Lower Back Pain During Squats (Fix Muscular Imbalances)

By Ire | Lifting Tips

Mar 31

Are you frustrated because your low back pain is limiting you from squatting heavy? Lower back pain during squats is a common problem many lifters face. In fact, I have been one of them for many years. I have went to various chiropractors, did my rehab and nothing helped. Rest, ice, compress and elevate (RICE) has been as useful as putting balls on a dildo. No matter how much I focused on perfecting my squat technique, my back would gave up once I went heavier.

All that wasted time, until I discovered that back pain is caused due to pelvis rotation. Pelvis is a bony structure that makes up your hips.

Gray241

Muscular imbalances can rotate pelvis in many ways, therefore back pain treatment is not always going to be the same. In fact, sometimes treatments will be exactly opposite from each other.

SPINE ANATOMY

Illu vertebral column

Let’s first look at anatomy of our body. Human spine consists of 33 vertebrates.  (7 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacrum and 4 coccyx).

Based on the type of tissue, vertebrates are considered to be bony structure.
In between two vertebrates we have
inter-vertebral discs which act as shock absorbers. They are softer and prevent vertebrates from rubbing against each other. They also serve to protect the nerves running down the middle of the spine.

716 Intervertebral Disk

Bulged discs in lower back

If one of those disc slip a from the center in between to vertebrae we call it a bulging disc. In reality, if we took an MRI of everybody’s spine, we would see that majority of us have a bulging disc. Most of individuals never put enough stress on it to really experience severe symptoms. You, however are trying to squat heavy and do not belong in that population. Therefore, if you want to continue to squat you need to identify in what direction your disc is bulged, why is it like that and how to correct it.

Many doctors are too quick to suggest surgery when it comes to back pain. Lets take a step back and try to fix the issue naturally. Surgery can only delay the process and make it way worse on a long term.

TECHNIQUE

Squat technique:

This article is NOT a technique guide on how to squat properly. Having a correct squatting technique should be obvious when preventing lower back pain during squatting. Therefore, I assume you already checked that point off. If you want to go through your squatting technique I recommend you to see Alan Thrall’s video on how to Squat correctly.

Breathing:

Before we get into muscular imbalances, I want to talk to you about most often forgotten squatting point. Creating enough intraabdominal tension is extremely important if you are experiencing lower back pain during squats. Learning how to properly breath is just as important as your stance and not rounding your back. Read here on how to create intraabdominal pressure during squats.

Butt Wing:

When squatting low (ASS TO GRASS), it is impossible to keep your back straight in the last 10%. Rounding of the low back in the lowest part of squat is called Butt Wing. While some people have been getting away with butt with for years of heavy squatting, it should be avoided for everyone struggling with back pain! Eliminate butt wing by stopping the squat before your back rounds and work your way up.

What butt wing really allows is for you to bounce of your thighs, allowing the momentum to propel you up. That way you can squat more weight, however you are not working on building more strength. Being strong and stable in the position before “butt wing” is going to be crucial to avoid low back issues.

MUSCULAR IMBALANCES:

Every muscle has an opposite muscle which does exactly reverse. They have an agonist-antagonist relationship. When one of them is flexed the other one has to relax. When you flex your biceps, your triceps has to relax in order to do so, and vice-versa. They have an agonist-antiagonist relationship.

When it comes to back pain, it all has to with rotation of the pelvis. So lets look at the muscle groups and their relationship around it.

ABDOMINALS-LOWER BACK
GLUTES-HIP FLEXOR  

Lower back pain during squats. Well balanced agonist-antagonist does not move the disc out of place. That is because pelvis does not rotate.

Ideally, both of those pairs should be equal is strength and size. When that is the case, our discs stay in place and never bulge out and press on nerves around the spine which causes pain. Therefore, pelvis also stays in place, like showed in the picture above (obviously I am a personal trainer and not a sketch artist so excuse my lack of artsy-ness)

The problem arises when one of those pairs gets extra attention versus the other one (muscular imbalance). That causes our pelvis to rotate and our disc to start moving.

We have two basic postures which cause low back pain and bulging discs. Understanding what way the disc bulges and working on reversing the process, we can actually start moving it back into place.

  • LORDOSIS
  • KYPHOSIS

LORDOSIS (Anterior Pelvic Tilt)

Abnormally increased inward curvature of the lower region of the spine resulting in a concave back as viewed from the side. You can see on the picture that the hip rotates forward, which causes Anterior Pelvic Tilt. Therefore, lordosis causes anterior bulge, which can later result in herniated (slipped) disc.

Lordosis or anterior pelvic tilt causes anterior bulge

In order to reverse the process, we do not need to rush to surgeons table. Assuming that the posture is not structural, you should take a look on the muscular level. What muscles are causing this posture and how to reverse this issue?

We see that Lordosis person is suffering from tight low back and hip flexors. Therefore, working on strengthening low back is going to do more harm than good for that person. What is more, individuals with lordosis suffer from weak abdominals and glutes and hamstring. Therefore, in order to put the pelvis back into its regular position (and therefore release the pressure on the disc), we need to strengthen weak muscle and stretch tight ones.

Lordosis Strengthening Exercises

1. Glute Medius:

Glute medius is one of the most ignored muscles in the human body. And yet, it plays a massive role when it comes to back pain. When it isn’t working, lower back has to over-compensate for it.

  • Sided Wall Pelvis Pushes
  • Side Lying Abduction
  • Pelvic Drop
  • Side Bridge

2. Glutes Maximus:

  • Single Leg Deadlifts
  • Single Leg Squats

3. Abdominals:

It is important to do exercises that do not activate hip flexors. For example, sit ups are more of an hip flexor exercise than abdominals. That will only tighten up flexors even more. Therefore, stabilization exercises are recommended here.

4. Hamstring

Hamstring cramping while performing these exercises are usually a big sign of hamstring weakness. Glute weakness ties closely to hamstring weakness as well.

  • One-legged bridges
  • Hamstring curls

Lordosis stretching

1. Lower Back:

  • Childs pose
  • Head to Knee
  • Deep squat stretch

2. Hip Flexors:

  • Spiderman stretch
  • Table Stretch

KYPHOSIS (Posterior Pelvic Tilt)

Exaggerated outward curvature of the thoracic region of the spine resulting in a more rounded upper back with butt tucked under. As a result, pelvis tilts backwards. That causes posterior bulge, which can later result in herniated disc.

Kyphosis or posterior pelvic tilt causes posterior bulge

Kyphosis Strengthening Exercises

1. Lower Back:

  • Hyperextension
  • Superman Exercise

2. Hip Flexor:

  • Seated Leg Lifts
  • Knee Marches

Kyphosis Stretching

1. Hamstring:

  • Lying hamstring stretch
  • Step Foward Stretch

2. Glutes:

  • Seated Glute Stretch
  • Lying Glute Stretch

3. Abdominals:

  • Cobra Stretch
  • Abdominal Twist

Identifying your posture

In order to identify whether you belong in Kyphosis or Lordosis group, you should really take an honest look in the mirror. This time, focus on your entire body and not just potential pimples on your face.

  • Do you look more like a teenage girl, sticking her butt out when taking a mirror selfie? You my friend would have to do exercises to correct your Lordosis.
  • Do you look more like a pink panther? Your butt is kinda tucked into your body. Work on Kyphosis.

I recommend having a good physical therapist or if you have a well educated Personal trainer to take a closer look at that matter. After various of assessments they should be able to determinate whether you are more of a teenage selfie girl or a pink panther.

Specific warm up

Your warm up should be specific toward your muscular imbalances. Muscular imbalances happen because our brain creates more neural connection with some muscle groups and less with the others. In fact, if you aren’t using some muscles as much, why would your brain bother to keep in contact with it?

In warm ups, we should be working on activating muscle groups in order to build more connections. Work on strengthening exercises specific for your posture. After you build connection with those group (like bodybuilders would say: FEEL THE BURN), you are free to go into your main part of the workout. Only then will the weak muscles actually assist with the workout. Only then will you give some break so usually over-worked muscles.

Specific stretching

Not only stretch because Instagram fitness guru said it is good for you. Static stretching is important, however make sure to give big priority to the muscle groups that over-worked.

Work on breathing deep during static stretching in order to really relax the muscle tension. Holding the position for 30 seconds with your face looking like a hungry tiger is not really stretching anything. Instead, take 10 deep breaths during a position, going further during every exhale. Breathe into a stretch (Yoga gurus will agree).

Lower back Pain During Squats: Should You Stop Squatting?

The worst thing lifters do when they feel back pain during squats is to leave the gym and “rest their back” for the next week or two. Feeling depress and demotivated diet goes to shit just as fast.

In fact, what you should really do is take the weight off the bar and only do air squats for the day. Going through the motions might seem like a waste of time, however it is crucial for oxygen flow through damaged tissue. That way your body will heal way faster and you will be back to squatting heavy way quicker. Even if you feel some pain, do not shy away from air squats. Remember that you are not made out of paper, therefore your body will not break just doing that. You will be surprised to found out how much quicker you will feel better.

Summary:

Lower back pain during squats is extremely common and often misunderstood. I have so many clients who’s back hasn’t been getting better just because they have been told to do back strengthening for lower back pain. Taking a deeper look into the root of the problem proved to be their path out of lower back pain.

First step of solving your problem is to understand the anatomy of the spine. How discs can move within your spine and what causes that. Only then you should work on correcting the issue.

While I talk about muscular imbalances in the back, it is important to note that this is just scraping the surface. There are much more we can focus on regarding shoulder, knees, ankles…. That is why I recommend you to get professional to take a look at your body and identify what you should stretch/strengthen. Always be extra careful when selecting this “professional”.

Working on fixing muscular imbalances is not an overnight process. That is why my client focus at least 5 minutes within every warm up in order to activate right muscle groups. What is more they spend at least 5 minutes stretching overactive muscle groups at the end of each workout. That means that they work on it at least 3 times a week, which in my opinion is minimum. Muscular imbalances are caused by being in same position for prolonged period of time. For example, sitting for 8 hours each day. That is why working on reversing it has to be worked on consistently.

Next time you feel lower back pain during squats do not panic. Take the weight off the bar and work on going through the motions. Finish the workout by working on your muscular imbalances instead. Come back the next time and substitute squat with some other leg exercise that doesn’t mess with your back. Always work on by going through the motions of the squat. Once your back feels better, progressively start adding more weight on the bar.

Besides that, never forget to LIFT, EAT, SLEEP, REPEAT!

About the Author

Hey, my name is Ire.I am a Personal Trainer/ Strength Coach based in Stockholm, Sweden.When you don't find me in the gym, I will most likely be on a Track and Field stadium throwing around a discus.

>