Squats are one of the best exercises for your thighs, particularly the quadriceps, the muscles in the front of your thighs. Just as importantly, squats are a compound move that works multiple muscle groups at the same time. That means you burn more calories when you squat than when you do isolation exercises, like leg curls or leg extensions. They don’t call squats the “king of exercises” for nothing! As indispensable as squats are to an exercise program, some people find that squatting hurts their back. Why is this and what can you do to make squats safer and more comfortable if they aggravate back pain?
People who experience pain when they squat typically fall into two classes. They either have poor hip mobility or weak core musculature. Yes, it’s also possible to have both and that’s a double whammy! Correcting these problems will make squatting safer, more comfortable, and give you better results.
Hip Mobility Issues
How’s your hip mobility? If you can squat deeply while keeping your spine in a neutral position, your hips are probably fairly mobile. Unfortunately, not everyone has good hip mobility, and the problem is aggravated by sitting too much. When you sit, the extensor muscles in the back of your thighs as well as your glutes, weaken due to lack of activation. It’s these muscles that help you maintain a neutral spine when you squat. If they’re weak, your lower back has to take on the job the glutes normally do and help stabilize your pelvis when you squat. This places added strain on your lower back. So, hips that sit too much typically lack mobility.
Tight hip flexors, also from too much sitting, further contributes to the imbalance between the hip flexors and extensors. In some cases, your hip flexors can tighten to the point that it creates an anterior pelvic tilt, a posture where your hips tilt too far forward and your tummy protrudes. Needless to say, this isn’t good for your posture and it throws off your body alignment. Plus, it makes your tummy and buttocks look more prominent.
Looking for a way to test your hip mobility? Try this. Do a deep, bodyweight squat while keeping your heels flat on the floor. How do your knees and calves feel? If you’re the feel tight or strained, you likely have a hip mobility problem.
If you didn’t fare well on the hip mobility test, what can you do to correct the problem? Do hip flexor stretches to lengthen your hip flexors. You can find a variety of hip flexor stretches to add to your routine online. Also, work on strengthening your glutes and hamstrings. Exercises that are particularly effective at doing this include glute-bridges, walking lunges, hip thrusts, and Romanian deadlifts.
A Weak Core
When you squat, you aren’t just using the muscles in your lower body. You need a strong core to stabilize your spine as you do a deep squat, especially when you’re squatting with heavy resistance. A weak core will cause your form to break down when you squat. When the muscles that stabilize your spine are weak, the muscles that “move” have to compensate for the weak stabilizers. This places excess strain on the big muscles in your lower back and can lead to back pain when you squat. So, the key to squatting safely and without pain is to strengthen the stabilizers, particularly the transverse abdominals, internal obliques, and multifidi. Building core strength will help you squat with better form and a lower risk of injury.
How’s your form when you do squats? Many people use poor technique and aren’t aware of it, but sloppy technique can hurt their back. One of the worst things you can do is round your back when you squat. Every time your back rounds, you place added pressure on your spine. As mentioned previously, some of the reasons you round your back is your core is weak or you have poor hip mobility. Have someone knowledgeable critique your squat form and make sure you’re doing the exercise properly. If you’re not, go back to square one and do bodyweight squats until you’ve mastered the mechanics of the movement.
Reducing Back Pain When You do Squats
Improving the mobility of your hips and strengthening your core will, over time, lower your risk of back pain when you squat. In the meantime, lighten up on the weights so you can focus on form rather than handling a heavy resistance. Also, switch to front squats if you’re experiencing lower back pain when you squat. When you do a front squat, you’re forced to hold your spine in a more upright position, which is safer. Another option that places less stress on your back and spine are goblet squats, squatting while holding a dumbbell in front of your body.
Also, be sure you’re doing a thorough warm-up before attempting squats. Start with body weight squats and gradually increase the resistance as your body becomes warmer. If you have lower back pain, limit the depth of your squats. You don’t have to do a deep squat to get benefits. So, don’t lower yourself to a depth that causes even a twinge of pain. Listen to your body and stop if you feel discomfort.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know some of the most common reasons squats cause lower back pain. Work on strengthening your core and improving your hip mobility. Then, focus on using good form when you squat, particularly not rounding your back. If you have chronic back issues, change the type of squat you do. The one that places the least stress on your spine is a front squat or a goblet squat since it forces you to keep your spine upright. Also, if you have chronic or recurrent back pain, see your physician. A physical therapy consult may also help you get relief from chronic back pain.
Loudon Sports Therapy Center. “Limited Hip Mobility Can Cause Back Pain”
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Precision Movement. “Lower Back Pain from Squats? Do THIS”