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Getting Under the Bar

Boris Bachmann, of Squat RX

I often talk to people who have a hard time properly racking the bar on their backs for barbell squatting. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of knowing how and where to place the bar on your back. For others, compromised shoulder and thoracic flexibility, often due to a combination of injury and poor posture, make it difficult to get under an empty bar, let alone maintain proper positioning under load. In this article, I’ll suggest a few tips and stretches that might help you get back under bar and stay there with less discomfort. If you have neck or shoulder girdle issues that go beyond simple inflexibility, and extend into pain and injury, be sure to work with a medical professional to determine if these drills would be appropriate for you and your issues.

In the first two pictures below of high bar and low bar positioning, notice how inattention to form and/or lack of flexibility has hindered proper back extension even before the lifter has taken the first step out of the racks.

High and low bar positions – hollowing upper body and the resulting spinal flexion

In the following pictures, notice how proper extension engages the posterior chain musculature, reducing stress on your body’s “hardware”, effectively “spreading the load.”

“Proud chest” = chest out, tight upper back, elbows driven downward, lats engaged

You might be thinking, “I can’t get into those proper positions because I’ve been sitting at my computer and in my lazyboy for too long–I’m not Mr. Bendy-Man like you.” Then I’m going to suggest you add the following stretches, drills and exercises to your training diet for a while.


Most people are familiar with this drill. Using a dowel, broomstick, or PVC, bring the arms overhead into a stretch. If you are flexible enough, you can bring your arms all the way over your body. Take a wide grip and start slowly. As you gain flexibility, you can bring the hands closer, however don’t rush this as because a grip that is too narrow can crank your shoulders and elbows.

Barbell Stretches

With this stretch, which can be done on a fireplace mantel or railing just as easily as with a barbell in a rack, a key is to hinge at the hips and keep the chest out while allowing the head to sink between the arms. You should feel a stretch throughout the lats and upper back. Allowing one shoulder to dip will deepen the lat stretch on that side.

Skin The Cat

Turning away from the barbell (or mantel, railing, etc), hands palm down, you should feel a gentle stretch across the pectoral region through the biceps. Move the hands closer and lower your upper body to feel a greater stretch.

Bent Over Laterals & Cross Bench Pullovers

Bent over laterals and cross bench pullovers are two exercises that you rarely see performed in gyms these days, but are excellent for building and maintaining upper body suppleness. Add them to your routine. There’s no need to go heavy on them – these should not be “ego-exercises.” Most people would be fine starting with a pair of 5-20lb dumbbells for their bent-over laterals, and a 10-20lb dumbbell on their cross-bench pullovers. Focus on getting a full range of motion. Build into them, gradually adding range of motion and weight.

Doorway Stretches

Bracing the forearm against a door (or power rack) frame, stick your chest out (remember “proud chest”), draw your shoulder blades together, and lean forward to feel a stretch across the pectoral and anterior delt region. You can do this unilaterally, or both arms at once. Vary the height of the elbow relative to the upper body to shift emphasis of the stretch.

Foam Roller

With a foam roller, you can do stretching positions as shown in the pictures above. Do as tolerated and position yourself by pulling or pushing your body forward and backward with the legs over the roller. A small cushion for your head and neck can be added if the positions cause discomfort.

Adding The Drills

  • Add the barbell stretches, skin-the-cat, dislocates, light cross-bench dumbbell pullovers and light bent-over laterals to your squat session warm-up.  Two or three “sets” of each should suffice and take no more than five minutes total. Seek a light stretch—the goal is to feel better and more comfortable under the bar.
  • When you’re relaxing in front of the television or at home killing time, add the foam roller work, doorway stretches, and skin-the-cat drill to your daily routine.

After incorporating these drills into your warm-ups and daily routine for a couple of weeks, you should feel a marked difference in your ability to maintain proper positioning under the bar.

Boris is in the middle of a Japanese Disaster Relief Squat-a-thon: One Million Pounds. He’d love to have your participation in building his squat support team, or in cash contributions or just to check in on his work. To join the party, here’s a link to the forum thread, and here’s one to his blog updates.

Visit Boris’ Squat RX site for more of his fabulous tutorials.

5 Responses to 'Getting Under the Bar'

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  1. on March 23rd, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    I found Dave’s Top Squat a real blessing. after (and even before my rotator cuff repair) reaching to hold a standard barbell for squating was rough. The Top Squat allows one to focus on the squat and not the pain or fear of dropping the bar. I highly recommend.

  2. on March 24th, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    I’m a fan of the Top Squat too Rick.

  3. on March 25th, 2011 at 7:45 am

    […] have issues putting a barbell on your back, this article might help. Let me know what you think. Getting Under the Bar Boris Bachmann http://squatrx.blogspot.com/ Reply With Quote + Reply to […]

  4. on March 27th, 2011 at 10:47 am

    […] If it's mobility try some of the things listed in this new blog post by Boris (SquatRx guy): Getting Under the Bar   Reply With Quote   + Reply to Thread « […]

  5. on June 19th, 2012 at 12:05 am

    […] Yeah I was googling and found this which I'll try and do daily. As said, high bar squatting is fine from a set up/execution point of […]

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