Lower Back Pain After Squats: Why It Happens And How To Avoid It
Squatting is universally considered a great exercise for increasing leg strength and making the athlete faster. Unfortunately, many athletes have never been taught how to squat, or have been taught improper ways of doing so.
Poor form means a loss of force production, poor performance on the field/court/track and increased risk of injury. One common problem that plagues some individuals who do not squat correctly is lower back pain from squats – anyone who has experienced this will know it is no fun.
This article will explore why this happens, why conventional cures don’t work and how to properly apply certain exercises in order to overcome the problem.
The first question you might ask yourself is:
Why even perform squats?
Why not just stick with leg extensions? Sequential, compound exercises enhance performance and body composition by recruiting more muscle fibers. This is a good thing. Because of this, many competitive athletes include squats as a part of their leg workout.
Regardless of whether they have had problems with pain or not. Doing so will help strengthen the lower back over time and prevent injury later on (provided proper form is employed).
The second question you might ask yourself is why do some people experience low back pain from squats? The most common reason has to do with the bar placement. With most high-bar squat variations (the conventional equipment used in most gyms), it’s likely that most individuals’ natural tendency will be to place the bar too high up – at the top of your traps or even higher – rather than placing it across the rear delts.
The reason for this is that many individuals do not have sufficient hamstring flexibility to allow them to squat deep enough while maintaining a neutral spine (more on this below).
Squat done with too high a bar placement.
This results in two problems: 1) you cannot go deep enough and 2) the stress from the weight stack falls mostly upon your lower back rather than being distributed amongst several muscle groups throughout the body.
In addition, because of conventional wisdom, many people think that because their knees are bent when standing upright that they’re going low enough. However, you can be having a sharp pain in your knee yet still have an excessively high bar placement due to poor hamstring mobility.
So even though the knee may feel fine, the stress is still mostly on your lower back. This can be avoided by keeping the bar lowered, which allows you to go deeper and distribute the load more appropriately throughout the body.
Another problem that occurs with high-bar squats is insufficient ankle flexibility, which also leads to an inability to go low enough.
If you cannot keep your heel planted on the ground while breaking at the hips/knees, chances are you’re not going to be able to achieve a full squat position (unless of course you have no intention of actually reaching that depth).
The mechanic for this scenario involves drawing in your belly button slightly (posterior pelvic tilt), along with driving your knees out to reduce torque at the hip joint; these actions will allow you to keep your weight on the centre of your feet and not fall over forward.
Going low enough for a proper squat means going below parallel, where the crease at the hip is slightly below that of the knee. This may seem silly to some, but there are many individuals who cannot even achieve a half-squat because they lack ankle flexibility.
Again, this is another problem which can be easily solved by consciously driving your knees out as if someone was trying to push them in during your descent.
You already know that squats can be done improperly, leading to pain in the knees or hips. But there are also injuries which occur specifically from low bar squatting. These include:
- A condition called iliotibial band friction syndrome – this occurs when the knee is forced excessively medially (knee forms an unnatural angle), resulting in the IT band being excessively stressed, causing pain on the lateral side of your knee
- A condition called patellofemoral joint stress syndrome – this occurs when there is too much compression on the kneecap because of incorrect mechanics, putting extra strain on the ligaments holding it in place
- Lower back injuries caused by both short-term and long-term abuse – some of the most notable types would be a disc bulge or a hamstring strain
- Fractures from falling from being unable to get out of the bottom position of a squat
In short, there are many injuries which can happen from low bar squats. There is no one who can say with absolute certainty that everyone should do low bar squats and that everyone should avoid high bar.
Some people may be able to squat heavily with a high-bar, while others – who maybe don’t have the greatest hamstring flexibility or ankle mobility – can actually injure themselves from excessive strain resulting from high-bar squats.
How to prevent back pain when you squat
The solution is simple: if you cannot go as deep as you’d like on high-bar squats, try switching to low bar. If you have intermittent pain in your knee while low-bar squatting, try widening your stance slightly.
However, if you can go deep enough without pain using a high bar placement and feel more comfortable with it, then by all means continue doing so. Other tips include:
- Use a lower bar position (just above the posterior deltoids) and go as low as you can without pain.
- Keep your knees out and maintain a neutral spine at all times, not leaning excessively forward or back.
- If you cannot achieve parallel then don’t do it; try to work on ankle and hip mobility/flexibility instead.
- Pull your shoulder blades back and down while keeping your chest up
- Stop the bar just above the posterior deltoids, not on top of them
- Ensure a tight grip with both hands throughout the entire lift
I am getting pain in my back when I squat deep; what should i do?
- Make sure your weight is on the balls of your feet and not your heels, going as low as you can without pain
- Do a ‘wall drill’ to improve hip mobility – place both hands against a wall at shoulder height with one leg forward and one back, then push into the wall by driving your knee outwards while maintaining your balance; after 10 reps switch sides
- Work on your ankle flexibility to improve the range of motion you can achieve with hip flexion (e.g., toe touches)
- Do front squats instead, using a higher bar position which reduces stress on the lumbar spine.
The Bottom Line
Back pain during squats is mostly caused by a lack of overall flexibility and/or mobility, not necessarily because of the chosen bar position. In addition, if you have problems with your lumbar spine then it doesn’t matter which type of squat variation you use as all forms will probably be painful. Remember: if you have a pre-existing back condition then seek medical advice before doing any physical activity.