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"How do I improve my shoulder flexibility for low bar squats?"

I feel like I have really limited shoulder mobility and this is hindering my (low bar) squatting performance. How can I identify if my low shoulder flexibility really is a problem?

And what are good exercises to improve shoulder mobility?

Hello Gabriel,

Thanks for the great question. I am partial to low bar squatting and believe lifters can handle greater loads employing this technique, I know it worked for me. There is a great book called Starting Strength that goes into great depth on the technique of low bar squatting, I recommend you download the E-Book.  The key to shoulder mobility is what I call pssss.  You remember the sound you made/make in school to get somebody’s attention? Pssss looks like this:

Posture – Everything, I mean everything in movement and athletics begins with good posture. Is your posture faulty?  Are your shoulders coming forward?  The way you stand and sit matters.  Posture is affected greatly by the strength of your core and the way in which you predominately maintain body position.  Do you wear a backpack?  Do you sit for long periods?   Good posture is chest up, ribs down, core braced.  Practice makes perfect so if you wear a heavy backpack be very aware of your body position.  I cannot emphasize enough the importance of posture.

Soft Tissue – As Jon Rusin once said soft tissue massage will teach your central nervous system to take it’s death grip off tight muscle.  I first recommend grabbing a tennis ball or lacrosse ball and spending time lying on the ground, on top of the ball, getting your anterior shoulders and pecs to release.  I hate to prescribe time frames but I would confidently say less than a minute per position is not enough time.  Spend considerable time on the upper corners of the pecs, known as the pec minor which can be especially prone to getting tight.  Start here.  Next move to the back of the shoulder and hit the teres minor, Supraspinatus and infraspinatus (basically the whole backside of the shoulder). If you can stand it move the ball completely around the scapula near the middle back/rhomboid area and simultaneously move your arms upward and downward keeping your arms as close to the ears as possible.  You can also grab a foam roller and spend some time rolling back and forth on your upper back in a bridge position. Make sure to keep your elbows straight up in the air so you can roll as much tissue as possible. 

Stretch –Stretch your lats via traction exercises which just means pulling on something with an outstretched arm and pushing your body away.  Next, I really believe doing side lying windmills and standing windmills have made a big difference for some of my athletes.  On the side lying windmills try your best to put your scapula on the ground.  There are many stretches for the thoracic spine you can research.   

Simple Activation – Something else you can research is scapula activation. Basically what you are doing is forcing the muscles surrounding the scapula to activate which sounds strange but what can often happen when someone has poor thoracic/shoulder mobility is a loss of correct sequence order firing. Due to a chronic overstretched state,  the activation sequence (muscles firing at the appropriate time in the correct order) gets out of whack.  One particular area is the traps. The overstretch lower trap is often dominated by the upper trap so make sure lower trap activation exercises are on your radar. 

Strengthen – Lastly, strengthen the heck out of posterior side of your upper body. Everybody loves to bench press and most people enjoy doing heavy lat pulls but these are internal rotators and they get tight.  Focus on quality of movement not how much you can lift. Scapula retraction is what you want to achieve on your rowing exercises.  A cue I love to use is to crack the egg/nut/anything between the shoulder blades on rowing movements,  particularly face pulls (my favorite).    A couple of days ago I watched the rematch of the Evander Holyfield Mike Tyson fight.  I grew in awe of Mike Tyson but in retrospect I should of respected Evander more at the time. His back, particularly his upper back was profoundly more developed than Mike Tyson’s back.  It’s no wonder he knocked him out the first fight.  Tip, the more powerful the posterior side of your body be it upper or lower body, the more powerful you will be going forward (punching, kicking, running).  Strengthen the posterior shoulder and strengthen the upper back and you will have better posture and better shoulder mobility and performance will increase.   

 Now, with all of that being said, and it was a mouthful you may or may not have a true shoulder mobility issue. Could your problem be a technique issue?  Is this a core stability/strength issue?  Is this an ankle mobility issue? 

Squat Technique

Hopefully this explanation will shed light on your particular problem.   In the low bar squat the torso angle is much more aggressive than the torso angle in high bar so technique is critical. Are you weight shifting forward while descending or at the bottom of the squat rather than “sitting back on the bucket” and driving up through your heels? To answer this question watch your knees and shin angle, are they moving forward? If you are weight shifting forward you are moving your center of mass forward causing unnecessary lordosis and strain on the shoulders.   If you are indeed weight shifting forward check your ankles and make sure you have enough ankle dorsiflexion to get into proper squat position.  Next, when you come out of the hole do you fall forward into lordosis?  Lordosis is a larger than normal curve in your lower back.  If you are the hips are pushed back so to speak this causes the thoracic spine and shoulders to come forward giving the appearance of shoulder mobility issues but this maybe a core stability/strength issue.     

But, let’s say you are pushing through your heels, bracing your core throughout the movement and still struggling to get your chest up and maintain a strong back angle then yes you might have a shoulder mobility issue.  I am not a physical therapist but I know I would never have bested 600 pounds in the low bar back squat without solid technique and many of the above mistakes I made kept me from realizing larger loads.

I hope this has helped you. 

Williams Sports and Fitness


Jason Williams

Strength & Conditioning | Tallahassee, FL

May 26, 2016
Is this answer helpful? 5
Hi Gabriel,

That certainly can be an issue. If you aren't easily able to rotate your shoulders and arms to grasp the bar or have to grasp the bar very wide, shoulder mobility will play a part. Stretching the chest, shoulders, shoulder girdle, and arms will all be part of it. One great stretch is to reach up behind your back with one arm, holding a towel in your other arm reach up above your head and lower the towel behind your back so you can grab it with your other hand and then try to walk your hands together using the towel. Good flexibility is when you can touch your finger tips of each hand. Let me know any other questions.

Terry L.

Strength & Conditioning | Bellevue, WA

May 26, 2016
Is this answer helpful? 2