Having A Sore Upper Back Normal From Squatting Heavy?
Updated September 23rd 2022
Having a sore upper back from squats is an issue that most beginner lifters may experience but don’t let it be the cause of you taking a break or deter you from working out.
Instead, look into what might be the cause of the soreness and the steps you can take to prevent it from occurring again in the future.
By doing so, you will be taking responsibility for your weightlifting experience, and you are learning something that could be applied to the rest of your body.
In this article, we will investigate what might be the cause of the soreness and pain by examining the anatomy of the upper back.
We will also discuss what factors might play a role in causing the soreness and pain in the squat.
First, let’s dive into the anatomy of the upper back and what might be affected when you are performing squats.
Anatomy of the upper back during the squat
Your upper back consists of musculature such as:
- levator scapulae
- erector spinae
- posterior deltoids.
In terms of bony structures, the main ones in this area are the scapula, which sits a bit lower and further out than the other musculature, as well as the spinous process of the cervical vertebrae, which is basically the portion of your vertebral column that is your neck.
By understanding the anatomy and where you feel the soreness, you are able to better understand what the source of the soreness may be, and what you could do in order to prevent it in the future.
The first thing I want you to do is to close your eyes and try to envision where the pain/soreness is in your upper back. I want you to pinpoint where you feel it.
If you feel the soreness primarily in an area where there is a lot of musculature, chances are, it is a muscle-related soreness which could be because you are too tense, or because you are not used to the movement.
If you feel soreness in the area of your spinous process, or scapula, it could mean that you have poor form.
To summarize, soreness in the squat is caused by three factors:
- Weak upper back
- Not used to the movement
- Poor form
- Too tense
We will discuss each one of these areas in more detail in the next section.
Weak upper back
Your upper back is not strong enough to stabilize the weight yet.
It's a common weakness for a majority of lifters.
So, let us get to work.
Here are your solutions—
- Add in more upper back accessories
- Add in more GPP conditioning including upper back exercises
- Continue squatting
Most lifters will get the most bang for their buck by just following one of these options.
It is important that you utilize all three for an extended period of time to figure out what works best for you.
For upper back accessories, here are a few of my favorites:
- Rear-delt flies
- Face pulls
- Upper back shrugs, if done properly
Not used to the movement
Before you even learn how to squat, avoiding injuries is vital for a fulfilling lifting journey.
After disgessing Matt Wenning's content, I am of the opinion that all lifters should focus on training these three exercises for 8-12 weeks before evening touching a barbell squat—
- Belt squats
- Reverse Hypers
- 45-degree back extensions
Most lifters will follow into these same weaknesses:
- Hamstring weakness
- Lower back weakness
- Glute inactivation
In order for you to fire the correct motor pattern for the squat, learning how to perform a posterior chain-dominated squat will decrease your risk of injury since you are allowing your large posterior muscle to be active during the squat.
Once you learn how to squat properly, you need to now take care of two things—
- Continue working on your weakness
- Building up your work capacity
The following video is a warmup circuit of 3 exercises, performed for 25 reps each exercise for 4 cycles with no rest:
This is an example of a warmup that you would do before any main lift to work on your weaknesses and to keep you in shape.
One of the causes that might be causing your upper back soreness could simply be that you are new to squatting and are not yet accustomed to the movement.
Just as a beginner might feel their quads sore from squats and not their glutes.
Squatting involves placing a loaded bar on our upper back.
Depending on what weight you are using as well as your current body composition (more fat=more padding), the weight of the bar and weights might be causing slight muscle bruising.
As a result, you might find a dark mark on your upper back where the barbell was placed when you inspect yourself in the mirror.
It might take a couple of days for the mark to heal but other than being a visible mark and possibly tender to touch, there aren’t any other side effects.
You can continue squatting and working out at your own discretion.
Soon enough, the soreness will go away, or you’ll get used to the soreness.
Even professional powerlifters get these marks from time to time, it is just a natural part of strength training.
As long as it does not affect your other lifts or cause you pain while at rest should you consider taking some time off.
As you become an elite powerlifter, you will understand how to manage your body well.
Another reason that might be causing a sore upper back is simply poor form.
In order to squat, one factor that impacts where you might be sore is the placement of the bar on your back.
The bar could rest high up on your back onto your upper traps, or lower on your rear deltoids.
Regardless, if you have poor positioning (too high or too low) or have poor posture (neck looking up, down, sticking forward), then it might exacerbate your upper back soreness.
Let’s first look into the bar position.
You want to ensure that the bar is not too high up on your back that is compressing your cervical vertebrae, nor that it is too low that it is putting unwanted strain on the upper back musculature.
Now your neck position.
You want to make sure that while you are squatting, your neck is positioned in either neutral looking straight forward, or slightly looking up.
Anything else, looking too far up, too far down, or sticking out forward will put unwanted strain on your upper back musculature and creates less stability for the barbell.
So, the next time you are performing squats, think about what position your head and neck are in and try to make the appropriate adjustments during your set.
The final reason that might be causing upper back soreness is simply being too tense
This is least likely especially if you are a beginner.
The feeling of soreness could be caused by a variety of factors, but the underlying cause of soreness is simply overusing a muscle.
When you overuse a muscle, it starts to become more tight, tense, and sore.
While performing the squat, it is possible that you become sore due to overusing your upper back musculature.
Whether it is due to poor form, or because it feels more comfortable, you should not be shrugging up your shoulders during the squat.
This might be due to simply not being used to proper squat form, or because the weight you are using is too high, so your body is subconsciously compensating in order to get the weight up.
You want to keep your shoulders nice and relaxed, have the bar rest on your back, and all the force should come from your legs.
If you find yourself too tense during the squat, it may help by decreasing the weight and focusing on your breathing the next time you perform the squat.
If you are too tense, you will not be able to breathe properly, unlike if you were nice and relaxed.
It could also be that you are doing only compound movements without distributing more load on other muscle groups.
There are a ton of muscle groups that the big 4 lifts do not address.
Sharp pain in the upper back during the squat?
Soreness is one thing that might be uncomfortable, but the pain is something we want to double-check to ensure that we are not damaging our bodies.
Pain in the upper back due to squatting is usually due to pressure being put on your cervical vertebrae or your scapula.
Your spinal column has these spines sticking out the back of it called spinous processes.
In the upper back region, there is one spot where the spinous process is a lot more prominent and exposed rather than protected by the surrounding musculature.
This location is known as C7.
You can feel it on yourself if you run your fingers down the back of your neck, you should be able to feel the slight bump.
The pain may arise from this area if you are resting the barbell on top of the C7 rather than below it like you properly should.
Again, this goes back to what we discussed about the importance of proper form and proper bar positioning.
If you feel your C7 area is sore or painful, then consider replacing the back squat with other leg exercises such as leg press or lunges in order to let it heal.
Your physique with only compound exercises will remain fine.
After the pain goes away, try and reincorporate squats but with proper form and proper bar positioning this time.
If you feel the pain in the surrounding musculature, it could be due to a muscular strain, but this is not very likely if you have a somewhat correct sense of the proper form.
If you feel the pain in the musculature area, it doesn’t go away within a couple of days, and the skin looks normal or just slightly red, then consult a physician.
Where to place the barbell to fix upper back pain from squats?
For back squats, in high bar, mixed or low bar, placing the barbell right under your C7 vertebrae on your upper traps is the safest and most powerful position.
In high bar, squatters can place the barbell closer to C7 than someone with a low bar position.
Regardless, the barbell should never be resting on your C7 spinous process or higher.
This holds true regardless if you use a thumbless squat grip.
How to squat without upper back pain
This should be temporary as you get accustomed to squatting heavier and heavier weights.
Just as how a 2x bw deadlift is nothing, building up your squat with higher pain tolerance is part of being stronger.
One trick to stay healthy while lifting, and it may sound obvious, is to listen to your body.
If something is sore, or tender, but doesn’t bother you it most likely is no big deal and will go away on its own.
Likewise, if something is painful and prevents you from performing your regular daily activities, then consider taking some time off, seeing a physician, or altering your exercise program.
We all want to figure out the answer to everything that goes on with our bodies, but most of the answers are not overly complicated/complex.
Take my training experience with a grain of salt.
I have been training for over eight years consistently and had my fair share of injuries.
And I guarantee you that every time I trained through pain, it never worked out well.
Yes, I was able to get that workout done but workouts following that session sucked.
And in the end, I would need to reduce my intensity anyway.
Upper back pain from squatting - fix your body
If the bar hurts your back when squatting, there is a high probability that you are at fault due to bad breathing patterns, poor bracing, sub-optimal bar placement, or musculoskeletal imbalances.
According to EMG research, only two muscles were shown to have increased in usage as you advance from 80% of your 1 rep max to 100% of your 1 rep max:
- Vastus medialis, inner quads
- Glute max
Though experiments do not measure any muscle activation in the upper back, neck, and mid-back regions, it can be assumed that these muscles work, at best, as stabilizers for the back squat.
This means that if you feel upper back or neck pain from squats, it is likely a form issue, whether it is barbell placement or irregular bar path while squatting.
It could also be pre-existing pathology that is exerted from a back squat, like Upper Cross syndrome.
In this example,
- You have tight pec minor, upper traps
- You have weak neck flexors and a mid-back (lower traps, rhomboids)
Can you see where you might make your own condition worse if you add in a heavy back squat?
Forget getting a 2x bodyweight squat.
Any amount of force on a weak muscle can cause you pain.
Any amount of force on a tight muscle will cause you pain.
Where should you feel the burn when doing squats?
You should feel the burn in your quadriceps, and glutes. Even if you do not feel a "burn" during your sets, you are working the appropriate muscles if you have good form and are doing sufficient volume.
This is important to distinguish because one person may feel a burn through their inner thighs while another person may feel a burn in their buttocks while performing the same weight in squats for the same weight.
This does not mean anybody is doing something wrong; this has more so to do with everybody's individual differences that will play a role later on if they decide to become competitive.
If you are a newer lifter, you are more prone to lactic acid build-up in your lower leg muscles due to not being accustomed to squatting. This will go away within a few days.
Do be aware that there are certain reactions you should not feel when performing squats—
- Knee pain - Can be musculoskeletal related through your quads, patella (knee cap) or hip anatomy
- (Lower) Back pain - Can be form related
- Neck pain - Can also be form related
- (Upper) Back pain - Most likely form related
Having a sore upper back from squats is a common result of training hard.
Strength training 6 days a week for example.
However, it really depends on your form and technique as all pain is not created equal.
Having great body awareness comes into play here as doctors, personal trainers, physical therapists, etc. cannot watch over you like a hawk all the time.
Take some responsibility for your body and learn how to call it quits and when to continue pushing forward.
Know that it is okay if it takes a long time for your muscles to recover.
Perhaps your issue is strength and you need 1 or 2 exercises to help build your back.
Are you deciding between good mornings vs Romanian deadlifts... I hope you are.