Why Do Squats Hurt My Neck? (Here’s 4 Reasons Why)

Who else has wondered, “Why Do Squats Hurt My Neck?”

We’re probably all aware that the squat is the “King of Lower Body Exercises”.

So, if you want to get bigger and stronger, squatting is a must.

However, it can be extremely frustrating when squatting feels uncomfortable, especially in your upper back, traps and neck area.

In fact, this will typically force you to either lift less weight than you usually would, or avoid squats altogether.

So, why exactly do squats hurt your neck and what can you do about it?

Why Do Squats Hurt My Neck?

The main reason that squats hurt your neck is because you’re placing the bar too high. The bar should rest on your upper traps/rear deltoids. Many people are worried that if they sit the barbell this low that it may fall off their back. However, it is extremely rare that the bar would actually fall off. You may also lack upper back musculature, so the bar literally digs into your upper back tissues and causes you pain. Additionally, you should contract the muscles of the body prior to squatting, as well as retracting your shoulder blades to provide support for the bar.

1. You Are Placing The Bar Too High

A Woman Standing at the Squat Rack Preparing to Squat

When it comes to the high-bar squat it’s often difficult to decide exactly where you should place the bar.

There is a tendency to sit the bar too high due to the fear that the barbell may fall off your back.

This typically involves sitting the bar almost directly on the base of your neck.

Unfortunately, not only is this the incorrect position to rest the bar, it can also be extremely painful, and actually very dangerous.

If you repeatedly sit the bar on your neck, especially when squatting heavy loads, you’re simply asking for a disc injury (or worse) to happen.

Firstly, it’s important to stress that it is highly unlikely that the barbell will actually fall off your back.

I realise this a mind-over-matter thing, but it’s something you need to reassure yourself of.

In fact, you can barbell back squat with either a high-bar or low-bar position, depending on which specific muscles you wish to target more.

So, there is a lot more room for manoeuvre than you probably think.

For the high-bar squat the barbell should rest the bar at the base on the neck (not on it), and just above the rear deltoids.

So, in effect, the bar sits on the back of your shoulders.

High Bar Squat vs. Low Bar Squat

2. You’re Not Contracting Your Upper Back and Traps

The squat may well be the “King of Lower Body Exercises”, but I typically view it as a full-body exercise.

Okay, you’ll target the quads, glutes, and adductors more than any other muscle groups.

However, there are other lower-body muscle groups that will get hit too.

In fact, due to having to stabilize both your body and the bar, plus the fact that you’re shifting a large amount of weight, you’ll also find that your upper back, shoulders, and core have a huge role to play.

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Prior to squatting you should actually contract and squeeze these various muscle groups.

Basically, you want your entire body to be tensed up and ready for what it’s about to go through.

This is especially true of the upper back and traps.

You should actually retract the shoulder blades, much the same as you do in the end position of a row exercise.

So, you’re looking to pull your shoulders back and up almost as though you’re trying to hold an object in the middle of your back between your shoulder blades.

By doing this you’ll actually provide the bar a perfect resting position on the back of your shoulders.

Far too often people will approach the bar while all the muscles of the upper back and traps are totally relaxed, and then place the barbell on their back.

Unfortunately, the bar has nowhere to really sit, so it’s going to almost be forced to rest against your neck.

Plus, you’ll typically find that when any pressure is applied to a muscle, it tends to “hurt” more if the muscle is relaxed, as opposed to tensed.

3. You Lack Upper Back Musculature

Your neck pain from squatting could actually be caused by lack of upper back musculature.

As I’ve mentioned, there are far more muscles involved in squats than the legs.

Plus, if you’re fairly new to barbell back squats your upper back hasn’t gotten used to having a heavy load resting on it.

Basically, the less muscular your upper back the more the bar seems to “dig” into the soft tissues.

In fact, I have read various forum discussions about the issue of the barbell “digging in”.

It appears that the majority of the complaints came from those who were new to squatting or were very slim/skinny.

So, the force of the bar was felt far more on the upper back.

What typically happens here is that you’re then unable to get comfortable during squats.

And unfortunately this can lead to you moving the bar around until you find that “comfortable spot”.

More often than not the bar will at some point end up resting against the neck, and this of course is what causes you pain, and the potential for injury.

Obviously, over time your upper back will become accustomed to having a heavy barbell laid across it.

However, I view the upper back as one of the most important muscle groups to train.

Basically, the upper back plays a huge supporting role in daily life, as well ensuring that you have good posture.

So, the “pain in the neck” you get from squatting could also be a sign that you need to focus more on your upper back training.

The Perfect Back Workout (Sets and Reps Included)

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4. You’re Not Keeping Your Neck in a Neutral Position

This comes down to where you’re looking when you squat.

I’m not sure about you, but in my gym the squat rack is placed in front of a mirror.

I don’t view this as a good thing.

Far too many people will end up watching their technique as they lower into the squat and come up again.

However, in truth, you should fix your gaze on the floor, or on a wall, slightly in front of you.

And unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all for where you should be looking.

You’ll have to play around with this until you find your own “sweet spot”.

With that being said, even if you don’t have a mirror directly in front of you this can still cause issues.

Basically, you want to maintain a neutral neck position and have your gaze fixed on a particular spot throughout your set.

You never want to change where you stare or indeed the positioning of your neck.

I often see people squatting while they’re staring upwards.

This immediately puts a strain on the neck muscles, which of course could be the problem.

Then again, staring down directly at the floor can also place undue stress on the neck muscles.

Plus, staring excessively upwards or downwards can also affect your squat form, and of course the muscles that are being worked.

As I say, it’s a case of finding a sweet spot (to stare at) that suits YOU.

Where Should I Look While Squatting?

Final Thoughts

So, I hope you have a better idea of why squats hurt your neck.

This is mainly due to having the bar rest too high on the body, typically against the base of the neck.

You also want to ensure that you contract various muscles in the body, especially those in the upper back and traps.

Plus, you should consider whether you need to work on your upper back musculature.

And finally make sure that you maintain a neutral neck position while squatting by finding that “sweet spot” slightly ahead of you to stare at.

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