How Your Arm Position Can Ruin Your Squat (And How to Fix It)

STACK interviewed Dr. Seedman for this article, which originally appeared on on 3/31/16.

Squats are considered a lower-body exercise. And rightfully so. The move strengthens the muscles in your hips and legs.

However, this characterization sells the exercise short. When you look at the complete move, you could consider it a full-body exercise. Yes, your lower body is doing the work, but your core and upper body play huge roles. After all, you have to hold a heavy bar across your back.

"Squats tax the upper body extensively, from your upper and middle back to your lats, traps, rhomboids, rear delts and even the grip to a degree," states Dr. Joel Seedman, an exercise physiologist and owner of Advanced Human Performance (Atlanta,GA) . "It's not that a Squat helps build strength in those muscles, but it's a necessity that those muscles are strong in order to be able to do a proper Squat."

That raises the question: Have you ever thought about your upper-body technique when you squat?

Besides trying to keep your back straight and core tight, the answer is probably a resounding "No." You put the bar on your back and think about how your lower body needs to move.

In powerlifting circles, this haphazard technique is a sacrilege. Properly setting up the upper body is a critical step for safely lifting massive weight. Although you might not be a powerlifter, you must consider your upper-body form on the Squat to perform the exercise correctly and get the most out of the lift

The Role of the Upper Body in the Squat

To put it simply, the upper body dictates your Squat form. If your upper body positioning is out of whack, the rest of your Squat will suffer.

"If you can't get into a good position with your upper body, it's literally impossible to set your hips in the ideal position because in between that you have your spine," Seedman says.

Most athletes make the mistake of getting under the bar and placing it on their back without thinking much about that aspect of the Squat. This takes large muscle groups out of the movement, especially the lats.

Creating tension in these muscles prevents movement in your spine. Tense muscles handle the stress from the weight, and your hips move the load as intended.

"If the lats aren't flexed, the t-spine [upper back] isn't in the right position," explains Seedman. "If your t-spine is not extended and you don't have good alignment, you can't fully flex your hips at the bottom of the Squat and you can't sit them back all the way, which puts you in a faulty squat position."

He adds, "[Your upper body] keeps your spine in a neutral position and stabilizes your spine. It's what controls and stabilizes the spine to make sure you don't round your shoulders and drop your chest when you perform the movement, which can lead to an immediate injury."

The more tension you create with your upper body, the less chance you have for leaving inactive a muscle group that should be helping to support the heavy weight load on your back.

As a byproduct, creating tension in your upper body helps you lift heavier weight, via the principle of concurrent activation potentiation. This refers to strength improvements that occur when adjacent muscle groups fire. To feel it in action, gradually make a tight fist and feel the muscles in your arm, shoulder, chest and back activate.

"You actually want to grip the bar very tightly, and that actually helps send greater neural drive to the upper body," Seedman says. "More intensity and activation in the upper body promotes a stronger and more stable Squat."

So how do you correct this common oversight? It's actually quite simple. It comes down to a few simple set-up tips.

How to Set Up Your Upper Body for the Squat

To get your upper body in position, think about how you actually hold the bar. Follow Seedman's Squat set-up tips below. Watch his video above to see proper Squat set-up in action.

Step 1: Position the bar evenly on your back

People often set the bar unevenly. They get under it and approximate their hand and shoulder position. Even if they're off by a half inch, it can make a huge difference. To fix this, stand with the bar in front of you and set your hands where you feel comfortable. Ideally, this is a close position to your shoulders, where you feel natural and not overly cramped.

Step 2: Engage your muscles

Create some tension and get under the bar. Grip it bar tightly and slide yourself under it. As you do so, flex your lats and pull the bar into your back rather than just letting it sit on your back. Maintain tension throughout the exercise.

Step 3: Watch your elbow position

Two scenarios. One, your elbows pop up and flare out, which leads to rounded shoulders and makes it impossible to flex your lats and create a tight upper back, a sturdy shelf for the bar to sit on. Don't keep your elbows directly under the bar. That's an old school technique that goes along with looking up. It actually promotes an overly upright Squat position. Two, keep your elbows and arms at the same angle as your torso. If you're bent over at 30-40 degrees on a Squat, your elbows should follow in the same plane as your torso.