This article was reviewed by Dr. Niraj Patel for the accuracy of information.
The squat requires a healthy functioning shoulder.
This is because the shoulder flexes and rotates to keep the barbell in the correct position on the back. If you feel discomfort in the shoulder while squatting, it's a sign that there's something mechanically wrong with the shoulder itself or you lack proper technique.
So how do you fix shoulder pain while squatting? Some strategies to fix shoulder pain while squatting are: reducing the weight, placing the barbell higher on your back, widening your grip, or using a squatting variation that doesn't place as much stress on the shoulder joint, such as front squats or safety bar squats.
There's no quick answer that will fix your shoulder. But, we can try to understand the root causes and implement solutions that will allow you to get pain-free over time. Here's what I'll cover in this article:
- The role of the shoulder while squatting
- Reasons why you get shoulder pain in the squat
- 9 solutions to fix shoulder pain while squatting
Let's get started!
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 or any article on the internet.
Table of Contents
The Role Of The Shoulder While Squatting
The shoulder is one of the most active joints in the entire body.
It can lift the arm up and down, side-to-side, in-and-out, and in a full 360-degree circle.
Any time the shoulder is at play, it involves a network of muscles, ligaments, and bones that work in unison with one another to accomplish the task.
A joint with a high level of mobility, like the shoulder, naturally has less stability. This is especially the case if the smaller muscle groups surrounding the shoulder aren't strong enough.
Let's look at the shoulder's anatomy and mechanics so you understand its job while squatting.
Note: If you simply want to know what to do when you get shoulder pain, feel free to skip this section and keep scrolling.
Shoulder Anatomy 101
The role of the shoulder joint is to move the arm in different directions.
You can picture the shoulder joint as a ball and socket. It's made up of three bones:
- Humerus (upper arm bone)
- Scapula (the shoulder blade)
- Clavicle (the collar bone).
The structure and position of these bones allow the arm to move freely around the body. This is primarily facilitated by both stabilizing and primary muscle groups:
- The rotator cuff muscles are the shoulder's stabilizers. They are a group of four muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis) that run from the shoulder blade to the upper arm. They keep the ‘ball' and ‘socket' in a proper position.
- The lats, pecs, and deltoid muscles are the shoulder's prime movers. They move the arm in different ways depending on the exercise.
An important piece of anatomy to understand is that the shoulder joint socket is quite shallow.
So, the ‘ball' that sits in the ‘socket', doesn't have much room to play. If the ball starts to rise or move forward because the stabilizers or prime movers aren't doing their job properly (too weak or tight), it will cause shoulder impingement.
Furthermore, people are built slightly differently than others.
Some folks will have more or less stiffness in the tissues surrounding the shoulder joint and a different shape to the joint socket itself (some rounder or flatter than others). Both of these factors create individual differences in how the shoulder moves in certain individuals.
Shoulder Mechanics 101
Let's now take a look at how the shoulder functions during the squat.
Even though the squat is a lower-body exercise, in order to keep the barbell on the back properly, the shoulder is required to have:
- Shoulder flexion
- Shoulder external rotation
- Shoulder retraction
You don't need to memorize the terminology. I'm not going to quiz you.
However, let's look at some visuals to better understand what I'm talking about.
Shoulder flexion means the arms must move sideways from your body (much like when you do a pec fly). The wider you grip the barbell, the greater shoulder flexion that is required. You should feel a stretch in your chest when you're in shoulder flexion.
Shoulder External Rotation
Shoulder external rotation means that the arm must rotate backward (much like pulling your arm back to throw a ball). The lower the barbell is on your back, the greater the required external rotation. You should feel a stretch in the front of your shoulder when you're in external rotation.
Shoulder retraction means that the shoulder blade pulls back toward the rib cage. A retracted shoulder blade will give your shoulder additional stability.
Want to improve your squat technique?
Reasons Why You Get Shoulder Pain In The Squat
The question that we're attempting to answer is: What is the most common reason people get shoulder pain in the squat?
The important thing for you to understand is that the shoulder joint is complex. There's no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to diagnosing shoulder pain. This is especially the case if you've ever experienced prior injury or trauma to the shoulder.
However, the most common reason why people get shoulder pain while squatting is because of excessive stress on the tissues or structures that surround the shoulder joint.
This results in a shoulder impingement where the ‘ball' that sits inside the shoulder shifts either up or forward and compresses on the socket itself.
There are three primary reasons why this occurs:
- You have a strength imbalance between the stabilizers and prime movers, i.e. one muscle group is dominant over another from either a strength or mobility perspective.
- You have a lack of stability, i.e. the stabilizers can't handle the movement's loading demands.
- You have poor posture and technique, i.e. your shoulder position is not set properly before lifting.
Depending on which of these reasons apply to you, you'll want to implement a specific strategy to reduce the level of pain you experience.
In the next section, I'll offer several solutions. Not all of them will apply to your situation, but you can experiment with one or another to see if they offer any relief.
If you can't hold onto the barbell when low bar squatting, check out my 7 tips.
9 Solutions For Fixing Shoulder Pain While Squatting
Some of the solutions I will suggest will be trying to directly solve the underlying issue. For example, shoulder strengthening exercises, mobility exercises, and postural/technical changes to the movement.
Other solutions that I'll suggest won't solve the issue directly but may provide some temporary relief where you can still continue squatting without immediate shoulder pain.
Here are 9 solutions for fixing your shoulder pain while squatting:
1. Analyze Your Training Split
The first thing you want to do is identify if there are any issues with your training split.
The main issue will be whether or not the muscles surrounding your shoulder are stiff and tight from a prior workout, which prevents you from getting into the correct squatting position.
The muscles in your shoulder, both your stabilizers and prime movers, will rely on you having a certain level of mobility to safely put the barbell on your back. This is especially the case in a low-bar squatting position.
For example, you may be experiencing shoulder pain if you do a heavy chest day prior to squatting and your pec muscles are too tight. This can prevent you from moving the arm into shoulder flexion and external rotation to get the barbell on your back.
Takeaway: Try having a complete day's rest before your squat workout. This isn't something you'll need to implement forever, but it might be something that can give you some immediate relief.
2. Assess Your Shoulder Mobility
Test your shoulder mobility, and if there are any limitations, implement corrective exercises to improve your range of motion.
You need adequate shoulder mobility in flexion, horizontal flexion, and external rotation when squatting.
We prepared an article on the best shoulder mobility exercises.
Here's how you test whether you have any limitations:
For each of these ranges of motion, note whether there are any imbalances between your right and left sides.
- Flexion: You should be able to bring both arms comfortably to the floor when lying on a foam roller.
- External rotation: Lying on your side, you should be able to bring your upper arm 90 degrees to the floor.
Takeaway: If you're lacking range of motion in either one of these ranges of motion, or between your right and left side, then this is a very common reason for shoulder pain while squatting.
Note: the next four points will be good modifications to make to your squat technique if you do have poor shoulder mobility.
3. Try The Thumbless Grip
When squatting, you're supposed to have your thumb under the barbell. But, if you lack external shoulder rotation, some people say getting into position with the thumb over the bar is easier.
I wouldn't bank on this kind of technique long term because it ultimately reduces the amount of tension you can generate through your upper back musculature. But if it gives you some temporary relief, then it's definitely a modification I support.
I wrote an entire article on the thumbless grip squat if you want to read more about implementing this technique.
Takeaway: experiment with the position of your thumb, moving it from under to over the barbell, to see if it help.
Check out my article on whether powerlifting will destroy your body in the long-term.
4. Move The Bar Higher On Your Back
Placing the bar lower on your back will require additional shoulder mobility versus placing the bar higher on your back.
If you're a powerlifter, you will likely have been taught to low-bar squat.
This is a position where the barbell is placed at the bottom of the rear delt and has been shown to generate greater levels of max strength when compared with other types of squat positions.
Read more about LOW BAR VS HIGH BAR SQUATS.
Unfortunately, it can be somewhat punishing on the shoulder joint under heavy loads, especially if the muscles in the front of your shoulder are tight and restrict your range of motion.
Takeaway: If you're experiencing pain in the shoulder while squatting, and you consistently low bar squat, then you might need to temporarily move the bar higher on your back to get some relief. You could also try a variation such as Safety Bar Squats.
If you get elbow pain while low bar squatting, then check out my article that details 8 solutions to fix it.
5. Widen Your Grip
The narrower your grip on the barbell, the more external shoulder rotation is required to get into a lower bar squat position.
Sometimes, a low bar squat position and a narrow grip can cause too much stress for the tissues and ligaments surrounding the shoulder, especially under a max load.
Therefore, you'll want to start widening your grip on the barbell to see if you get any relief.
However, there will be limitations on how wide you want to place your hands. This is because the wider your hands are placed on the barbell, the more potential for lateral movements (side-to-side) on the barbell. There is always a ‘give and take' when modifying the technique.
Additionally, you'll have difficulty recruiting your upper backs and lats in a wider grip, which will help you stabilize your torso while squatting.
Takeaway: try moving your hand position wider by a few finger lengths (not too wide) and see if you get any relief.
While squatting is a fundamental exercise, it's not without its pitfalls, such as the discomfort of a squat bar on the neck, which we explain how to overcome.
6. Flare Your Elbows Back vs Down
Try shifting your elbows behind you (back) versus tucking them next to your ribcage (down).
This is another one of those technique modifications that shouldn't be permanent. There are many benefits to having your elbows down, such as maximally recruiting your lat muscles and maintaining an upright torso while squatting.
However, when you experience shoulder pain squatting, having your elbows down requires additional shoulder mobility, which, if you're currently lacking, can compress the tissues surrounding the shoulder joint, causing pain and inflammation.
Takeaway: Try shifting your elbow position slightly back to see if you get any immediate relief.
7. Get Your Stabilizers Stronger
If your stabilizers lack strength, your shoulder won't be able to maintain an effective position throughout the squat, especially if the loading demands of the movement are high.
The shoulder stabilizers are those muscles that keep the shoulder in the proper position while squatting. They ensure the shoulder doesn't roll up or forward, which can cause tissues to compress and create inflammation.
I would start implementing the following three exercises to build stronger stabilizer muscles:
The band pull-apart will work most of the muscles of the rotator cuff, which controls the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket.
Prone Trap 3 Raise
The prone trap 3 raise will work the low trap muscles, which control the position of the shoulder blade.
Seated Rope Face Pull
The seated rope face pull work the rotator cuff muscles and the rear delt, which helps align your upper position.
Takeaway: be diligent with your shoulder stabilization exercises. Implement these exercises two times per week and progressively increase the resistance over time.
8. Work On Your Overall Posture
Poor posture of your mid back can lead to a lack of range of motion of the shoulder, more generally. This can cause pain while squatting if you're moving your shoulder into a position that it otherwise cannot get into naturally.
The shoulder blade sits on top of the spine, so the shape of the mid-back can greatly impact its ability to do its job. In order for the shoulder to stabilize the arm properly, it has to glide on the upper back effectively. This requires a degree of extension in the mid back.
What this means is if you have poor posture, where your mid back is rounded all of the time, you can experience shoulder pain.
Poor posture can be caused by two reasons:
- Your posterior muscles (rhomboids, rear delt, and traps) are too weak.
- Your anterior muscles (pecs, front delt, and serratus muscles) are too tight.
You can implement the same exercises I mentioned to correct weak posterior muscles to strengthen your stabilizers. In addition, you can add any barbell or dumbbell row variation.
To correct tight anterior muscles, here are two of my favorite exercises:
Shoulder Flexion Stretch With Band
Kneeling T-Spine Extension
Takeaway: program yourself a good dose of upper back strengthening exercises, as well a stretches that open up the front of your body to improve posture.
9. Use Another Squat Variation
If you've tried all of the modifications and corrections above, but you haven't been able to get any relief, you may want to try a squat variation that doesn't put as much demand on the shoulder.
Some of the exercises you could try are (click the links below to read my complete exercise guides):
Each of these movements requires significantly less mobility on the shoulder joint.
However, there are some drawbacks to these movements. The front squat is a technically much harder exercise to learn. The safety bar squat requires a special barbell. And, the goblet squat doesn't allow you to go as heavy as you may want.
Therefore, you should swap the squat for one of these variations in the short term, but in the long term, try to address the underlying shoulder mobility and strength issues that will allow you to continue squatting.
Takeaway: Substitute the squat for a variation that doesn't stress the shoulder as much.
With a few changes to the squat and an understanding of proper positioning and mechanics, you might be able to find relief much quicker than anticipated.
However, the more realistic scenario will likely require several weeks of rehab and modifications in order for you to be pain-free. If pain persists or gets worse, you should seek immediate medical attention.
Be sure to check out my other articles on shoulder pain:
One final resource that I'll direct you to is our guide on HOW TO AVOID A POWERLIFTING INJURY.