Well I got with the gym's physo and she told me why I keep getting pain in the back of my neck/upper back when doing squats, mainly that I just have a bony curve in my upper back and back of my neck. Nothing wrong with it, some people just have it. However, I have a few questions to the guys here.
1) I was advised I could use a pad to cushion the bar, is there a non leather one around?
2) Front squats and Dumbell squats, are they as good or close?
To answer your questions -
1. Most of the squat pads are just foam with a vinyl covering, should be easy enough to find a vegan one as that will be the way most of them are.
2. Front squats are great, but certainly tougher to do as heavy as standard back squats. Expect to use about 20-30% less weight for the same reps you can do with back squats when changing to front squats. Dumbbell squats aren't great, they'll work in a pinch, but they usually end up being more like dumbbelld deadlifts for many based on your body leverages, limb lengths, etc. Worth it if you have no other option, but front squats will pay off better in the long run.
Also, to add -
- You may be able to change bar position and lower it on the back a few inches to still keep back squatting if it will take the strain off the affected area. I started as a high-bar squatter, then moved to low-bar and found it was much better for my build. Instead of resting the bar up near the neck, you may be able to drop it about 2-3" and position it with the middle trapezius and rear deltoids doing more to hold it in place. I'll use one of my old photos again to show where the bar rests (I was pretty torn up after this session, was at a different gym with a terribly sharp bar squatting the day before) -
The curve of the "damage zone" is how the back spreads out when not pulling the shoulder blades together as when you set up for a proper squat, but gets the point across as to where I position the bar. Most people will hold it on the upper trapezius a few inches higher, but for me, I lock it in the best and get better leverages with a low bar position.
- You may find that the Manta Ray will help keep pressure off the affected area if you can get one to try, it's just a small plastic piece that snaps over the bar to provide a base to hold it in place off of the body (keeps the bar in an optimal high bar position but spreads the weight over a wider area). Here's a link to the product: http://compare.ebay.com/like/160469708174?var=lv<yp=AllFixedPriceItemTypes&var=sbar
- If you can convince your gym to get a safetys squat bar, that may help as well. They have built-in padding on the collar area and handles in front so you can hold on differently, which also makes it easier to dump the weight if necessary. Here's what one looks like: http://www.flexcart.com/members/elitefts/default.asp?cid=212&m=PD&pid=4636
You can find them cheaper, but in general, they'll all look similar to this.
Just some alternate ideas as well!