There is no greater frustration when you’re high bar squatting and the load feels uncomfortable on your traps. This neck pain can be caused by several reasons, and in my experience working with athletes as the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting, the fixes are usually pretty simple.
So how do you fix high bar squats hurting your neck? Here are my 6 tips:
- Make Sure The Barbell Isn’t Sitting Too High
- Address a Lack Of Upper Back Musculature
- Tuck Your Chin
- Pull Your Traps Back and Up
- Try a Low Bar Squat Position
- Reduce Squat Frequency
In most cases, implementing one of these fixes will help alleviate neck pain while high bar squatting. However, in order to implement these fixes properly, you need to identify the root cause of the pain, which we’ll discuss first. Then, I’ll dive deeper into these fixes so you can start working your way toward pain-free squatting.
Disclaimer: Information in this article should not be used as medical advice. If you have neck pain, seek medical attention for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Consult a medical professional before continuing to squat.
Why Does Your Neck Hurt When Doing High Bar Squats?
It’s not normal for your neck to hurt while high bar squatting.
When you have neck pain, it can distract you from thinking about other components of your technique, or applying maximum force to the barbell. It also may limit your desire to load more weight to the barbell because with more weight, the more pain you might get.
In my experience, neck pain when high bar squatting is usually caused by 4 main reasons:
- Inefficient Technique
- Improper Barbell Position
- Muscular Strain
When you’re assessing the cause of your pain, it may be a combination of these reasons.
If this is the case, you’ll need to address the problem from multiple angles, which may take slightly longer to correct. I bring this up because while the fixes may be simple, the timeline might not be quick. Therefore, you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.
You can get neck pain while high bar squatting when the pressure from the load compresses the tissues of your traps and back.
Does the squat bar hurt your neck? This normally happens when you’re first learning to squat, and the tissues of your upper back haven’t yet adapted to this pressure.
The compression of the load will also become greater the stronger you get and the heavier you lift. It’s not uncommon for elite-level powerlifters to get bruising on their back from the pressure of the barbell.
As well, if the barbell is not placed correctly on the back then the load may be compressing on a nerve. This is especially the case around the C7 nerve root, just above the base of the neck, where you’ll feel a slight ‘zapping’ sensation when the bar is on your back.
If you’ve ever had a history of nerve issues in the neck, this will be more of an issue for you when high bar squatting.
There is a range of technical errors that will cause neck pain while high bar squatting, including not engaging the muscles of your upper back, having the barbell move while squatting, and not placing your head in the correct position.
The most common technical error is that you haven’t engaged the muscular of your upper back prior to unracking the barbell.
You shouldn’t just loosely place the barbell on your back with relaxed muscles. There’s a certain activation process that you want to go through as you unrack the weight, which I’ll explain later.
Another common error is having ‘miro movements’ on the barbell while squatting.
A miro movement is a shift in the barbell’s position after you’ve already placed the weight on your back. Any slight movement of the barbell can cause irritation on your skin, or worse, muscular strain because of the increased stress at the level of your neck.
Lastly, while many lifters are concerned about the position of the feet, knees, and torso while squatting, they often forget how their head should be positioned.
If you haven’t been intentional with how you position your head while squatting, then it may be time to cue this aspect of your technique.
Read my article on the top 9 squat cues to improve strength and technique.
Improper Barbell Position
Placing the barbell incorrectly on your traps will cause neck pain.
This is fairly common for lifters who place the barbell ‘too high’ on their back.
The reason why lifters place the barbell too high is that they feel like if the barbell is any lower it might ‘fall off’ their back. You should know that it’s very rare for a barbell to fall completely off the back.
Lifters need to identify the proper position of where the barbell should sit on their upper back. In most cases, if you’re experiencing neck pain, the barbell likely needs to be a bit lower than where they originally think.
If your neck hurts outside of just squatting, then you may have sustained an acute muscular strain.
If the neck pain you’re experiencing exists when you’re not squatting, then perhaps squatting isn’t a root cause, but rather a trigger for the pain.
What this means is that squatting hurts your neck because of the position you’re in, but it’s not the position that originally caused the pain.
If this is the case, you need to look at other events in your life that may have contributed to the initial pain. Perhaps it was a prior injury that simply got flared up while squatting.
6 Tips To Fixing Neck Pain While High Bar Squatting
Now that we know some of the common reasons why you get neck pain while high bar squatting, let’s now discuss what you should do about it.
Below I’m going to detail 6 tips that I’ve used with athletes to help get them squatting pain-free.
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.
I’m confident at least one of these tips will work for you!
1. Make Sure The Barbell Isn’t Sitting Too High
One of the easiest fixes to alleviating neck pain while squatting is to experiment with where the barbell sits on your back.
As I said earlier, in most cases, pain in the neck can be attributed to a barbell position that is too high on the back (a common squat mistake)
Typically, the pain will occur if the barbell is sitting at or above the C7 vertebrae. The C7 vertebrae is usually pretty obvious to spot as it’s the large boney structure at the base of your neck. Make sure that the barbell is not sitting on this bone or above it.
At the end of the day, the best feedback of where the barbell should sit on your back is what feels the most comfortable to you.
So regardless of what you read online or how you’ve originally been taught, you should move the barbell around to see if there’s a reduction in pain, even if the position is somewhat counter-intuitive or the opposite of what’s considered a ‘best practice’.
2. Address a Lack Of Upper Back Musculature
If you’re lower in bodyweight and don’t have much upper back musculature, the barbell may start to hurt the neck under heavier load.
Any additional muscular tissue around where the barbell sits is going to create a natural cushion, which will alleviate the pressure of the weight on your neck/traps.
If you’re a male lifter who is less than 160lbs, or a female lifter less than 115lbs, you may be more prone to this issue than others simply because you won’t have the ‘mass’ to support the barbell.
To overcome this, you should start to train upper back exercises more frequently within your training program. In particular, reverse dumbbell flys, wide grip seated rows, pull-ups, and barbell shrugs.
Once you develop more upper back hypertrophy, you’ll notice the barbell sitting more comfortable on your back and the weight feels ‘lighter’.
If you’re interested in how powerlifters train back then check out my article that gives you a sample routine.
3. Tuck Your Chin
If your head is not positioned properly while squatting, then this can be a cause of neck pain.
Your head should be positioned neutral, not tilting up or down. In addition, it should be pulled back, not forward.
In my experience, lifters will experience greater levels of neck pain while high bar squatting if they are looking up toward the ceiling at the same time as the head is protruding forward (like an ostrich).
I like to coach my athletes to ‘tuck their chin’ while squatting. Tucking their chin will naturally draw their head into a more neutral position. If I watch you squat from the side, I should be able to see the neck in-line with the upper back, i.e. a straight line.
4. Pull Your Traps Back and Up
You can get neck pain while high bar squatting if you don’t activate your traps prior to unracking the barbell.
Activating your traps before lifting the barbell off the rack will create a natural shelf where the barbell can sit comfortably.
What you want to avoid is a situation where the barbell is sitting on relaxed muscle that hasn’t created any tightness.
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 first, and then elevating them moderately to activate your upper back.
At this point, you should feel tension in your traps where your muscles are engaged and tight. You want to achieve this feeling PRIOR to unracking the barbell.
5. Try a Low Bar Squat Position
For a lot of lifters, high bar squatting will just always feel slightly uncomfortable on the neck/traps. If this is the case, perhaps you should consider low bar squatting.
If you’ve tried some of the fixes above, and several months have passed and you’re still not finding the high bar squat is feeling any more comfortable, you should switch to a low bar squat position.
A low bar squat will shift the barbell from sitting on your upper traps just below the C7 vertebrae to between the top of the rear delt and low traps. It could be anywhere from 2-4 inches lower than where it currently sits.
When you switch to a low bar squat position, you’ll place the load (hopefully) on a part of your back that has more musculature, which provides additional cushioning. Furthermore, you reduce the risk of the barbell sitting on any vertebrae in your neck, which could cause nerve compression.
Keep in mind, if you squat in a low bar position, your torso will naturally lean a bit more forward compared with a high bar squat.
Check out my article on the best bar path for squats.
6. Reduce Squat Frequency
You could consider reducing your overall squat frequency in order to give your neck a chance to recover.
If you squat more than once per week, depending on how much volume/intensity you’re doing, your neck might not have yet adapted to the stimulus.
While your legs and back feel recovered, the neck is a smaller muscle group and may require additional recovery time.
In addition, if you’ve recently sustained a neck injury and you find that squatting can be a trigger, then reducing squat frequency will almost guarantee that you recover faster.
If you’re worried about not getting enough squat training in while you’re injured, you could consider a variation of the high bar squat that doesn’t require as much neck stimulus, such as safety bar squats, front squats, or leg press.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions I get about neck pain from the squat bar.
Can I Avoid Neck Pain While Squatting If I Don’t Want Huge Traps?
While getting bigger traps is one way to fix neck pain while squatting if you don’t have a lot of upper back musculature to cushion the load, there are several reasons why you might be getting pain in the first place. You could also try experimenting with the bar placement, working on your head position, and activating the musculature of your traps prior to unracking the barbell.
Should I Switch To Low Bar Squats If My Neck Hurts When Doing High Bar Squats?
While switching to low bar squats, and experimenting with your bar placement more generally, can be one way to alleviate neck pain while squatting, there are several reasons why you might be getting pain in the first place. You could also try increasing hypertrophy of your upper back muscles, reducing your squat frequency, or tucking your chin/finding a neutral head position while squatting.
You don’t have to accept that your neck will always hurt while high bar squatting. Analyze why you might be getting neck pain in the first place, and then implement corrections based on your assessment. Most often, the fix is simply moving the bar a bit lower on your back, engaging your upper back muscles prior to unracking the barbell, and making sure your head is in the right position.