Back Pain and Squatting
Author: Adam Headland - Team T-Rex Head Coach
“I don’t squat anymore because it hurts my back/knees/hip…”
A common theme I hear consistently with new clients I take on. But the squat is such a main driver in any physique development program, I am a big proponent of squatting in general, so more on that in a future article.
When I have a client who experiences back pain while squatting, I check their lower back flexion at the bottom of their squat. Your pelvis will naturally tuck at the bottom, either moving into a neutral position, which is fine, or flexion, which can cause pain and injury by stressing the lumbar spine.
You can usually tell the difference by the amount of tuck (there will be a greater and often excessive amount with those experiencing flexion), and the discomfort that accompanies it. To check, have someone watch or film you from the side while squatting and note the amount of pelvic tuck at the bottom.
Be mindful of how much "pelvic tuck" is happening when you squat. Recording video from the side is an easy way to find out how much tuck is occurring during your squat.
What causes it?
The usual culprits are hip tightness, individual biomechanics and incorrect stance, or some combination thereof. Prior to squatting I have clients perform a thorough dynamic warm up consisting of high knees, side-to-side leg swings, kickbacks, high kicks, hip rotations and flexor stretches. These should be part of anyone's pre-training squat routine.
You may not feel like you need to do them, but it makes your squatting stronger and more stable, gives you better range of motion, and helps to prevent injury. You'll thank me when you're my age too! It's also good to practice sitting in a full squat as a resting position during your warm up sets. Once this is comfortable for you, your hip flexors will loosen up considerably.
Next, I will check their stance. Sometimes just moving to a wider stance will solve the issue. Narrower stance squats are great if you can do them without flexion, but this ability can change with time, and many simply don't have the structure to do them properly in the first place.
Similarly, some people are just not built for full, deep, ATG squats. I'm not suggesting you load up the bar and do awful curtsy squats that will result in you being ridiculed on Youtube, but stopping your descent before your pelvis tucks can relieve your back pain. This might be at parallel or even a little above - but you will feel a world of difference if this is your issue.
Check the Ego
A lot of trainers feel they have to load up the bar until it bends and drop into the basement or it's not a "real" squat. I was guilty of this myself - now I have chronic back pain, and nobody cares how much I used to squat.
Try lightening the load, keeping perfect form squatting as deep as your individual structure allows, and doing higher reps with constant tension, going to failure at 20 reps or more before pyramiding weight up and reps down to lower double digit sets.
If you are looking for maximum muscle gains for physique competition, you may be surprised how much more effective this can be while not jacking your back up. BTW - all the above can also be applied to hack squats and leg presses.
Adam headland is a National-Level competitor and one of the head coaches at Team T-rex Training contest prep specialists. Adam has trained multiple athletes to professional status.