Physiotherapy Clinic

Avoiding Low Back Injuries With Squatting

By Eric Wong

Precision Movement

So, you’ve got lower back pain from squats, do you?

Damn, that sucks.

Fortunately for you, in this article we’re going to go through:

  • 3 characteristics that are common amongst people who hurt their lower back squats,
  • 3 things to address to prevent this annoying problem, and
  • A short routine you can do right now for some instant pain relief

Trust me, I know the kind of pain you’re feeling, seeing as this is the back that I personally squat (and deadlift) with.

The surgery and resulting big scar has significantly impacted my tissues, alignment and movement patterns, so I’ve had to learn a lot just to keep myself healthy.

And before we continue, one thing you can be thankful for is the fact that this didn’t happen to you:

We can always find gratitude if we look for it.

Now that we’re in a positive frame of mind, let’s dive in, starting with the 3 most common reasons people get lower back pain from squats.

3 Common Characteristics of People Who Get Lower Back Pain From Squats

When people hurt their back doing squats they typically have one, two or all three of the following characteristics:

  1. Male
  2. 28-50 years old
  3. Poor Squat Movement Pattern

Let’s go into each one separately so we can understand where these problems are coming from and find some solutions, shall we?

Males

It’s true – guys hurt their backs doing squats way more often than girls do, and there are two main reasons for this…

First, us guys typically walk around with either a neutral or posterior pelvic tilt, whereas most females have either a neutral or anterior posterior tilt.

We’re going to break this down when we talk about the movement pattern itself.

Which brings us to the second point…

Guys have BIG egos.

These gargantuan egos – let’s call them our inner bros – are in competition with other inner bros, and cause us males to either try to out do each other at any opportunity we get or impress any females that might have a sightline to you and your squats – and guys I can tell you’re getting a little defensive right about now, don’t worry that’s just your inner bro talking.

Our inner bro is what makes us stuff socks in their pants (or so I’ve heard), buy expensive sports cars when we reach 40-50 years old, do pushups and bicep curls before going to a bar or club and yes, squat more weight than we’re capable of.

So guys, be aware of your inner bro and make sure he’s not the one in charge of putting the weight on the bar when you squat.

28-50 Years of Age

This means that you were born somewhere between 1967 and 1989. Yep, I’m psychic. I can also guess your weight – TOO MUCH! j/k 😉

Another thing I can guess about you is that you’re probably extremely focused on your career and/or your family right now, and you probably find it difficult to set time aside to look after your body.

Have you ever taken time off from your workouts, because you were so busy with life, and tried to go back to the gym with the same intensity you had in your last session (which could have been months or years prior)?

Did you think you were a magician because you were able to make 20lbs feel like 100lbs?

This magic trick isn’t like Jesus turning water in to wine, my friend.

Going back to the gym after taking a long time off and thinking you’re the same person you were before is a prescription for pain and injury.

So if you are hitting the weights after a break, start easy and ramp up slowly over time. Your body will thank you.

Poor Squat Movement Pattern

To understand what’s going wrong with your movement pattern, let’s break down each variable that creates the squat movement pattern to shed some light on the subject.

These variables include:

  • Hip Mobility
  • Core Stability
  • Technique

Before we address these 3 areas, we need to take a look at the common postural defects caused by each of these faults, which are lumbar flexion and posterior pelvic tilt.

Lumbar Flexion and Posterior Pelvic Tilt

An assault to the intervertebral disc is the most common occurrence when people hurt their lower back squatting; with muscle strain a distant second.

The reason why the disc gets assaulted (not necessarily damaged) is because the lumbar spine flexes or pelvis tilts posteriorly, even if only for a brief moment.

Posterior pelvic tilting, or butt wink, occurs for many people when they lower in to the bottom of the squat. This butt wink isn’t exactly a major issue in everyday activity, but under heavily loaded exercises, like back squats, excess lumbar flexion and a pronounced posterior pelvic tilt can really launch that assault on the discs.

Check out the different pelvic tilts in these images.

Pay close attention to the curves of the lower back.

The image on the left illustrates an ideal squatting posture maintaining the natural lordotic curvature of the lumbar spine [1], while the image on the right illustrates how the pelvis looks in the butt wink.

When the back has not been properly conditioned for lumbar flexion the tissues and ligaments aren’t prepared to handle the stress and cause extreme posterior stress, which can cause prolapsing, or herniation of the discs when heavy loads are applied over time.

Take a look at the image below.

Notice how lumbar flexion in the image on the right is compressing the anterior of the disc, causing the nucleus to be squeezed out against the posterior annulus wall.

If you’ve ever had a Fedex delivery arrive at your home, you’d know the satisfying feeling of popping those little plastic bubbles in between your fingers

.

As satisfying as this feeling is, it’s excruciating when it happens to your discs.

A Lack of Sufficient Hip Mobility

If you spend most of your day sitting in front of the computer, watching television or driving in your car, I’m afraid to say that chances are you have shitty hip mobility.

This is a big problem because your body is designed to move, and sitting down for too long weakens important muscles like the glutes, hip flexors and hamstrings.

These muscles just aren’t being activated if you’re sitting on your ass all day.

When you add heavy weight to the squat, your body looks to the extensor and stabilizing muscles of the glutes and hips to help support a neutral spinal position. [3]

Think of the way the elastic band in your underwear supports the hold around your waist. Over time the waistband loses its elasticity and become weak and useless. The weaker your glues are, the more useless they are at stabilizing your pelvis.

And when these muscles are weak, your lower back wants to step in to take over.

The key idea you need to take away from this is if you don’t use it, you lose it, so you’ve got to ensure you’re constantly training your core to undo all the damage sitting does.

Weak Core Muscles

Stabilizing the spine is the main function of your core, thus, weakness in these muscles results in an unstable spine, which will result in low back pain. [4]

The different muscles that make up your core and support your spine include:

  • The Multifidus
  • The Transverse Abdominis
  • The Rectus Abdominis
  • The Internal/External Obliques
  • The Latissimus Dorsi

Each of these muscles are important for stability in all 3D movements:

  • The Sagittal Plane – Bending down to pick up your child
  • The Transverse Plane – Throwing a ball or torso rotation when running
  • The Frontal Plane – Doing cartwheels in the park or side-bending to scratch the outside of your knee

Squatting with heavy weight demands a higher degree of core activation than lighter weight or bodyweight squats do. [5]

The heavier the weight, the more strength and stabilization you need in your core.

If you lack strength in any of the core muscles listed above, you’re playing a dangerous game going ass to grass with heavy weight.

Because of this, it’s important you develop core strength first, before making maximal strength gains the focus of your workouts.

Lack of Proper Technique

Finally, the last area you need to address is your technique.

The squat is one of the most fundamental human movements. It’s so fundamental that even toddlers can drop down for the perfect squat without cues or coaching.

The problem is there are so many conflicting pieces of information and opinions dished out by bro science professors about the right way to squat.

Want to know the real truth?

There’s no “RIGHT” way to Squat!

The better question would be, “Which is the right way for me?”

The best technique for you really depends on:

  • What your goals are
  • The unique structure of your hips
  • Your weapon of choice – i.e. kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, etc.

For example, powerlifters will go for a low bar placement across the posterior deltoids and stand with a much wider stance compared to Olympic weightlifters, who go for high bar placement, using the traps like a shelf for the bar, and a shoulder width stance.

Why?

For powerlifters it’s all about weight; the more they squat the better. Adopting a wider stance and a low bar placement is the best way to load more weight onto their squat.

For Olympic weightlifters, the squat is more dynamic and the technique they use is geared towards exploding out of the squat and getting under the bar to achieve an overhead position.

So, you’re probably wondering which technique would be best for you, the powerlifter or the Olympic weightlifter?

Before you decide, just ask yourself, “Am I a powerlifter or an Olympic weightlifter?”

If the answer is no, and I bet it is, neither of these is the ideal fit for you.

To the stance that works best for you, try this method that has worked well for many of my clients in the past:

  1. Take 2 or 3 small vertical jumps in the air and wherever your feet land naturally is the stance your going to test first
  2. Turn your toes out slightly if you want, up to 30° is fine
  3. Try squatting and see how it feels, if it feels natural you’re good
  4. If the squat feel unnatural in any way, adjust your stance and try again until it feels natural

Now that you’ve found your stance it’s time to go over a few pointers for the basic squat.

Basic Squat Technique

  1. Maintain neutral spine position with your shoulders back and chest tall
  2. Ensure your femur (thigh) tracks inline with your feet by pushing your knees out as you squat down
  3. Inhale on the descent and exhale on your way up
  4. To help maintain spinal alignment, look forward as you move through the squat and avoid looking up, which can break neutral position of your cervical spine (neck)

How to Relieve Your Lower Back Pain

If you’re reading this article, it’s no doubt you’re currently suffering lower back pain from doing squats.

Addressing the problems we’ve already talked about will help you reduce the risk of developing further lower back pain in the future.

But for those of you in need of pain relief, and need it now, try running through my Damage Control Routine in the video below.

This routine is great for easing the tweaks and strains that you may have in your lower back from squatting and has been successful in helping many of my clients out in the past.

Ok, that’s it for today.

We’ve covered a lot of information about lower back pain, including:

  • The 3 common characteristics of people who get lower back pain from squats
  • 3 areas leading to lower back pain from squats
  • A simple yet effective routine for quickly relieving lower back pain

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and can take something useful from it that you can use in your own life. Whether you have lower back pain or not, knowing this information is essential for safe and pain free squatting now and in the future.