- Is Back Squat Bad For Your Back?
- Types of pain and what they mean
- Mistakes which can lead to back pain
- Relieving back pain and soreness from squats
Suffering from pain after or during your squats? Since many of us take up squats to combat back pain and knee pain due to sedentary lifestyles, arthritis and inflammatory illnesses, and similar ailments, this problem can become a major impediment to progress–even if the pain remains relatively minor.
To help you rid yourself of your lower back pain and get back to healthy progress in your lifting, let’s figure out why your back hurts and what you can do to minimize or resolve the issue.
Is Back Squat Bad For Your Back?
First, let’s look at the squat itself—are back squats hurting your back because they’re bad for it? There’s a simple answer: No. The standard weighted squat, the back squat, often leads to back pain—but not because the motion itself is bad for your back. In fact, it’s an excellent exercise for building a healthy, sturdy back. The problems arise instead from mistakes in form, pre-existing injuries and ailments, and similar problems.
To fix back pain from back squats, then, you should stop back squats; you should figure out why you’re hurting, and figure out how to do them right.
Types of pain and what they mean
Lingering muscle pain
The most common source of lower back pain after squats isn’t any sort of injury or worrisome ailment—it’s simple muscle soreness. Muscle pain is inevitable with any serious exercise, and it’s going to be particularly intense when you first start. The trick is to understand the difference between normal DOMS (Delayed-onset muscle soreness) and more serious conditions arising from underlying conditions or overstraining your body.
DOMs shouldn’t have you close to tears or wake you up throughout the night, unless you’re particularly sensitive to pain or prone to inflammation. If you experience pain that severe, it may indicate rhabdomyolysis, a condition which can arise after extremely strenuous exercise or in response to unusual circumstances combined with exercise.
Knee pain during squats
If you feel pain in your knees during squats, there are a few potential problems to look at. Underlying medical issues such as arthritis or otherwise damaged joints may be to blame, but you should also be alert to problems of form; it’s very, very easy to injure your knees to a greater or lesser degree if you’re squatting with bad form.
Fortunately, squats are an excellent way to resolve many forms of chronic knee pain. It may be difficult at first, but over time you’ll build up strong musculature around your knees which will greatly reduce the strain on the joint itself.
Sharp pains and tearing pains
Sharp, shooting, and tearing pains during lifts usually mean injury, whether minor or severe. With this type of pain, you want to stop lifting and get to a doctor before you pick up any more weight. Be especially wary of tearing pain, as this sort of pain usually indicates significant muscle damage—even if the area affected seems quite small, that type of damage can spread with additional loading and unloading of the muscle.
A shock-like pain, especially in your back, often tracks back to nerve problems. If it happens once, it may simply be an issue of improper form putting too much weight on the wrong part of your body for a moment. If it becomes a recurring issue, you’ll want to see a doctor and make sure you don’t have a pinched nerve or nerve damage.
Mistakes which can lead to back pain
At the moment you begin lifting for a squat, you want to maintain a strong core and tension across the muscles engaged in the lift. This ensures consistent good form and stability through the lift. When you fail to maintain this level of tension and lift ‘loosely’, you often waver and shift through the major movement of the exercise. This can put huge amounts of pressure on your back, resulting in back pain over time—if you’re lucky. You risk serious injury if you’re unlucky, as unstable movements can result in unusual force on your back.
Asymmetry on your squat can lead to quite a number of problems. You risk placing excessive repetitive pressure on certain parts of your back and greatly increase the risk of losing control of the lift and seriously injuring yourself.
Asymmetry arises in two noteworthy ways in squats:
- One, placing the bar in an asymmetrical way from the start. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed across both sides of the bar and that you have the center of the bar over the center of your shoulders.
- Two, lifting asymmetrically. This happens when you drive up harder and/or faster with one side than the other, causing the bar to become unbalanced on the way up. This can place a lot of torque on your back if something goes wrong, and isn’t healthy even if you maintain control.
If your back hurts, you may not think to look at your feet—but it’s a common source of the pain, whether you’re looking at squats or any other aspect of life. Shoes with an improper arch alone can lead to back pain just from walking around, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that lifting in the wrong shoes or with your feet placed improperly can lead to back pain over time.
Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground throughout your squat, with most of your weight resting on your heels instead of your toes. This can feel somewhat counter-intuitive and difficult to balance, but it’s very important.
Allowing your knees to wobble inward or outward through a lift or overextend past your toes isn’t just a problem for your knees, it can cause you to overcompensate and wobble the weight throughout your lift—leading to back pain. Generally speaking, your knees should be aligned with your feed and shouldn’t go out past your toes if you’re squatting correctly. You lower into a squat as if you were sitting on an invisible chair, not by bending your knees to the limit.
Curving your back
Your back needs to be straight throughout your squat—not straight like a ruler, of course, but the healthy S-curve of good posture. Think of the shape your back forms when you sit in a chair with good lumbar support; that’s the way your back should be throughout the entire squat. If you’re curving your back by hunching your shoulders forward or rounding your lower back by leaning forward, you’re going to have back problems sooner or later.
Your back should be rock solid and stable throughout a squat. If it isn’t, there’s a problem with your form that you need to fix as soon as possible. It doesn’t take a lot of motion in your back when you’re carrying significant weight to lead to problems.
Relieving back pain and soreness from squats
Regardless of why exactly your back hurts after squats, there are certain steps you can take to ensure minimal pain moving forward. These are steps you should be taking no matter the source of your pain, be it temporary muscle soreness, acute injury, or pain from some other condition.
Maintain proper form
Poor form will destroy your back even if you’re in excellent shape and lifting very light weights. There are any number of ways you can end up with poor form, even if you’ve taken the time to learn proper squatting form under the guidance of an experienced lifter; lifting while tired, lifting without paying attention, trying to force yourself to heavier weights too soon, wearing the wrong clothes, the list goes on.
There is a proper form to any squat, and that form exists for a reason—don’t deviate from it without checking with someone highly experienced in lifting.
Sleep plays a vital role in allowing you to recover from the damage you receive from normal exercise. If you’re not getting enough sleep, or the sleep quality isn’t sufficient, you won’t be able to fully recover from the soreness of squats before the next time you hit the gym. Push too hard, and it won’t just be back pain that you’re dealing with—you’ll face mood swings, depression, anxiety, frequent illness and injury, and any number of other problems. Exercise is only a positive when paired with appropriate recovery.
You need proper nutrients to recover from back pain, whether it’s the acute pain of an injury or the residual soreness inherent to regular exercise. That means getting plenty of protein from a variety of sources, getting your daily recommended vitamins, and getting enough fat and carbs to keep you healthily fueled through your exercise and normal living.
Deep tissue massage
A deep tissue massage accelerates recovery of your muscles after a workout, which makes it an excellent step to take against the pain of squats. A professional deep tissue massage is great, but not necessary—something as simple as kneading a tennis ball into your muscles after each workout can work wonders for your recovery time. Even when facing injuries rather than simple muscle soreness, deep tissue massages can encourage more rapid recovery.
Anti-inflammatory foods and medicines
There are plenty of compounds one can ingest to reduce inflammation in the body, the leading cause of pain in the back or anywhere else. The simplest solution may be to take standard over the counter Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, but if you’re worried about side effects or the cost you can also eat anti-inflammatory foods such as beet root juice, turmeric, or ginger.
Complete exercise regimen
Often, back pain stems from abnormal strain on certain parts of your back, which in turn occurs when you’re physically capable of squatting a certain amount of weight but lack the musculature throughout your body to do so safely. Make sure you’re completing a complete exercise regimen that develops all of your muscles using compound lifts such as deadlifts, or this will be a recurring source of pain and problems.
To some degree, back pain after squats is inevitable if you’re a beginner or have recently increased your weight. Recovery from muscle soreness should be quick and easy, especially if you’re resting properly and eating right. More significant sources of pain usually come down to problems with form; don’t get lazy with your lifts and you’ll be just fine.