Barbell training for strength using the Starting Strength method is hard work and a common occurrence that gets in the way of this hard work is shoulder and arm pain. In many cases this pain is a result of technical problems with the low-bar squat (the lift that is generally performed first in the training session). Here are some points to consider before you begin your training or if you have started to experience problems.
Causes: Shoulder pain is fairly common when low-bar squatting because the position demands a great deal of flexibility. When you first learn how to low-bar squat you will be instructed to position the bar in the middle of your traps with all your fingers on top of the bar and your wrists straight. Those that lack the required flexibility will either 1) not be able to comfortably get the bar low enough or 2) have bent wrists once the bar is settled. See below:
In my experience, if you are forced into an improper placement or bent wrists, you will likely develop shoulder pain as your training progresses. Even if these sub-optimal positions don’t bother you much in the beginning, you should still regularly work on improving your flexibility.
Corrections: The best way to correct this problem of inflexibility is to, from very early on in your training, stretch the low-bar position. A video of how to conduct this stretch can be found HERE. This stretch works well, but it will take time. You should plan on doing it as much as possible. This means on your training days before your squats (or after) and also on some of your non-training days if possible.
Causes & Corrections: Arm pain (bicep, elbows, etc.) can result from a variety of incorrect positions while squatting. In many cases, the lifter won’t even be aware they are in these positions:
Lack of Shoulder Flexibility: As mentioned above, if you can’t get in the correct position or have bent wrists in this position, it will place extra stress on your arms which can result in pain.
Excessively Rounding Your Upper Back: During the squat the upper back (thoracic spine) should not be rounded. Rounding puts extra rotational forces on the upper back/neck and commonly results in the lifter’s arms carrying excessive tension. See below:
Overextending the Upper Back: The opposite of excessively rounding your upper back, overextending it means the chest is pulled up too much creating a curve in the other direction. We want the back to be flat during the squat and overextending it can result in pain. See below:
Excessive Tightening of Arms/Wrists: When low-bar squatting, the goal is to balance the bar over the mid-foot. If the bar is positioned correctly on the back and it is kept in balance during the lift, there is no need to aggressively stabilize the bar’s position on your back by tightening your grip/arms/wrists. Doing so on a regular basis can result in pain.
Raising Your Elbows Too Much: As was just mentioned, the goal is to balance the bar during the lift. If the bar is positioned in the correct place, you don’t need to raise your elbows much to stabilize it. The elbows should be raised just a touch – just enough to keep the bar from sliding. Your arms should not be actively pushing up/elevating the bar. Raising the elbows up too high can result in pain. See below:
Retracting (Pulling Back) Your Shoulder Blades: The tightness we want in your torso when you squat should be coming from taking a breath and contracting your abdominals. Pulling the shoulder blades back doesn’t create this type of tightness and can result in pain. See below:
Slamming Your Deadlift: As an aside, arm pain can also be aggravated (and possibly caused) by returning heavy deadlifts to the ground with locked-out arms. If you are getting a sharp pain when your deadlift makes contact with the ground, consider letting go of the bar about an inch or two before it touches the ground.
As you can see there are many ways that your lifting technique and bar positioning can contribute to shoulder and arm pain. Many of these errors are interconnected and the resulting pain/discomfort will often carry over to the other lifts (bench press, deadlift, etc.). If you do fix your technique/flexibility and are still dealing with pain, consider purchasing a compression sleeve and performing regular massage on the affected musculature.