What workout would be complete without a few sets of squats? Most people include them in their routine, although not everyone uses good form when they do this exercise. Why is it so hard to use suitable form? The problem may lie, surprisingly enough, with the ankles. If you don’t have good ankle mobility, you’ll lean forward when you do the exercise.
Another common mistake relating to squats is rounding the back, letting the knees fall inward when squatting, and letting the heels come off the floor. That’s why it’s so important to get the form right when squatting so you’ll get more benefits from the exercise and avoid injury.
If you have back pain, you may hesitate to squat at all. However, some squats are safer for the back than others. The two most common squats that people do are front squats and back squats. Is one less risky for your back than the other?
The Difference Between Front Squats and Back Squats
A front squat is where you place the barbell in front of your shoulders. In contrast, with a back squat, you rest the bar against the back of your shoulders and upper back. In the former, the weight and center of gravity is in the front of the body and for the latter, the center of gravity and weight is behind the body.
As you can see, the fundamental difference between the front squat and the back squat is where you position the barbell. More precisely, when performing a front squat, you hold the barbell directly in front of your shoulders. Conversely, in a back squat, the bar rests across your trapezius and rear deltoids, so the weight is loaded on the backside of your body.
Which Squat is Safer for Your Back – Front Squats or Back Squats?
Of the front squat and back squat, the back squat is harder on your back—but why? It’s challenging to do a back squat without tilting your pelvis forward and when you do, it places added stress on your back. In contrast, when you do a front squat, the weight is in front of you and that forces you to keep your body straighter to stay balanced. If you tilt your pelvis forward while holding a barbell in front of you, you’ll topple over.
Because the weight is in front of your body, the front squat helps you keep your pelvis more upright and that places less compressive forces on your spine. On the downside, front squats are a more challenging move to do. You may be able to work with more weight when you do a back squat as opposed to a front squat.
What if You Still Have Back Pain after Squats?
If you’re doing front squats and still experience back pain, have someone critique your form and see where you can improve your technique. Also, lighten up on the weight when you do front squats or work on your form using no weight at all. Even if you go lighter on the weight, you’ll still get benefits by increasing the number of repetitions. Also, work on strengthening your core muscles to improve your form and focus on enhancing ankle and hip mobility. These can be sticking points for doing squats.
If you have continued back pain or pain that causes numbness in the legs or weakness, see your physician or a sports medicine doctor. Check your footwear too. Your shoes should have a firm non-compressible sole, not soft soles like a running shoe. Soft soles don’t provide enough support to squat safely with good form. Make sure you’re not doing too high of a volume of squats or doing them too often.
Other Reasons You May Have Back Pain After Squatting
If you’re feeling stiff when you squat, you may not be warming up enough before you do the exercise. Make sure you’re doing at least a 5-minute warm-up with dynamic movements that gradually raise your body temperature. As your muscles warm-up, they’ll be more flexible.
Another problem is trying to use too much weight when you squat. Start with lighter weights and increase the challenge as your body adapts. Let back discomfort be your guide. If you’re achy or stiff afterward, your form is off, you’re using too much weight, or you lack core strength or ankle and hip mobility. If you have a previous back injury, that can make it harder to squat with good form.
Other Squat Variations That Are Safer for Your Back
Another squat variation that’s easier on your back is the goblet squat. Unlike the front squat where you hold a barbell in front of your shoulders or a back squat where you rest it on your rear delts and upper trapezius muscles, with a goblet squat, you hold a single weight in front of your body with your two hands. Like the front squat, the goblet squat forces you to keep your pelvis straighter and that’s healthier for your back. It’s also a squat variation that beginners have an easier time doing.
The Bottom Line
If you have a history of back pain, front squats and goblet squats are safer than doing back squats. You’ll still get benefits, although front squats place more emphasis on your quads than your hamstrings and glutes. The goblet squat is an even better choice if you’re a beginner. Make sure that other factors aren’t making it harder to squat such as a weak core or poor ankle or hip mobility and see a physician if your back pain persists, worsens, or includes other symptoms such as numbness or leg weakness.
Be sure to warm up before attempting squats or any other exercise with weights. Start by doing bodyweight squats or goblets squats with a light weight as a warm-up before progressing to heavier weights. Do squats safely and you’ll be rewarded with a stronger, more defined physique.
- Loudon Sports Therapy Center. “Limited Hip Mobility Can Cause Back Pain”
- J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1108-12.
- American Council on Exercise. “Goblet Squat”
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