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OUCH! SHOULDERS & SQUATTING
The bar hurts my neck. My shoulders hurt. These complaints are common place in every athletic training program.
By Dr. Greg Shepard
Published: Summer 2001

What is the solution? What is the cause? The remedies are simple. Everyone should be able to squat without neck or shoulder pain.

Bar Selection:
The ideal squat bar is a bar with a PSI rating of at least 135,000. A high PSI (Pounds per square inch) rating will give a bar the strength necessary in squatting with heavy weight. There is also a certain amount of abuse to a bar when the bar is being racked. Bars with a low PSI rating are susceptible to bending more easily.

The ideal squat bar also has knurling in the center. This prevents slippage. Bars with chrome in the middle are the worst for slippage. This instability can make this type of bar not only uncomfortable but also less safe. An athlete should wear a shirt when squatting or in the weight room. A bar with center knurling will secure itself to the athlete’s shirt and stabilize the bar on the shoulders. Bottom Line: Squat with a high PSI bar with center knurling.

Bar Placement:
Bar placement should be on the shoulders, no lower than an inch from the top part of the shoulders. If the bar is placed on the neck, it will hurt. Sometimes bodybuilders will use what I call a “high bar squat” and place the bar on the neck area but this is usually done with lighter weights. Some athletes copy the bar placement of some powerlifters, which is an extremely low bar placement. This does not cause pain, but I feel this placement is not the best for the development of the legs, hips and glutes for speed and jumping power. The best overall strategy for an athlete is to place the bar on the shoulders. Some strength coaches use the term, “find the shelf” of the shoulders for bar placement. Bottom Line: Find the most comfortable bar position which places the bar within one inch of the top of the shoulders.

Raise the Shoulders:
I credit Dr. Richard Borden, acting president of the NSCA, for the “raise the shoulders” tip. If you get under the bar with the shoulders down, the bar will be placed on a narrow portion of the shoulders just below the neck. If you are experiencing pain, this might be the cause. The solution could be as simple as raising the outside portions of your shoulders when getting under the bar. Now the weight of the bar will be more evenly distributed along a wider area of the shoulders. Bottom Line: Raise your shoulders when getting under the bar to avoid pain.

Barbell Pads:
The problem with barbell pads when squatting is their instability. If you have a bar with a chrome center, it makes matters even worse. A barbell pad will have a tendency to roll down off the shoulders. People get barbell pads to avoid discomfort but you give up a secure, stable bar position. Barbell pads are essential for lifts like the Jerk Press, Push Press or any lift with the bar moving up and down behind the neck. This is especially true with bars that have knurling in the center. You can rub the back of your neck raw even to the point of bleeding when doing lifts behind the neck. Bottom Line: Barbell Pads are for the Jerk Press and Push Press. They have limitations for Squatting.

Towel Wraps:
Many weight rooms use a towel that is wrapped around their squat bar. Many times tape is used to keep the towel from unraveling. This can create a big stability problem. The towel can cause the bar to slip down the shoulders. Do’s and Don’ts: If a towel is to be used, do not use a big towel. Do wrap a smaller towel tightly around the bar. Do not tape just around the towel but do tape the outer portions of the towel right to the bar. This will keep the towel from rolling down the shoulders.

Using a Towel:
The best way to use a towel to avoid discomfort while squatting is to drape it around the shoulders like a cape. You can fold the towel once but only once. More than that and the towel will become unstable.

The Manta Ray:
The Manta Ray is an injection-molded device that snaps easily onto any bar. Its function is to spread the weight of the bar over a wider area of the shoulders. Almost all girls and slim athletes like the Manta Ray because of the high comfort level. About half of high school athletes who are well muscled like the Manta Ray. About half do not. Experienced lifters have told me that it takes several workouts to make a good adjustment. Inexperienced lifters have success and are happy with the first rep. I believe every high school weight room should consider having Manta Rays for their squat racks so that all athletes can squat without saying, “Ouch!”

Athletic Bar Position. Notice the center knurl.
Powerlifting Bar Position. Lower on the back
Bodybuilding Bar Position higher up on the shoulders.
Raise the shoulders for comfort when getting under the bar.
Barbell Pads can cause instability and slipping
The Manta Ray spreads the weight of the bar over a wider area
Wrapping a towel around the bar is not the best option.
Placing a towel over the shoulders, like a cape is a

Return to Summer 2001 Articles


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