December 08, 2021
Before we talk about back pain from squatting, let’s first agree that squats are king! Here at SET FOR SET, we love squats. Back squat, front squat, SSB squat….we love all of ‘em. They’re the king of compound lifts for the lower body that allow you to load the barbell with some heavy ass weight. In fact, the only lift that usually allows more weight would be the deadlift. These heavy loads are exactly what makes this lower body exercise so effective as it places a huge amount of stress onto the entire body musculature. However, one of those areas that feels this load is the spine, especially near the lower back.
Now we’re going to talk about lower back pain from squatting.
Pain from squatting is definitely not “good” but it’s somewhat normal and will happen to just about anyone who stands under the barbell enough. This pain can signal there’s a major issue or just something that you need to walk off. Regardless of how bad your pain is, this article is going to go over everything you need to know about lower back pain and squatting.
The best way to understand lower back pain and why it can hurt is by having a solid understanding of the vertebral column, spinal cord, and lower back. To begin with, while sometimes used interchangeably the vertebral column and spinal cord are two closely related yet distinct structures.
The vertebral column is what we often refer to as the spine and consists of 33 vertebrae. These vertebrae are pretty odd looking bones (like a bone with 3 ridges sticking off) that consist of the bone structure itself as well as cartilage. Each one is stacked on top of another with an intervertebral disc in between. These discs act as ligaments and are what allows the movement and flexion to occur while maintaining a solid unit. Together, these 33 vertebrae run from the base of the skull, all the way down to the tail bone which forms the base of the pelvis.
It’s basically what connects everything together. Pretty important.
These 33 vertebrae are then split into 4 sections:
When it comes to lower back pain, we are concerned with the lumbar spine as this makes up the lower back and where injuries almost always occur. We will discuss this more in depth below.
Now for the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a singular cord-like structure that runs from your brain, all the way down the spine. Every single action starts in the brain and that signal travels through the spinal cord to tell your body what to do. It actually runs through the vertebral column making the two structures inseparable .
First we’ll talk about what is actually hurting when you hurt your back. When you hurt your back, it is more likely to be from injury to your lumbar disc. To be clear, there are plenty of muscles surrounding your lower back that may hurt. Much like any muscle that is trained, you could experience DOMS or tightness from time to time. However, when we are talking about that pain where it’s hard to stand, or even causes tingling in the legs, this is usually not the muscle. This occurs from something like a herniated disk.
One way to think about this is to count how many times you have pulled your quadricep or bicep? Likely never. However, how many times have you experienced pain in the elbow or knee? If you’ve lifted for any length of time, probably a few. Now the pain in your joints is different from what you feel in your lower back, but the point is major trauma to the muscle rarely occurs in weight lifting sports, especially at the recreational level.
All this being said, the likely culprit is an injury to the vertebrae. There are a few different injures which can happen but two common ones are a bulging disk or herniated disk.
The best way to distinguish these two is to imagine a water balloon filled with jelly. A bulging disk would occur when you squeeze one end of the balloon and it causes the other end to protrude out. A herniated disk occurs when that same thing happens but the balloon splits and some jelly comes out.
The above conditions, along with other disk injuries, can happen for a variety of reasons. But we want to know how it happens from squatting. Well, quite simply, you lift too much weight and use a sub par technique, generally from leaning too far forward.
When we look at squat technique, we need to realize that our bodies follow the exact same principles of physics seen in other machines, specifically levers. In our case, the torso and spine is acting as a lever with the fulcrum being at the hip. What this means is that once the lever comes down at an angle, there is a significantly larger force towards the end near the fulcrum compared to farther up.
Imagine your dog is sitting on the end of a seesaw. If you were to stand near your dog at the end and pick up the seesaw, it would be relatively easy. However, if you move down towards the center where it pivots (the fulcrum), lifting from there would be significantly harder. This is exactly what’s happening when you squat as the weight on the shoulders creates enormous forces on your lower back when your body slips forward.
So right after you hurt your back, what are you supposed to do? There are a few steps to take.
STEP 1: ASSESS THE PAIN
The first thing you’ll want to do is determine if something major happened that needs more assistance or if it’s just an average injury. The blunt advice of determining which it is would be “If it’s serious, you’ll know”. There’s some truth to that as a serious back injury will likely cause you to be unable to walk or cause extremely intense pain.
In reality, there’s no way to know for sure but if it’s serious, as mentioned, you’ll be in serious pain and have issues moving. If this occurs, you’ll need to see someone sooner than later. However, if it’s a “normal” injury, you’ll just need to stop for the day and go home. Now this shouldn’t need to be said but yes, if you hurt your back, don’t keep training. The only thing which could be beneficial is doing some light treadmill work.
STEP 2: ICE OR HEAT?
That’s generally the big question that is asked. And unfortunately, it’s really hard to say what you should do as every expert will have a different opinion; especially because both have benefits.
Using cold therapy has been found to have a numbing effect to the area. This is pretty well known as ice can literally numb the nerves which will inherently reduce the pain. However, using ice can also reduce the blood flow to the area. What this will do is reduce the amount of inflammation which reduces the amount of pain.
On the other hand, heat can help relax the muscle by loosening it up. In fact, this is exactly what we do when we “warm up” which increases the body temperature. As a result, the muscle becomes pliable and flexible. Further, it can provide general relief.
So which one do you use? The other option, both! While some products and commercials will have you believe that the answer is clear (always for what they’re selling), the answer isn’t so precise. However, most studies seem to show that using both of these methods is very beneficial in both providing relief and improving the condition.
STEP 3: KEEP MOVING
Once the initial shock is gone, you want to keep moving. Staying stagnant will do nothing but make your muscles stagnant. If it hurts too much to move, you need to go to the doctor. If not, go for a walk.
Studies have shown that light exercise, such as walking, are amazing at relieving back pain. There’s a few theories but one states that it increases your heart rate. In turn, more fresh blood with oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the injured area. Another explanation is that it keeps the area warm, similar to the heat therapy above. Or, it could just be something as simple as things that stay still, fall apart; similar to your car. Whatever the reason, include light exercise daily. In fact, you would benefit from going on walks numerous times throughout the day if possible.
STEP 4: LIGHT EXERCISES
The next best thing to do is start doing some light exercises. The obvious ones to do are the “Big 3” from Dr. Stu McGill. Dr. Stu McGill is the foremost expert (You should read his studies!) on spine health and is a legend in the lifting community. He came up with the best exercises to strengthen the core functionality and together are known as his “Big 3”. These include:
These are great and will go a long way. However, we also suggest three others to incorporate
You can also use some trigger point massage which may help relax some of the spasm muscles. There are numerous ways to do this with whatever you choose for a trigger point i.e. massage ball or a specific trigger point stick:
When your back is feeling better, there’s no need to jump straight back into performing back squats. In fact, in the same study above with walking, exercise can also help heal an injury, assuming you use the correct load and don’t jump straight back into heavy sets. Well, the good thing is you won’t have an issue finding a great squat alternative as there are more than a few really good back squat substitutes.
The front squat is a great alternative to the back squat. Actually, “alternative” makes it sound like the front squat is sub par which is completely inaccurate. The front squat is an amazing lower body exercise and is actually the preferred squat by many strength and conditioning coaches, especially within the athletic sector. That aside, because the bar is in front of the body, the torso will be in a much more vertical position. While it does require more mobility, this torso positioning causes significantly less stress on the lower back making it a great option when recovering from a hurt back.
You may be surprised to see a deadlift here but when looking at the biomechanics of the legs, the sumo deadlift is quite similar to squats. For one, the torso’s angle is similar to the front squat as in that it’s vertical. Secondly, the sumo squat is much more quad dominant than the conventional variation as the majority of the action is happening with knee extension. Regardless, as the torso is in a much more upright position, there is considerable less stress on the lower back.
Related: Sumo Deadlift Exercise Guide
The leg press is an obvious choice for exercises to use for sore backs. As your back is fully supported, you have plenty of support as long as you don’t go too heavy and cause too much stress. One of the great things about the leg press is that you can greatly affect your muscle activation by simply adjusting your foot position. Here’s a list of 7 ways you can adjust your feet to create a “new exercise. This makes the leg press a great piece of equipment to use when you are injured because you effectively have multiple exercises to perform with this one machine by simply adjusting your feet.
Goblet squats are another awesome exercise to use when recovering from an injured back. The reasoning is exactly that of the front squat in that you hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of your body. This forces you to keep an upright torso thus having less stress on the lower back.
What makes the goblet squat really unique is that it has gained the reputation of being a “squat-fixer”. In other words, trainees will almost naturally use perfect squat form when performing the goblet squat. Keep this in mind if you, or any of your friends have issues with maintaining good form while squatting.
The best way to fix lower back pain is to not get it in the first place. It might sound like a bit of a smart ass remark (to be honest it kind of is, ha) but it is true. However, as mentioned, we have all hurt our backs before so even we need to hear that advice. But honestly, if we can pinpoint what goes wrong when we squat that causes pain, we can just stop doing that. Theoretically, if you were to always squat with proper form and use appropriate loads and rest, you would never get hurt.
That’s why the most important factor to prevent hurting your lower back when squatting is to use good form. In fact, this is why it has its own section as below, we’ll discuss other variables to be aware of to prevent back pain. Still, most of them are on the list as they can affect your form. That being said, here are the key points to be aware of.
Don’t Let The Weight Bring You Forward
As mentioned above, you always want to maintain the weight over your lower legs. In other words, as you come down, the only movement you should see from your shoulders is them going down. There should be no back or forth motion.
What often happens is a trainee will push from their toes or they feel off balance due to the weight of the bar. In either situation, the body will come forward including the barbell. Once the barbell comes out in front of your feet, the load leaves the direction of force and begins to require excessive torque to push it up. This extra force is oftentimes what causes lower back pain during squats. Therefore, always keep the shoulders in line, there should be no forward motion.
Don’t Round Your Back
Rounding your back is another major cause. When the back is straight, all of the vertebrae are aligned and work together to maintain a stiff torso. In reality, there should be no movement in the back as it should remain straight with an isometric contraction. It goes up because the hips come forward and push the back up.
Remember, our limbs are extremely strong in the isometric position which is where we want to stay. When you round your back, all of this stiffness goes away. What was once a straight back has now become flexed. Therefore, now your spine must actually extend to lift the weight back up rather than just hold the weight. This puts a tremendous amount of force and pressure on the spinal column which can cause injuries to the disk.
Don’t Hyperextend Your Back
On the other end, some lifters actually hurt their back by hyperextending their back. To be clear, we are talking about hyperextending the back, not the hips. When this occurs, the lifter’s back is arched back rather than in it’s natural S-pattern. If we think about it, no joint feels good when it’s hyperextended. Pretend that you have your knee hyperextended and then you need to unrack a 1000lbs leg press and support it with your hyperextended knee. No thanks.
Well, this is what happens when we arch too much. These lifters tend to want to over-correct rounding of the back and just go way too far. The good thing is that this is relatively easy to fix. Most lifters can fix this by simply tucking their chin (Try to arch your back with your chin touching your chest. Not gonna happen). If this is your issue, simply use this little trick and it will instantly fix your problem.
Related: The Complete Squat Exercise Guide
Keeping great form is of the utmost importance. Again, it’s almost always bad form which causes injury. That being said, there are several areas that you can watch out for which can improve your ability to maintain proper form.
Check Your Foot Wear
The first mistake that new lifters usually make is wearing improper footwear. As the foot is what drives force into the ground, you could say this is fairly important. Most people new lifters will wear basic sneakers which are almost always designed for running or comfort. Unfortunately, “comfort’ is not what you want when lifting. The soles of these shoes are often squishy to absorb the shock of the foot hitting the pavement. That’s a problem for two reasons:
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to buy a new pair of lifters right away. The cheapest option is to just not wear shoes. Well, wear them to the gym but take them off before squatting. If your gym has an issue with this, you can find lifting socks which are basically that, simple socks for lifting. Other popular options are Converse, or any similar shoe with a firm sole.
If you do want to look at proper lifting shoes, you could start with something like Reebok Nano or Nike Metcon. Or you could do straight for a quality pair of lifters with Adidas being the most popular option. What these will do is give you a solid base but they also come with an elevated heel. This helps trainees get depth while staying balanced with good form.
Related: Heel Elevated Squats
Use Appropriate Loads And Progressive Overload
We love progressive overload as it’s the key to lifting. However, there’s a right way and a wrong way. The right way is to increase the load using a minimal weight. For squats, that should be no more than 10lbs. The wrong way will have you throw on an extra 50lbs your next session which will leave you curled up with a busted back.
The point is to go slow with your jumps. Also, don’t be scared to say no if you’re not feeling it that day. That’s the difference between a smart lifter and a not-so-smart lifter (dumb lifter sounds too mean). When you increase too fast, you just aren’t strong enough to maintain good form during the lift. You’re going to have your shoulders come forward, curl your back, and pop a vertebrae. Don’t do that.
Some of the most important advice you’ll ever hear. Lift smart and increase slowly.
Strengthen Your Upper Back
Upper back...don’t you mean lower back. Well that too (see below) but your upper back is also extremely important. Do this little test. Retract your scapula and pull your shoulders back. Now, curl your back. Not gonna happen.
Our bodies just don’t work like that, kind of like the chin tuck and hyperextending your back. Oftentimes, our lower back curls, it’s because the weakness started in our upper back. This is why during carries like the farmer's carry, you’ll always hear the cue “head up”. That’s because once the head goes down, the rest of the back will follow like a domino effect. Therefore, if your issue is with curling over, one of the things you may need to focus on is strengthening your upper back musculature. Include a lot of movements like:
Strengthen Your Lower Back And Entire Core
“Strong things are harder to break” is a simple fact of life. Therefore, if you don’t want to break your lower back, strengthen it. While this doesn’t negate the fact you still need to use good form, having a stronger back could allow a bigger mistake without having to pay for it with a week off. In fact, you want to train the entire core and we don’t mean with flutter kicks. You should have big movements to really stress the muscles while also using some off-balance movements like farmer carries to help with stabilization. Below are some of the best core strengthening exercises you need to perform
...and back extensions.
Improve Your Mobility And Flexibility
One of the reasons we use bad form is due to lack of mobility and sometimes even our flexibility. As we can’t bend the way we should, our bodies will alter its position to allow the movement to happen. This never turns out good and puts us in compromising positions. There are several areas where this could be an issue:
Be sure to always include a proper mobility routine in your training. If you need a little help, this could be done during your warm-up sessions. However, if you know it’s bad, you might need to give yourself specific mobility sessions to improve.
Injuring your lower back sucks but it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it shows that you’re pushing yourself. Now, that DOES NOT mean you should try to hurt yourself; it just means you got a little too hyped which in some odd way shows you're serious about lifting. It also shows you have a lot to learn about gym life, especially if you plan on lifting forever. But that’s part of the journey and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, AS LONG as you learn! In this article, we broke down what you need to know about lower back pain from squatting. Now it’s up to you you put it into practice.
And remember, be a smart lifter.
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