Is a tight Chest Messing Up Your Squat?

Enough with the squat posts already!!! These are the thoughts in my head as I am once again blasting out a blog on squats. How many tips and pointers could I possibly give on one exercise? Well, I could probably write an entire book on it if I wanted to.  I had to stop squatting at 24 years old because I kept hurting my back squatting like a fool. I had no guidance and just did what I remembered from high school. which was complete sh**. I might as well not learned anything from my coaches. At 33 I started squatting again and even with a previously horrible back injury I was able to build my squat up to well over 500lbs at 40 years old. I wasn’t an amazing squatter in my youth nor was I born with tons of strength. I had to put in consistent practice for years to build my squat into something I was proud of. I know that these principles can help you as well.

Upper back tightness is one of the most important aspects of a safe and strong squat. Without it, light weights feel heavy and heavy weights will crush you. Most people think they need to do assistance work for their legs to become stronger. The truth is they need to improve mechanics. If your upper back cannot get tight enough in the correct position you will not be able to manage the load safely through a full range of motion. Since the bar is on your back you have to make that bar one with your body. The problem I see with many lifters is they are squeezing the hell out of the bar and creating a ton of tension, but the stability isn’t there. Without stability, there is no mobility..(this means depth will suck) So many times I see people trying to fix squat depth with hip stretching drills when the problem is the bar and back are not in the best relationship with each other.

Some common Symptoms of having a locked up chest are:

  • Dumping Forward on the descent
  • Bar feeling like it is sliding down the back on low bar
  • Elbow/bicep pain after squatting

Many powerlifters have dominant chest muscles.  Years of benching, pressing, and pushups with little to no soft tissue work and  lack of aggressive mobility of the thoracic cage leads to shoulder issues and lack of the ability to get under the bar. Many powerlifters I know can barely do low bar squats anymore because they are so locked up and can’t get the bar behind them. Others force themselves into position, and though the bar is in the right place and they are squeezing every muscle in their back and biceps to keep it there. Each rep, the dominant chest muscles slowly take over and bar tension is lost. This is why reps 1 and 2 are awesome and rep 3+ feels like everything falls apart.

Just getting tighter or squeezing harder isn’t the answer….

Mobilizing the thoracic cage first is..

When you just focus on squeezing without fixing the issue of why it is so hard to squeeze in the first place you are missing the mark.

There are numerous ways to attack poor thoracic mobility. In my honest opinion most people need to get to a great massage therapist that knows how to target the soft tissue correctly. Unfortunately I see  most people will wait till the last minute to have anyone work on them or till  an injury or “set back” occurs. So here are a few things I believe should be part of any program. First, mobilize the tissue, then work on mobility. The videos below will show a Self Myofascial Release (SMFR)Technique for the pecs with a soft ball, the 2nd is a thoracic mobility/shoulder stability drill called the arm bar. Before jumping in to either of these exercises here are some key points.

SMFR of the pecs should be done in the musculature of the pecs. Women should stay away from the breast tissue. Keeping the target area just below the collar bone and working from the sternum to the arm attachment is safe. You can go slightly lower but proceed with caution.  Another important point is to breath and relax when a hot spot is found. The tendency is to push harder into the ball  but less can be more. When a hot spot is found practicing some light shoulder retraction and neck movements help.

The Arm Bar; This movement is awesome and feels amazing when you do it right. I absolutely love it for shoulder health. It is extremely important to understand that this is not a pec stretch with a kettlebell. This would be a really dumb idea. It is crucial that the arm is vertical and 90  degrees to the ground. The shoulder blades should be stacked on one another. It is best to do this with a spotter in the beginning to make sure the arm doesn’t fall behind the body. The other important thing to understand is the weight doesn’t have to be heavy. Most guys I start with a 16kg kettlebell and women with a 10-12kg. It is more important to be in the right position rather than muscling out a weight that is too heavy.

IF you are wanting to learn these drills and other ways to improve your squat, feel free to register for my upcoming squat clinic on May 11th, at Tucson Strength!

Share the Post:

Scroll to Top