When teaching a lifter how to low bar squat, it’s common for me to hear that they have a hard time holding onto the bar. The low bar squat position either makes their elbows and shoulders feel uncomfortable or they feel like the barbell is going to drop off their back.
If you can’t hold the barbell for low-bar squats properly, here are my top 7 tips:
- Try a Narrower Grip
- Ensure You’ve Found Your “Rear Delt Shelf”
- Bring The Barbell Up on Your Back Slightly
- Increase The Musculature of Your Upper Back
- Slightly Flare Your Elbows Back
- Work On Your Shoulder & Wrist Mobility
- Focus On Your Torso Angle
In most cases, implementing one of these tips will help you hold onto the barbell better while low bar squatting. I know this because as the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting, I’ve helped hundreds of lifters feel more comfortable with the low bar squat position using these same tips.
Before diving into these tips further, let’s discuss the reasons why you might not be able to hold onto the bar properly when low bar squatting.
Reasons Why You Can’t Hold Onto The Bar For Low Bar Squats
While low bar squatting can increase force production and glute activation, if you can’t hold the bar properly then it can distract you from taking advantage of these benefits. It may also limit your desire to load more weight because, with more weight, the more uncomfortable the barbell will feel on your back.
In my experience, there are 4 main reasons why lifters can’t hold the bar during low bar squats:
- You aren’t using the right grip
- You have an improper bar position
- You can’t create a rear delt shelf
- You lack mobility
When you’re assessing which one of these reasons applies to you, recognize that it may be more than one.
If this is the case, you’ll need to address the problem from multiple angles, which may take slightly longer to fix. I bring this up because the timeline might not be as quick as you’d like.
Please adjust your expectations accordingly and be patient with the process.
You Aren’t Using The Right Grip
If you’re just transitioning from high bar to low bar squats, you might need to adjust your grip width slightly.
For some lifters, this is going to mean bringing your hands narrower. For others, it’s going to mean bringing your hands wide wider.
Another issue may be how your hands are connected with the barbell, whether you have a loose or tight grip, and whether you’re using a fully-closed hand or a suicide grip.
Check out my full guide on the Best Squat Hand Position.
You Have An Improper Bar Position
The exact placement of the barbell on your back while low bar squatting is going to vary from person to person.
Depending on your bone and joint structure, how much upper back musculature you have, and your level of shoulder mobility, the barbell will sit either higher or lower.
You may need to experiment with different positions before finding one that you prefer.
A key thing to keep in mind is that the lower the barbell is on your back, the greater your torso angle is going to be while squatting. One of the things we’ll discuss later in this article is that you may have the proper bar position, but the improper torso angle, which is the real reason you feel uncomfortable while low bar squatting.
In addition, just because you’ve found a low bar squat position today that you feel comfortable with, doesn’t mean that it won’t change over time as your gain/lose bodyweight or increase/decrease your level of mobility.
You may be interested in my article where I talk about the Best Bar Path For Squats
You Can’t Create a Rear Delt Shelf
The “rear delt shelf” is a natural place for the barbell to sit for the low bar squat, which is between the top of the rear delt and the lower trap muscles.
The concept of the “rear delt shelf” is something that is widely talked about but is most commonly misunderstood.
People think that the rear delt shelf just naturally occurs, but this isn’t true. You have to actively create it by engaging the musculature of your upper back prior to unracking the barbell.
The rear delt shelf is going to be more prominent on lifters who have greater musculature, but it’s not impossible to create for smaller lifters as well. We’ll discuss how to do this step-by-step later.
You Lack Mobility
A common complaint from people who can’t hold the bar while low bar squatting is that they feel pain or discomfort in their wrists, elbows, and/or shoulders.
If you feel pain in these areas while low bar squatting, your hands will naturally want to release tension from the barbell.
If your hands aren’t tight around the barbell, then there’s a greater chance the barbell will move around while squatting, which can create a sense of instability and that you don’t have control.
We’ll cover some mobility drills you can do later.
You might also want to check out my article on How To Fix Shoulder Pain When Squatting. I cover 9 solutions.
7 Tips For Lifters Who Low Bar Squat And Can’t Hold Bar
Now that we know some of the common reasons why you can’t hold onto the bar while low bar squatting, let’s now discuss what you should do about it.
Below I’m going to detail 7 tips that I’ve used with athletes. Not all of these tips will apply to everyone equally. 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.
I’m confident at least one of these tips will work for you!
1. Try a Narrower Grip
The best grip for low bar squatting is the narrowest grip possible, while not feeling any discomfort in your elbows and shoulders.
A low bar squat will feel more unstable the wider your grip is on the barbell. It will feel like the weight may slip off your back, and you’ll also notice that the barbell moves side-to-side while squatting.
Most people will need to narrow their grip when low bar squatting. However, “narrow” is a relative term, as someone who is bigger in stature may look like they have a wide grip, but based on their bone and joint structure it would be considered narrow.
With that said, if you’re someone who currently experiences shoulder or elbow pain while low bar squatting, and this is the cause of why you can’t hold onto the barbell properly, you may actually have a grip that’s TOO narrow. In this case, you may want to consider widening it slightly.
2. Ensure You’ve Found Your “Rear Delt Shelf”
The “rear delt shelf” is a natural place for the barbell to sit on your back. However, it does not naturally occur. You need to create it by engaging the musculature of your upper back.
In order to create the “rear delt shelf”, you need to activate your traps prior to unracking the barbell.
To activate your upper traps you want to think about pulling your traps back and slightly upwards. You can achieve this by retracting your shoulder blades and then elevating them moderately to activate your upper back.
When you do this, it will feel like your trap muscles are engaged and tight (not soft). One cue that I like to give athletes is to “pull their traps up into the barbell”.
Remember, it’s important that you achieve this trap activation PRIOR to unracking the barbell.
For more squat cues, check out my article on 9 Squat Cues To Improve Technique (And, 1 You Should Not Do).
3. Bring The Barbell Up on Your Back Slightly
You may have the barbell too low on your back. If this is the case, consider bringing the barbell up on your back slightly.
When lifters decide to try low bar squatting for the first time, they often place the barbell too low on their back.
For most people, the low bar squat is only going to be a couple of inches lower than their high bar squat position. Newer lifters will think this subtle difference won’t make an impact and so they overcompensate and place the barbell too low
So how can you tell if the barbell is too low?
You typically don’t want to have the barbell lower than the top of the rear delt. Some advanced powerlifters place the barbell on the mid-part of the delt, but this should not be replicated for the average person.
I wrote an in-depth guide discussing bar placement for squats, which you can read in my article Where Should You Put The Barbell On Your Back?
4. Increase The Musculature of Your Upper Back
For lifters with less muscle mass on their upper back, they will feel like the weight has greater instability in a low bar squat position.
This is because with more muscle mass, their is more surface area for the barbell to sit on. In other words, there is more natural cushion and padding for the weight.
To overcome this, you should perform 8-12 weeks of upper back hypertrophy. In particular, using the following exercises: reverse dumbbell flys, wide grip seated rows, pull-ups, and barbell shrugs.
Once you develop more upper back muscle mass, you’ll notice the barbell sitting more comfortably in the low bar position.
If you’re curious on the Muscles Used In The Squat, check out my complete guide. I discuss how different muscles are used in different variations fo the squat.
5. Slightly Flare Your Elbows Back
For certain athletes, slightly flaring your elbows back may make it easier to hold onto the bar when low bar squatting.
Flaring your elbows back means that rather than your elbows pointing straight down to the floor, you point them behind you. This will also involve internally rotating the shoulder forward.
I want to be clear: I DO NOT recommend this tip for everyone as I think a better elbow position for most people is to keep your elbows tucked into your side and pointing straight down.
However, for people that lack upper back musculature, there may not be enough surface area to keep the barbell on the back while squatting.
One hack you can implement in the short-term while trying to gain muscle is to flare your elbows back. Just remember, once you have more upper back musculature, you should then start to point your elbows down.
If you’re someone who experiences neck/trap pain while squatting, check out my article on How To Fix Squats From Hurting Your Neck.
6. Work On Your Shoulder & Wrist Mobility
A lack of shoulder and wrist mobility will make it incredibly difficult to hold the weight in a low-bar squat position.
Lifters underestimate just how much mobility is required to low bar squat effectively.
There is a high demand for external-shoulder rotation and wrist flexion, which if you’re not actively working on, there is a risk for increased pain and discomfort while squatting.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you may have strong mobility on one side of your body, but the other side is lacking. This will also make it harder to hold onto the bar while low bar squatting.
Try implementing the following exercises to improve shoulder and wrist mobility:
External Shoulder Rotation Stretch
Wrist Mobility Drills
Make sure you are implementing these mobility drills into your squat warm-up. Check out my complete guide on How To Warm Up For Squats.
7. Focus on Your Torso Angle
The issue of why you can’t hold onto the barbell while low bar squatting may have less to do with hand and bar placement, and more to do with the angle of your torso.
A lot of people may be too focused on where the barbell is on their back when the real problem may be a lack of position with their torso.
A low bar squat is naturally going to have a more forward-leaning torso compared with a high bar squat.
As such, the low bar squat will have the hips travel further back while squatting down, and the glutes will be more activated in all stages of the movement.
However, I see a lot of lifters who transition from high bar squats to low bar squats try to maintain the same upright torso they were implementing when high bar squatting.
This is incorrect technique.
Lifters need to get used to leaning forward more during the low bar squat, which will make the barbell feel more stable on the back. With a torso that is ‘too upright’, the barbell may feel like it will fall off.
If you feel like you can’t hold onto the barbell when low bar squatting know that the tips covered in this article should get you on a path to feeling more comfortable.
First, analyze why you might not be able to hold onto the bar, then implement corrections based on your assessment.
While the fixes might be simple, they may take several weeks, and sometimes months, to take effect. Stay patient in the process and continue practicing the low bar squat. It will only feel more comfortable the more exposure you have with the lift.