Squat with Lower Back Pain: Causes, Solutions and Workarounds
Injuries suck, and lower back pain sucks big time, especially when you're trying to squat. Luckily, there are clear, evidence-based steps that you can take to minimise your recovery time, reduce your chance of reinjuring your back, and even keep training your squat with low back pain.
In this article, we're going to cover...
So that you recover, keep getting stronger, and bulletproof yourself for the future.
What To Do About Back Pain After Squats
As a strength and conditioning coach who's worked with various weightlifters and powerlifters, a common question I face is...
"I Am Getting Back Pain From Squatting; What Should I Do?"
And my answer is always the same...
First Up - Don't Panic about Back Pain
Back pain, especially lower back pain, is often thought of as WAY more serious than it actually is.
Chances are that your back is most likely completely fine on a structural level, and even if there is a herniation or slipped disc, it's not the end of the world, because it will very likely heal own.
In fact, Research (Van Tulder 2006) even shows that for most people, your back will be able to fully heal within 6 weeks, even if you don't do the best rehab. If you follow my guide you'll likely be much faster.
Red Flags to Look Out For (The Small Minority of Cases)
Now, just to keep you safe, there are a few things to look out for, such as...
Blurred vision or loss of vision
Difficulty controlling bowel or bladder
Numbness or shooting pain down both legs
Changes in sensation around the genital region
So if any of those apply to you, get yourself in to see a doctor ASAP.
If they don't apply to you - good news - keep on reading.
Next Up - The First 2-3 Days After Deadlift Back Pain
If you've tweaked your lower back while squatting, chances are it will be quite sore and swollen, with a limited range of motion. It can be a good idea to use cool packs to reduce inflammation, as well as to take anti-inflammatory pain medication.
Third - Lower Back Sore After Squats - Try These Movements
I've learnt from experience (and now from reading a tonne of research papers) that one of the worst things you can do for your back during healing is to completely rest it. Not only does this limit blood flow, which would promote healing, it also teaches your brain to avoid those movements because they're dangerous, and can actually cause your brain to associate the movements with pain, even when there's no physical injury!
Instead, we want to move through as much range of motion as possible, whilst keeping pain levels for each movement to no more than a 3/10. Try these movements...
It's a simple way to raise your body temperature, increase blood flow to tissues and get some really low impact movement through your hips. I recommend doing this at least 3 times per day for around 10 minutes. It works incredibly well, you just have to be diligent and stick to it.
2) Cat Camels
These are a really simple way to create movement through your spine in a safe, non-loaded way. You simply move gently from flexion into extension and back again. You're not pushing hard into either position, you're simply moving the back.
Essentially unweighted squats from a box or chair. You might find at first that you can only perform them from a high box or a chair stacked with quite a few pillows, whilst sticking to 3/10 pain rule, that's absolutely fine. Just aim to increase the depth (range of motion) over time.
How to Keep Training the Squat With Lower Back Pain
Chances are if you're a true meathead like me and most athletes, then one of your biggest concerns isn't the injury, it's the possibility that you'll lose strength and size!
The good news is, that really doesn't have to happen if we do things right...
Should you squat if you have low back pain?
In most cases, I think yes, absolutely. But you're going to have to make some adjustments (see the variations below) so that you don't make things worse, and you allow your body time to properly heal. A good rule of thumb is that any type of squatting you do should not rank as more than a 2 out of 10 on the pain scale (very mild discomfort) and your pain level after the session (including the next day) should be no more than your pain level before the session.
If you break these rules, you'll only end up setting your recovery back, costing you way more time in the long run. This isn't the time to be a hero. Be smart and keep your ego in check.
Try Different Squat Variations When You Have Back Pain
I like to order squat variations on a ladder of back stress, with the least stressful at the top and most stressful at the bottom.
Low Load Split Squats
Unweighted squats to box
Unweighted full range of motion squats
Weighted full range of motion goblet squats
Barbell Front Squats
Barbell High Bar Back Squats
Barbell Low Bar Back Squats
Your goal is to work through the progressions without making your back pain worse, the length of this process will vary from person to person.
But you can still have fantastic training sessions using the variations. Seriously, try doing split squats for 4 sets of 20 reps each leg, holding a 10-20kg dumbbell, and tell me you don't have an absolutely disgusting quad pump!
Or try doing full range of motion goblet squats with 30kg, using a 3 second down, 2-second pause tempo. I've used these with athletes who squat 200kg plus, and 5 sets of 8-10 reps have had their legs shaking!
Think of your recovery as a long GPP (general physical preparedness) phase. A huge base to build on ready for an even bigger peak after your recovery.
How Should I Start to Squat?
If you're in the early stages of recovery, you would start with low load split squats for a few sessions, and if they were completely fine, you would move onto the next progression (unweighted squats to box)
You would then continue this process over the next few weeks or months, gradually increasing the stress demands on your back.
How To Prevent Back Pain When You Squat
Alright, so you know how to optimise your recovery time, and how to train your squat with lower back pain, but I'm betting you also want to stop your back from getting hurt again, right?
I've got you covered...
Why Does Squatting Hurt My Back?
There are 4 main reasons why you hurt your back squatting, and I've ranked them in order of likelihood.
1) Your programming is wrong
Specifically, your training load increased too aggressively, and your body wasn't ready for it. That might mean you increased the intensity (weights) too quickly, or it might mean you increased the volume (sets and reps) too quickly.
9 times out of 10, this is the cause of back pain from squats, which is great because you can prevent back pain by following more intelligent programming.
2) Your technique is off
Everyone likes to think their squat technique is perfect. Very few people's squat technique actually is.
Sometimes this is due to things like mobility restrictions in your hips and ankles forcing you into poor positions (which distribute load incorrectly) So it's worth googling ankle and hip mobility tests.
Other times it's just a lack of body awareness or technical understanding, which requires you to practice flawless movement with lighter weights, recording your form on camera regularly.
If your programming is good, then this is your most likely cause.
3) Weakness of the core or other surrounding muscles
This one is weirdly contentious in the strength world, and there are plenty of purists who say that there's no need for core work, glute work or any of that stuff. But there is plenty of research showing that improved endurance in the core musculature, the glutes and the back extensors significantly reduces the likelihood of back pain.
Plus, it just makes sense. You look at any elite level powerlifter or weightlifter, and their cores and hips are incredibly strong and incredibly stable. This means they can hold correct positions better and transfer force more efficiently. Without these things, it naturally follows that you'll be more open to injury.
4) Injury prone genetics
Look, this can be an incredibly hard thing to hear (and I say that as someone who falls into this category) some people are just way more likely to get injured than others.
If you're following a good, sensible programme that applies the principles of training correctly, and you're sleeping/eating correctly, and your technique is good, and your core is good, but you still keep getting injured, then this might be you. With that said, very few people actually fall into this category, and it's way more likely that you're messing something else up!
Solutions: How to Squat Without Hurting Your Back
1) Fix Your programming
If you're writing your own programming I usually recommend starting conservatively with volume and intensity and increasing these up over time in line with the progress you're making. You'll also want to ensure you understand SRA curves and the 6 major principles of training.
Or, one step better, look into hiring a coach to write your programmes for you. Coaches like myself literally do this stuff for a living.
2) Fix Your Squat Technique
Whilst there are various possible technical flaws, a sore back is usually linked to one of 3 likely culprits.
a) Squatting to a depth you can't handle
Building good stable depth in your squats takes time. You need enough mobility in your ankles and hips, and enough body awareness to maintain position. When you sink too low without being ready for it you end up losing your back position and increasing the stress on your lower back.
Reduce your depth slightly and work within what you can manage. Increase over time as you improve.
Whilst chest up is a decent cue for a high-bar back squat for most lifters, it will also cause some lifters to overextend through their back, arching too much and moving away from the stable, neutral position into a position that puts more stress on the lower back.
Instead, think about keeping your ribcage 'attached' to your hips, with active, pulled down lats engaged and a strong, braced core.
c) Good Morning Squats
If you have weak legs relative to your back (i.e. strong deadlift weak squat) you might find yourself turning your squat into a good morning by hinging too much at your hips. If you watch videos of yourself lifting and your hips seem to move up before your shoulders, this is probably you. Lower the weight and work on your hips and shoulders rising at the same time.
3) Improve Your Core Endurance
There's some solid research that improving core and extensor endurance reduces back pain, so I tend to recommend the Mcgill 'Big 3' Curl-Up
Frequently Asked Questions About Back Pain and Squats
But what if I can’t even walk right because my low back pain is so bad?
Then it's time to book in and see a doctor, especially if it's still that bad after 2-3 days.
Should my back hurt after squats?
No, squats are a quad-dominant movement, so your back should only be working to maintain a consistent back angle. If your back is frequently tired, sore or painful after squats, your technique or programming may be a problem.
Do squats help lower back?
No, there's no reason that squats would help your lower back, other than blood flow and movement, which you could accomplish through various other movements.
Best squat for lower back pain?
If you use the lower back stress squat progression ladder above, you'll see that split squats and unweighted squats to box are the easiest on your back.
Wrapping Up - Squats and Back Pain Next Steps
Alright, that's enough reading for today, time for action...
1) Start working through the steps I've outlined in the article. Walking 3x per day, cat camels, sit to stands, plus the mcgill 'big 3'
2) Keep training, and adjust your workouts to keep making progress in a GPP style.
3) And if you're looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your sports performance without pain, you can find more information about my services by clicking the link.
'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex's experience includes 7+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 2 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.
He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting