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Last Thursday (so, 5 days ago), I did a short leg workout, centering on finding my maximum weight for squats. I used a Smith Machine and, for the first time ever, I did not have a pad on the Olympic bar, as my gym only has one pad and someone else had it. I only had a small towel to pad the bar and no training partner that day to watch me to make sure I wasn't rolling the bar up my neck as I squatted down (a form problem I have). I don't remember the bar rolling up, but I fear it might have, because of this pain in my neck and shoulders (specific muscles feel like they are traps, the splenius muscles, rhomboid minor -- that whole area).

The pain itself is an achy type, not sharp or shooting. The feeling led me to ask my partner if he saw any black & blue marks on the area. He said no. But if he'd said yes, I'd not have been surprised, because it feels like I've been thumped around there. It's an odd achy feel that I'm not used to getting after squatting.

I'm a hair's breath shy of being an outright hypochondriac, so I don't feel that I have actually sustained an acute injury. If I had any thought at all that I'd seriously hurt myself, I'd have been at the doctor's in a shot. But, short of a keen injury, what could I have done? And what should I do to alleviate these aches and pains? Should I just ice/rest for a while? work through it to 'loosen it up'? Is this just DOMs -- (it's been suggested by a friend that maybe I was actually hefting the heaviest weights up with my shoulders a bit, recruiting muscles I shouldn't have)? Or something else? Should I be concerned or not fuss too much and move on?

Just never experienced anything like this before.

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First, good that you got rid of the pad. That's probably part of your rolling problem. Second, do you pull your shoulders back properly, so that the bar rests on them and not on the neck? –  Markus Wall Jun 12 '12 at 9:31
    
I know that I should pull my shoulders back, but when I got to the heavier weights I started to focus so much on just pushing back up and not crumbling to the floor, that I probably did let the bar roll up on my neck. That's what I fear happened. –  user3495 Jun 12 '12 at 9:48
    
And I didn't know that about the pad -- that it can actually cause the rolling problem. Thanks. –  user3495 Jun 12 '12 at 9:49
    
How much weight are we talking here, and how much weight had you been doing previously? –  Dave Liepmann Jun 12 '12 at 14:32
    
Dave, I topped out at 70 kg (about 154 lbs). Previously, I'd been working with 55-60 kg max. –  user3495 Jun 12 '12 at 14:37

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

To expand upon @Dave's answer, you should get away from the Smith machine and start using barbells. Here's why:

  1. Smith machine is less effective at engaging muscles and building strength than barbells, because it balances the weight for you. In fact, you'll find that when you move from Smith to barbell, you'll be doing only 50-70% of the load because it is that much harder.

  2. Smith machine forces your body into an unnatural straight vertical movement. Since this movement is unnatural for your body it will end up stressing your joints and back (especially if you are doing heavy weights, which is what you were doing when you hurt your neck).

  3. Smith machine, like all other machines, balances the weight for you, and thus takes your stabilizer muscles out of the picture. The result is you have stronger muscles that cannot resist lateral/rotational forces because your stabilizers are underdeveloped. This is a recipe for throwing out your back when lifting heavy objects.

In contrast, barbell squats engage more muscle groups, allow for a natural movement, and engage your stabilizing muscles; in other words, barbells are both safer and more efficient at building muscle than Smith.

Based off of the points above, the fact that the Smith machine forces your body into unnatural positions plus the fact you were testing what your maximum squat weight was leads me to believe the Smith machine is the direct result of your injury/discomfort, and the problem will only get worse with continued use of the machine.

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Moses, thanks for the detailed info on Smith machine vs the bar. I've only been using it for a few weeks, thinking it was safer as I don't have a training partner (just occassional assistance from one of the gym trainers). And, yes, I have been able to toy with heavier weights than I thought I would use so soon - heavier than I would have dared with the regular bar. So, yes, I do believe you are right: the problem is my use of the Smith machine plus my not understanding how it affects vertical movt etc. The machine's quirks + my ignorance of the machine seem to have led to this neck pain. –  user3495 Jun 12 '12 at 17:05
    
@Stephanie going forward you may want to check out some videos online of proper form barbell squats (mark rippetoe is a good, trustworthy source). Starting Strength is another good resource (even if you don't follow the program, it still will teach you a lot). Finally, if your gym has a squat rack you wont need a partner for spotting. –  Moses Jun 12 '12 at 17:13
    
Yes, they've got one. A lot of big lads are usually using it or waiting to use it. I'm used to working out on home gyms and my old school gym, and with a reliable partner. I must admit, I'm still far too easily intimidated being on my own in a commercial gym -- I need to buck up and start claiming some time and space on the more popular pieces of kit. I've found out today, reading here, just why the Smith was usually always free! lol -- again, thanks for the tips. –  user3495 Jun 12 '12 at 17:19

You probably aren't injured, and will never find out what happened. If it's uncomfortable instead of painful when you work out, just ignore it and keep on working out normally. Keep an eye on it during warm-ups.

In the meantime, try front or back squats with a barbell and get away from the Smith machine. Barbell squats are better in general, but they also will make it harder to roll the bar onto your neck without knowing there's something seriously wrong. This should help improve your form.

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Dave, thanks for the answer. Yeah, it's definitely more uncomfortable than painful, and frankly felt a bit better after yoga class, when I was fully warmed up and stretched out. So, you're right, most likely not injured. And I had not heard that info on the Smith machine before -- thanks for that. I'd only been using it for a few weeks, and only because I've not got a regular training partner and I thought it was safer than squatting with a regular bar. Never gave thought to what it could be doing to my form. Appreciate the advice. –  user3495 Jun 12 '12 at 16:58
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... oh, and, yes I'll definitely add in different variations, such as front squats, to my routine for the next week or more until the aches go away. –  user3495 Jun 12 '12 at 17:12

The first question is where is the bar? The single most common problem I see with people squatting is placing the bar right on the back of the neck. The neck is not designed to handle all the weight, but your back is. In fact, it's much more comfortable to have the bar on your back without any padding or towels than it is to have it on your neck. This common problem is many times caused by personal trainers. I know the PT I had told me to do it wrong.

Take a look at Mark Rippetoe's platform on bar position and determine if you have the bar too high.

Also I do recommend learning to squat with free weights instead of the smith machine. Take some time to look at the ExRx.net article on squats if you are nervous about them.

The pain itself is an achy type, not sharp or shooting.

Achy pain is usually just DOMS. However, if the bar was set up too high, it can be the pressure of the bar on your muscles. Without being able to check your form (in person or in video), it's really hard to say exactly what it is. These are the two most likely explanations given your description.

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Berin, thanks. Got Rippetoe's kindle book today and watched the squatting video online. I hadn't realised how many habits (good, bad or indifferent) I had left over from 30 years ago when I first lifted as a teen. Returning to lifting now in middle age, I didn't realise how much I need to relearn, change or re-think about things that on the surface seem so simple, like squats. Thanks again for the tips -- brilliant help! –  user3495 Jun 13 '12 at 12:32

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