, try switching to a standard grip instead. A standard grip is achieved with hands just outside your shoulders while stabilizing the bar with your fingertips.
While this position may be more uncomfortable for your upper body, it is more stable, and will therefore prevent rolling of the bar back into your neck and choking during your reps.
If the bar chokes you with a mixed grip, but a standard or modified standard grip is too challenging for your upper body, you can also opt for a strap-assisted front squat grip.
5. Improve Thoracic Mobility
Improving your thoracic mobility will result in a more sturdy and stacked front rack position, allowing you to hold the bar in place throughout your reps. In addition to providing a strong base, it will also help you keep your head in line with your torso and elongated, therefore reducing your risk of being choked by the barbell.
To improve your thoracic mobility you can perform a variety of dynamic warm-ups before your front squats, including:
Check out my full article on How To Warm Up For Squats where I cover four elements to an effective warm-up routine.
While you should expect discomfort on the throat with front squats, the sensation you may be feeling can be harmful if it is restricting your airways. At no point should you feel like air is not able to pass in and out of your throat or like you are about to pass out.
The solution ultimately comes down to bringing awareness to the issue and why it may be occurring as well as making some slight adjustments in your grip as well as how you position your head, neck and back under the bar.
While it may take some practice to find the perfect positioning to avoid choking, the front squat is a terrific lift for building both muscle and strength and has a place in everyone’s training if done correctly.
What to read more about the front squat? Check out my front squat exercise comparisons:
- Safety Bar Squat vs Front Squat
- Zercher Squat vs Front Squat
- Goblet Squat vs Front Squat
- Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.