There are different kinds of shoulder pain that can be associated with squatting with a barbell across one’s back.
The first type is a strained feeling, which may occur in one or both shoulders, soon after beginning the sets of squats.
It can be a sharp or pinching type of pain that tends to radiate down the medial (middle) deltoid.
The origin of this discomfort is a problem with the rotator cuff, a structure of four small muscles and tendons that is prone to injury from lifting weights, as well as from awkward positioning.
Though I’ve been a personal trainer, teaching the barbell squat, I have come across this problem only a few times — including with myself. But with myself, I found a solution.
Solution: Before you do barbell squats, stretch both shoulders by using the bar of a Smith machine.
Place it one increment higher than the height you’d normally use, if you were to do your squats on a Smith rack.
This height is important because it works perfectly for stretching the shoulders.
Position yourself beneath the bar as though you’re preparing to squat (even though the bar is one notch too high for your height).
Place hands as far out as possible on the bar. Place one foot ahead of the other as though you’re about to lunge, and lean body forward to generate a stretch in the shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds.
Rest from this stretch by doing anything (bodyweight squats, jumping jacks, sitting on bench, quad stretches, etc.).
However, after this 30 second break, you will start another 30-second stretch to help loosen up the rotator cuff.
Don’t force or yank the stretch; be gentle while you hold the position. Do four sets of 30-second stretches.
The joints should now be loosened up, and you can begin squatting (free or Smith).
Another possible cause of shoulder pain while squatting is that your hands are close to each other on the bar.
Place them further out. In fact, the further out they are, the less strain on the shoulder joints.
After the first set, you should do another 30-second stretch as described above.
In fact, after the first three sets of squats, do these stretches. By then, the joints should be thoroughly loosened up.
Another cause of shoulder pain during squats is that the bar is pressing down on the trapezius muscles.
This discomfort, for people who experience it, will be more pronounced during free barbell squatting versus that with the Smith machine.
The heavier the bar, the more pressure you’ll feel on your frame. However, make sure that the bar is truly across the shoulders, rather than resting upon your cervical discs!
If the bar rests on your neck, you’re asking for some deep trouble.
To avoid shoulder pain while doing barbell squats, 1) Decide you are going to take the time to conduct the stretches as described here, 2) Keep hands placed wide on the bar, even as wide as possible, and 3) Make sure the bar rests on the shoulders, not the neck.