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Shoulder Mobility for Squatting

Written on March 2, 2009 at 8:34 am, by Eric Cressey

Q:  Recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve lost a lot of mobility/flexibility that means I can’t squat with my hands close in and with a high bar like I used to, I now have to go low bar and hands almost at the collars. What stretches/mobility work would you recommend to remedy this problem?  I don’t think this situation’s very good for my shoulder health.

A: It’s a common problem, and while the solution is pretty simple, it takes a dedicated effort to regular flexibility and soft tissue work.  And, you’re right that it isn’t very good for shoulder health; that low-bar position can really wreak havoc on the long head of the biceps.


For starters, it’s important to address thoracic spine mobility.  If you’re rounded over at the upper back, it’ll be impossible to get the bar in the right “rack” position – regardless of what’s going on with the shoulder itself.  The first thing I do with folks in these situations is check to make sure that they aren’t doing any sit-ups or crunches, which shorten the rectus abdominus and depress the rib cage, causing a more “hunchback” posture.

After you’ve eliminated these exercises from their programming, you can get to work on their thoracic spine mobility with drills from Optimal Shoulder Performance; one example would be thoracic extensions on the foam roller.

As you work to regain that mobility, it’s valuable to build stability within that newly acquired range-of-motion (ROM) with loads of horizontal pulling (rows) and deadlift variations.

With respect to the shoulder itself, it’s important to regain lost external rotation ROM and scapular posterior tilt.  As I recently wrote in “The Right Way to Stretch the Pecs,” I prefer the 1-arm doorway pec stretch and supine pec minor stretches.  You can find videos of both HERE – and you can expedite the process with regular foam rolling on the pecs.

In the interim, substitute front squats, overhead squats, single-leg exercises, and deadlift variations to maintain a training effect.

As you progress back to squatting, you can ease the stress on your shoulders by going with a pinky-less grip in the short-term.


That said, for many individuals, the back squat set-up may not be appropriate.  These include overhead throwing athletes, those with flexion-based back pain (e.g., disc herniations), and individuals with posterior labral tears.

I’d estimate that only about 25% of Cressey Performance clients do a true back squat, but that’s influenced considerably by the fact that we deal with a ton of baseball players, and I get a lot of shoulder corrective exercise cases.  Instead, we do a lot of work with the giant cambered bar and safety squat bar, in addition to front squatting.

Hopefully, these recommendations get you headed in the right direction and back to squatting as soon as possible!

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3 Responses to “Shoulder Mobility for Squatting”

  1. Art Margulies Says:

    Hi Eric,
    I’m home from work today, as well, because of the snow. I have a question that is indirectly related to flexibility/mobility loss. I want to run something by you to see what you think, if that’s OK? I am 53 years old. I have been competing in PLing for over 30 years in the 181/198 lb. weight classes. My best competition squats in single ply suits are 600@181 & 617@198 both done in the mid to late 90’s while in my 40’s. I used to be able to “cock” my lumbar region resembling the Bridge’s Flair style of squatting. I can no longer do that. I recently went for a series of lumbar non-weight-bearing x-rays. I have not seen the radiologists report yet, but I have extensive spurring and arthritic changes evident. Some of the disc spaces appear non-existent, as well. I also noticed a “transitional” vertebrae at L5. The transverse processes are shaped like ‘elephant ears’ and I noticed the R process appears “fused” with my pelvis, or, in direct contact with it. My squat right now has “deteriorated” to the low 400’s and seems to be getting worse as each year passes. I do have some low back discomfort from-time-to-time not directly attributed to my workouts but of unknown etiology. After any type of squatting, I am sore to the point of discomfort for several days which seems to respond to ice and OTC anti-inflammatory medications. What would you suggest an ‘over-the-hill’ guy like myself do to slow the loss of squat strength/low back flexibility, if it’s even possible, in your opinion. I am the stubborn type, but I take suggestions/crtiticism well, so don’t pull any punches. Thank you in advance for your time and effort in fielding my inquiry.

  2. Rick Kaselj Says:


    Great post. Lots of helpful tips.

    Rick Kaselj

  3. Smitty Says:


    Great summary of the many ways to address the issue of thoracic mobility.

    For pecs, in addition to your wall stretches, I like throwing in some js band dislocates. I prefer these over the rigidity of a broomstick.

    Zercher squats with the safety squat bar are awesome too, just because of the increased torso stabilization component.


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