Q: We are about the same age, so I’m hoping you can help me with my problem. Because of repeated shoulder injuries over the years my left shoulder is sore all of the time and very tight. It hurts like hell to grip the bar while doing squats. I don’t want to stop squatting. Do you have any suggestions on how I can regain my shoulder flexibility enough to squat without severe shoulder pain?
A: When I say that I know the pain of which you speak, I’m not kidding. I seriously know the pain! I suffered posterior labrum tears in both of my shoulders years ago. In 1997 I was having really bad problems with my right shoulder when I ruptured my biceps tendon. As a person who always tries to find the silver lining, I thought, “Oh, well, I will be in a cast and sling for weeks. At least my shoulder will heal up.” Boy was I wrong.
When I got out of the cast, I found I had lost mobility in my shoulder. When I would wedge myself under the squat bar, it felt as if someone was stabbing an ice pick into my shoulder. It took weeks of excruciating flexibility work to get back to the point where I could get positioned under the bar comfortably enough to squat—but that was 15 years ago, when I was younger and more pliable.
My first suggestion is go to an orthopedic doctor to find out exactly what the problem is with your shoulder. Your doctor should be able to prescribe treatment to get your shoulder back to full mobility. I’m guessing that your pain is not limited to squatting, and medical treatment may be able to restore your shoulder function in all or most of the exercises that are producing the pain.
If you are anything like me (and most of the bodybuilders I know who have been training for 30-plus years are), you don’t want to wait until your shoulder is healed to resume squatting. So here are some suggestions:
1) Use a different kind of bar or attachment that doesn’t require as much shoulder flexibility.
2) Use a different squat exercise.
3) Use a machine.
In my opinion using a different type of bar or a bar attachment is the best option. There are a couple of excellent bars on market. The bar that will relieve some of your shoulder strain while keeping you the closest to a regular barbell squat is the Buffalo Squat Bar, also known as a Bow Bar. It looks like a severely bent Olympic bar, fits very comfortably across the shoulders and enables you to control the weight without solidly gripping the bar. You can squat in total control with just your fingertips contacting the bar.
Because of the bend, the weight rotates slightly forward as you descend. That allows you to squat in a slightly more upright position than normal. The Buffalo Bar will run you about $220 to $260 new, plus shipping. The other type of specialty bar is the Safety Squat Bar, popularized in the ’80s by Dr. Squat, Fred Hatfield. Some recent variations known as cambered squat bars have come on the market, but the basic design is pretty much the same.
The Safety Squat Bar is designed so that you can squat without actually holding the bar. Instead, you hold onto vertical bars that are secured to the rack, and spot yourself. You can actually pull yourself out of the hole if you get stuck. With the Safety Squat and the other cambered variations you have the option of not using the self-spotting rack. Either way your hands stay in front of your body, and there is no torquing of the shoulders. The weight shifts even farther forward as you descend, so the dynamics of the squat is considerably different from that of a regular back squat. A new Safety Squat Bar or cambered squat bar will cost about $300 to $350, plus shipping.
The Top Squat is a great attachment that enables you to squat without having to rotate your shoulders backward. It was developed by bodybuilding legend Dave Draper. Like you, he wanted to continue to squat in his 50s but didn’t have the shoulder flexibility to grip the bar. He designed the Top Squat, which snaps onto an Olympic bar and has handles protruding forward so that you grip in front of your body. I have never actually used this device, but it appears that it would enable you to execute the perfect back squat without the shoulder strain. You can find the Top Squat at www.Home-Gym.com for $189.
If you don’t want to purchase any of the items I’ve mentioned, you will need to do a different kind of squat exercise. For one of my clients who lacks the shoulder flexibility to perform a barbell squats or Smith-machine squats, I have prescribed dumbbell squats. We perform them while holding a heavy dumbbell in front of the body and squatting until the dumbbell touches the floor. Most people will hold the dumbbell in the vertical position, but I prefer to hold it horizontally in order to go deeper.
This is a great exercise, but you will be limited by amount of weight that you can hold or by the dumbbell’s hitting you in the groin area with the bigger dumbbells. You can also perform dumbbell squats while holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides and squatting until the weights contact the floor. In my opinion that version is not as effective because the center of gravity is farther back and you don’t activate the glutes, hamstrings and lower back as much.
The final option is to use a weight machine for squats. I know—I don’t like that idea either! Fortunately, there are some decent pieces of equipment on the market. Most of the top equipment lines have a machine that attempts to approximate a squat. Most fall considerably short, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. One of the best machines I’ve seen is the Leverage Squat/Calf machine available at Home-Gym.com. It is extremely well designed, but you won’t find it in most gyms.
Whatever solution you choose for your squats, it will be better than abandoning the king of all exercises. Squatting is my favorite exercise, and even though I’m suffering from a bad shoulder injury right now, I’m not giving it up. Get that shoulder checked out by a doctor, and you’ll be able to get back to full function, I hope. In the meantime, get your squats done any way you can!
Train hard, and eat clean.
Editor’s Note: See Dave Goodin’s blog at www.IronManMagazine.com. Click on Blogs in the top menu bar. To contact Dave directly, send e-mail to [email protected] IM
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