The Squat Bar Isn't Bad For You isn't some click-bait type title where I'm going to flip it around and talk about why you should be afraid of the straight bar.
The squat bar is not bad for your shoulders.
Let me repeat: The squat bar is not bad for you.
I know it might FEEL bad, and you might feel banged up from squatting with a straight bar, but that does not mean you should be avoiding the straight bar, nor does it mean that the straight bar is harmful. The squat bar is not bad for you; better yet, squatting with a straight bar does not have to feel bad.
Avoid What's Uncomfortable
In powerlifting (and maybe western medicine as a whole), we've developed a culture of "avoid what's uncomfortable."
Does your back hurt? Well, let's NEVER EVER BEND OR ROTATE YOUR SPINE AGAIN.
Does your knee hurt? ONLY SQUAT IN WRAPS TO A HIGH BOX.
Do your shoulders and elbows hurt after squatting with a straight bar? HERE'S A SS YOKE BAR OR A CAMBERED BAR SO YOU CAN AVOID THE VULNERABLE POSITION ALTOGETHER.
It should be noted that I have absolutely nothing against those bars as a training tool or when there is a legitimate upper-body injury that necessitates their use.
I've heard it all and some.
Looking back, a lot of the chronic pain and recurring injuries I experienced earlier in my lifting career can be attributed to believing that what hurt needed protection rather than taking the time to build it up.
**Sidebar on the multifactorial nature of pain: Structure and the presence of tissue damage are only a small part of the picture when it comes to our experience of pain. Just because it hurts does not mean that something is "broken." Previously damaged tissues do not always have to hurt. IF YOU WANT TO READ ANOTHER ONE OF MY ARTICLES ON THAT TOPIC, CLICK HERE**
Avoiding what provokes pain can be an okay partial solution when what we are avoiding is something we never have to perform. Last summer, I was playing around trying to do cartwheels and jacked up my shoulder AND wrist. So yeah, stop doing cartwheels, dumbass. You are a powerlifter; you don't need to do a cartwheel. Easy peasy, eliminate the unnecessary stimulus, and the problem disappears. It's a different story when what we are avoiding is something we need to do to compete in our sport (or live life). If all we do is avoid that stimulus, we will never be prepared to handle it.
**And yes, there are some situations where a period of rest is needed for the healing process to begin. Even in those instances, gradual exposure to an increased stimulus will be the ticket back to full capacity—it just has to be scaled appropriately. And yes, there will be times when things hurt because we are asking too much of them. Again, the solution won't be to avoid the painful movements altogether but to temporarily back off on load, volume, or frequency, then gradually build back up as we can tolerate it.**
Back to the Squat Bar
How often do you squat with a straight bar on your back? Once a week? Twice a week? Twice a month? A handful of times through a training cycle?
Think about your shoulder position while holding the squat bar on your back. Outside of squatting, how often do you find yourself in that position? How often are your shoulders and elbows being asked to handle any loading in that position?
If you're only in that position once or twice a week (or even less), does it surprise you that your shoulders feel stiff, tight, and even painful when you finally ask yourself to get under a squat bar? It's a matter of exposure. If we aren't ready to be in a position, let alone load it, of course, it isn't going to feel good. Considering the psychosocial aspects of pain, if we relate a squat bar to being harmful, it will feel even worse.
I wish the answer were as simple as "put a straight bar on your back and suck it up," but it's not. If a straight bar is already painful, continuing to cause pain can make things more sensitive. We don't want to do that and we don't want the hole to get any deeper. Instead, we want to gradually and progressively build our tolerance so that holding a straight bar on our backs becomes a non-issue.
One of the easiest places to start is to put a dowel or PVC pipe on your back, approximate where you hold the squat bar, and hang out there for a few minutes. From there, you can start to move your elbows and shoulders around, create tension, find a stretch, and practice getting "tight ."How often should you do this? At least once a day until you no longer feel uncomfortable with a loaded barbell on your back. Once you're there, vary the frequency as you need it.
If you don't have a PVC pipe at home and still want to be proactive, you can put your hands on each side of a door frame and let your body fall through the opening to create a stretch. Create tension, move around, and gradually get more comfortable there.
Want to step things up? Start doing dislocations with the PVC pipe or behind-the-neck pressing the pipe from your squat bar position. You can gradually load the dislocations and presses as they become more comfortable. (DO NOT start here, but I'm currently doing dislocations with the 65-pound squat bar as part of my warm-up.)
In training, we can add movements that challenge the shoulder where we feel vulnerable. Deficit push-ups, flys, and pullovers performed with the intent of challenging end range will help us increase our range of motion while making us more resilient at the same time. The trick here will be to start light enough that we can handle the stimulus.
Prepare for What You Want Your Body to Do
If a movement hurts, it will never be as simple as saying it's bad for you. Were you prepared to handle it? Were there other factors outside of movement that could be contributing to your perception of pain? Have we been asking too much about our bodies and need to back off a hair? Can we build ourselves to be more prepared for what we want our bodies to do? Do we need to manage other aspects of life outside of training better?
Not long ago, I would avoid the straight bar at all costs in training. No matter how recovered I thought I was, come meet day, my shoulders and elbows were always thrashed before it was time to bench.
Today, I squat with a straight bar two to four times a week (and bench four to six times) with zero issues. Most days, my shoulders feel and move better after squatting than before. If we ask our bodies to adapt at a rate we handle, as long as what we are asking for is available, we will get it.
Seth Albersworth is a powerlifter with experience in and out of gear. His best totals are 2105 pounds raw and 2408 pounds multi-ply. Seth has completed his bachelor's degree in kinesiology from the University of Calgary and recently graduated from Palmer College of Chiropractic's Florida Campus. He's in the process of acquiring licensure as a Doctor of Chiropractic.