Squatting is one of the best lower-body exercises that one can do. It is a great workout that targets the entire lower-body and core. The main muscles targeted during a squat are the quads, glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and core! You can achieve great legs and lower-body strength by performing the squat. People often perform the squat using a barbell, smith machine, or dumbbells. However, using a barbell or smith machine can be quite uncomfortable on your neck and shoulders.
I commonly get asked from people why their neck hurts after squatting, and what can they do to stop this issue. I know how it is. You feel fine when squatting in the moment, but then a few hours later or the next day your neck is killing you. I remember I once had a huge bruise and red mark on my neck that lasted a few weeks. It wasn’t until I learned a few tips through my lifting experience which helped me stop this same issue from occurring. This article is going to be discussing why your neck hurt after squats, and simple ways you can prevent this issue from happening.
The Main Causes Of Neck Pain After Squatting
- Soft Tissue Inflammation
- Bone Bruise
- Muscular Strain
- Ligamentous Sprain
However, the main reason for neck pain after squatting is from improper positioning of the barbell causing inflammation and bruising of the posterior neck. Often people squat very heavy, and don’t consider the positioning of the barbell on their neck and shoulders. This can be dangerous for the neck. When people squat they often have the bar or smith machine positioned way too high on their neck and shoulders. You need to make sure the bar is positioned appropriately, and in most cases this will prevent your neck from hurting after squats.
Some other less likely causes of neck pain after squatting could be a deep bone bruise, muscular strain, ligamentous sprain, and even a fracture. However, these are far more uncommon. In most cases, it simply is inflammation and bruising of the soft tissue on the back of your neck.
I first want to discuss the neck anatomy, because it is important to have a solid understanding of the area that is causing pain. You can see in the image above that the neck does not have much soft tissue protection overtop of the vertebrae. Take a moment to feel the back of your neck, you can easily feel the spinous processes of the vertebrae. This just shows you that there is not much protection on top of these bones.
So, you can see why positioning heavy weight on this area would cause pain and inflammation. Unlike other areas of the body such as the thigh, which has a lot of soft tissue protection over top of the bone, such as fat and muscle. The back of your neck does not have protection. So that is why it is crucial to fix this issue from occurring to prevent pain and injury.
How To Prevent Neck Pain While Squatting
I am going to be providing some easy things you can do right away to fix your neck from hurting after squats. I learned these tips from experience, and it has helped me avoid neck pain from squatting. In most cases, you can easily correct the problem by implementing the tips below. However, if the pain persists I recommend going to see a physical therapist or medical professional who can better assess your squat form and neck pain.
Fix The Bar Positioning On Your Shoulders
The first thing you should do is re-assess how you are positioning the bar on your shoulders. In most cases, people are resting the weight too high on their neck. You need to fix the bar positioning to prevent neck pain from squatting, and to prevent any further injuries. It is better to fix this issue now, instead of continuing to hurt your neck while squatting. The bar should be positioned on your “traps” or even directly below the traps. The trapezius muscle is a very big muscle that spans from the middle of your back and connects to the back of your skull. However, directly on top of the shoulders and upper back is where the “traps” are found.
You can see in the image above where the bar should be positioned. The image on the left is a high bar position, where the bar rests directly on top of the traps. This is perfect positioning, and you can see that it is not too high on the neck. The image on the right is a lower bar positioning, and the bar rests directly below the traps. Both of these barbell positioning’s are acceptable. You can clearly see that the neck is not affected from these barbell positioning’s. It doesn’t matter if you are using a standard barbell or smith machine, this is how the bar should be positioned on your shoulders. In most cases, fixing the barbell positioning will prevent your neck from hurting after squats.
Avoid Looking Up While Squatting
Another common thing I see people doing while squatting is straining their neck from looking up. You need to relax your neck while squatting. I have seen people suffer serious muscular cramps and strains from poor neck positioning. You need to avoid looking up while squatting. I know it is commonly preached by trainers or football coaches to “look up or drive up!” However, from a physical therapist’s perspective you do not want to do that.
While squatting you want to keep the entire spine in a neutral position. Meaning, your entire back should stay in good alignment. You can see in the image above that his neck or cervical spine is out of alignment with the rest of his body. This is an easy way to strain your neck muscles. To keep your neck in a good neutral position while squatting, you should keep your chin tucked and your eyes looking straight out in front of you. This will help prevent any injuries from occurring, and help stop your neck from hurting after squats.
Build Up Your Upper Back Muscles
Another great tip for those who suffer neck pain while squatting is to build more muscle on your upper back and shoulders. To position the barbell correctly and cushion the weight, you need to have some muscle mass in this area. The traps, rhomboids, and posterior delts are the main muscles you should build to help protect and cushion the weight while squatting. Big muscular traps can be very supportive for the barbell while squatting, and in most cases will prevent neck pain while squatting.
Like I said above, you should be positioning the barbell directly on the traps or just below the traps. However, some guys and girls don’t have very big traps. So the barbell is resting almost directly on their spinal vertebrae. This can cause inflammation and bruising to happen from the force of the weight. I recommend building up these upper back muscles to avoid this from happening. The best exercises to target this area are heavy shrugs and rows. It will take time, but eventually you can add muscle mass to this area which will help cushion and protect your neck.
Use Protection On The Bar
If your neck is constantly hurting after squats, then I highly recommend buying a barbell pad. A barbell pad can really provide great cushioning and support for squatting. Some gyms have barbell pads for you to use, but some do not. So if your gym doesn’t have a barbell pad, I highly recommend you purchase your own. I will link my favorite barbell pads below. A barbell pad can provide great protection for your neck and spine when squatting. Especially if you are going to be squatting very heavy weights. I don’t recommend putting that much load on the spinal vertebrae, especially if you suffer from neck pain after squatting.
Some guys think the barbell pad is just for girls, and that it doesn’t look very manly. However, I see plenty of big guys in the gym using a barbell pad. So, don’t worry about looking “girly”. The main reason girls use barbell pads is often because they don’t have very big traps or upper back muscles, so the barbell is uncomfortable for their neck and back. A barbell pad can be very useful, and you can even use them for the smith machine. Also, a barbell pad comes in handy for hip thrusts as well. So it is a win-win.
The Best Barbell Pads For Squatting
Like I said, I highly recommend a barbell pad that you can use for squats, lunges, and hip thrusts. Listed above are 3 of my personal favorites, and some of the best barbell pads on the market. If you like the foam barbell pad option, then I recommend BEARs Fitness barbell pad. However, if you don’t like the thick foam options, then consider the barbell pad by Dark Iron Fitness. Both of these pads will help protect your neck, and stop your neck from hurting after squatting.
Some people prefer the foam barbell pad because it is easy to slip on and off, and it offers the most padding. However, some people like a thinner barbell pad that velcro’s on. It all comes down to personal preference, and how much padding you need. If you want a lot of protection and thickness from the padding go with BEARS, especially if you are going to be using it for hip thrusts as well. However, if you want a thinner padding that won’t get in your way while squatting, then go with Dark Iron’s barbell pad.
It can be frustrating to have pain holding you back from lifting and making progress in the gym. However, neck and upper back pain is very common among those who squat using a barbell. In most cases, it is from improper barbell positioning or straining your neck by looking up. If you fix those two things you can easily help reduce your neck from hurting after squats. Consider targeting your upper back muscles and traps by incorporating shrugs and rows into your routine. This will help build muscle mass that can cushion the barbell while squatting.
If you don’t feel like doing shrugs to build your upper back muscles, then just purchase a barbell pad. A barbell pad will be all the cushioning you will need, and it will prevent your neck from hurting while squatting. Start implementing these tips above, and you will be on your way to squatting pain free!