It’s time to debunk more fitness myths!
Today we tackle the old chestnut: are squats bad for your back?
(Tl;dr: No, but have a read anyway.)
Is Squatting Bad For Your Back?
Squats are not bad for your back. If you squat with good form, you should not encounter any back issues. However, squatting with bad form may give you back pain.
Why Some People Get Back Pain After Squatting
Back pain is a complex issue that affects at least 85% of all people at some point in their life. Sometimes back pain affects people for no discernible reason at all!
(I didn’t just write the above in order to pad the article. It’s important to understand the nature of back pain. Back pain can occur without squatting. Squatting can occur without back pain.)
Sometimes you can do everything right in the gym and your back will still start hurting! Other times, you can go into the gym with back pain and feel better after squatting.
Here are some common reasons people might experience back pain in conjunction with squats.
They Lift With Poor Form
This is the number one culprit. Here is a short list of the most common errors I see:
- Not having the pressure and balance over the midfoot throughout the lift
- Back rounded
- Not tight enough in the torso
- Grip width asymmetric
- Bar placement on back asymmetric
- Foot placement asymmetric
- Doing weird stuff because you are trying to avoid the knees travelling past the toes (the knees are allowed to travel past the toes)
Technique is strength. You can always lift more weight with good technique than you can with bad technique.
And if you don’t know if your technique is any good, hire a reputable coach!
They Lift Too Much Weight
If your technique is sound and consistent to a point, but then you do something different every time you go past that point, this is known as “technical failure”. You may not be ready for that weight yet!
You should aim to make each rep look identical.
It’s normal to expect small deviations in true max effort attempts, but you should still be striving to iron these out.
Some people are aware their technique goes out the window past a certain point, but persist anyway. This is typically seen in a lifter who has self esteem issues. Some common thought processes:
- “I should be able to do…”
- “I did more last time”
- “I did [x] weight last time so I should be good for [x+5] weight today”
- “It was ugly but it went up”
- “Depth was a little suspect but I’m claiming it”
If this is you, cut it out.
Most commonly seen in commercial gyms where you have onlookers, or if you’re filming your lifts for Instagram.
They Don’t Warm Up Properly (Or At All)
There are many schools of thought on warm-ups. Some like to progress from general to specific. Others like a series of targeted mobility movements per exercise.
If you were to believe everything you read on the internet about warming up, you’d never get round to the exercise itself.
At the very least, you need to warm up the joints in the plane of motion you intend to use. For squatting, this means squatting.
Starting with a very light weight (typically with the empty bar) perform 5-10 reps. Now, add weight gradually, performing a few reps, until you reach the intended working weight for the day.
This process should take between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on your current strength level, and how cold you are.
I’m not a doctor, so don’t believe anything I say.
But! If I were to hazard a guess, I would say the top two factors for lower back pain are stress and sitting too much. Would you agree?
The more stressed you get, the more bunched up the muscles of your midsection and lower back can get. This may or may not be accompanied by pain.
Sometimes I can literally feel my back winding up as my children press on my last nerve. Perhaps some of you can relate here.
Sit all day and your back probably won’t be feeling too hot afterwards.
Sit at a stressful desk job all day and… you get the idea.
Now imagine you take all this stress and add a heavy bar on top of it. Training is a stressor. The body doesn’t discern.
Your recovery is compromised
Here’s a perfect example: the other day one of my students sent me a video of his last squats. They looked fine! Much like all his other squats.
Yet, the student was complaining about some lower back pain after finishing the set.
Me: “Hmm, it doesn’t seem to be a technique issue. Tell me, have you been eating and sleeping enough?”
Student: “Well, I am cutting a lot of weight for a judo competition right now.”
Me: “That’ll be it.”
Trying to push boundaries while undereating is a great way to tweak something in the gym.
Does The Type Of Squat Matter?
Assuming technique is sound, the limiting factor here is usually going to feel like it’s around the lower back.
The lower back and the abs are connected. For one to contract, the other must relax.
If you relax your abs (voluntarily or otherwise) during a squat, your spine will flex forward. This will make your back round under load.
This is a common way to hurt your back while squatting.
The other most common way I see is losing your balance. If you teeter from the midfoot to your toes, you’ll see the back round over as you try not to fall forwards. Big mistake.
Go down into the hole with the barbell balanced over the midfoot, then come back out the way you came in.
A hack squat machine, like a leg press, shifts some of the stress away from the back. This may be a way you can continue training the squat pattern if you are working around an existing back injury.
A barbell hack squat, where the bar starts on the floor behind the feet and is lifted up by the hands, has more potential for injury.
This is especially true if you have long arms and short legs *raises hand* because there’s a lot more squirming to get into position.
Plus, if your arms are short you’ll be travelling the bar further away from your centre of gravity as it rolls over your glutes.
Plus, you can’t lift that much weight with the exercise anyway. I would say the barbell hack squat has a high cost to benefit ratio.
Do not relax on the box. Do not relax on the box. Do not relax on the box.
If you do, you’re in for a bad time.
Do not sit on the box then allow your torso to become vertical. We are squatting here, not sitting.
Do not rock on the box to gain momentum. If you do this with a heavy bar on your back, you will shoot your knees forward to avoid losing your balance. This is murder on the spine and the knees.
Apart from all that, in my coaching career I haven’t found box squats to be any more or less dangerous for the spine than regular squatting.
Box squats are pretty great. I admit my bias.
Front squats have a much higher demand at the mid back, around the rhomboids. These are a common point of failure.
The most common way to hurt yourself in a front squat is to allow the elbows to drop. This will crank on your biceps tendons and shoulders.
If the elbow makes contact with the knee, you can sprain or break your wrist. Keep the elbows high.
More specifically for the back, the most common way of getting hurt is to curl the lower under at the bottom of the movement.
This articulation of the spine under load is a very common cause of back pain.
Like the barbell hack squat, this is one of those exercises that is going to highly favour people of certain anthropometry.
Some people can do textbook pistols with the leg outstretched just fine. Many can’t. As they approach parallel the lower back tucks and rounds under. You’ll often see rounding at the upper back too as the body tries to compensate for flexibility restrictions.
Because the exercise is unstable, the potential for wobbling and tweaking something is high.
For maximum safety, I prefer to limit the depth by pistol squatting to a bench or box, set to a height that they are able to demonstrate hamstring control throughout (no plopping or crashing allowed).
You can also use light dumbbells in each hand as a counterbalance, and rest the opposite heel on the ground for additional stability.
By performing the pistol with the above modifications, you get most of the benefit whilst removing the high risk components.
Should You Squat If You Suffer From Back Pain?
The golden rule for all chronic pain is this: if, during the movement, the pain gets worse, stop.
If the pain was there beforehand, and doesn’t feel any worse during or after, you’re probably not making things worse.
Do Squats Compress Your Spine?
There are compressive forces acting on your spine when you squat.
There are compressive forces on your spine when you deadlift.
Get this: there are similar levels of compressive forces on your spine when you sit in a slouched posture!
Our spines tolerate compressive forces. You do not need to fear spinal compression.
How To Get Rid Of Back Pain From Squats
First and foremost is to fix your technique if squats are hurting you.
You may wish to hire a reputable strength coach or personal trainer. Do understand their professional scope of practice though: fitness professionals teach exercise. A good fitness professional will refer out to a medical professional when their client presents with ongoing pain.
The vast majority of fitness professionals are not qualified to diagnose or treat pain. If they claim to be “exercise rehab specialists” vet their claims and credentials very carefully.
If in doubt, always consult with a medical professional. Having a good physical therapist in your corner can be a powerful ally in your training and longevity.
That’s all for this article, but how many squats should a 15 year old do? Or perhaps you’re interested in the goblet squat vs back squat?
Hope this helped!
I’ve been in the fitness and strength training industry for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle, written hundreds of articles, and reviewed dozens of fitness supplements. As for my educational background, I’m a currently studying for my Active IQ Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training.