Lower back pain during squatting is very common among gym rats, and as anyone who has ever experienced it knows, it’s bloody annoying. You go into the gym hyped up because you’re on course to set your squat PR.. and you end up having to cut your workout short because your lower back is screaming in pain every time you get to the bottom of the movement. Sure, there will be times where you need to just man up and accept some discomfort during your max effort set, but if you’re experiencing pain throughout a movement, trying to work through it is generally a bad idea. You’re better off fixing the problem completely – remember the old adage ‘prevention is better than cure.’
Most people live sedentary lives – drive to work in the morning, sit at a desk for 8 hours, drive home, flop on the couch for 5 hours (usually eating hot garbage for dinner), take a dump, then go to bed. Rinse and repeat. The end result is a stiff, immobile, tight body. The main areas affected are usually the hip flexors and lower back (lumbar spine).
Today I’m going to write mainly about the lower back issue and how I eventually solved it. My lower back is pretty much pain-free today, and my squat is consistently going up.
BUT – in order to banish lower back pain forever, it isn’t a quick fix – you need to change your lifestyle.
The following is what worked for me – do this ASAP.
1) Hold the squat position every day for 30 seconds or more. Every day in the morning I’d get into the ATG (ass-to-grass) squat position and just sit into it for as long as I could. Although this is not completely relevant in lower back pain, it ended up helping tremendously.
I used it to stretch out my hip flexors (which have always been a tight spot for me) – remember that your body is a chain system, so tight muscles in one area will affect the muscles of another. I’d focus on keeping my back upright as I could, and pushing my knees out with my arms.
2) MOVE! Moving around is just about the best tonic for lower back and other types of muscle pain. If you’re a sloth and don’t move all day, your muscles are in a constant state of contraction, and they will lock up and get tight. Kelly Starrett, in his fantastic book ‘Becoming A Supple Leopard‘ addresses the issue of sitting and believes that it robs athletes of their athletic potential – I absolutely agree.
If you must sit for long periods of time, make sure you get up and walk around at least every 20 minutes or so.
3) Stop slouching while you sit. This was a major one for me, and I’d go as far to say that sitting up properly in my chair has made the most difference in my lower back pain. I even adjusted my car seat to a straight up, rigid position, instead of all leaned back like I’m Shaft or something. Make a conscious effort to sit upright with your bum touching the backrest.
4) Switch to front squats for a little while. Front squats, due to the position of the bar, take a little pressure off your lumbar spine compared to back squats. Rather than a forward lean, front squats force you to keep your torso more upright. Don’t be afraid to swap them out for a few weeks as you start implementing all the above changes into your lifestyle.
Back pain aside, front squats are great anyway. They’re a brilliant squat variation and I personally rotate them in every other week. They will work the quads a bit harder then back squats, and for me this has translated into more powerful acceleration on the football pitch (the quads are heavily involved in the early phase of sprinting).
It may take a little bit of work to get your wrists flexible enough, but it is a price worth paying. (Don’t do them in the bodybuilder style – your torso won’t stay as upright which means the bar has more chance of falling forward)
4) Strengthen the lower back with deadlifts, RDLs and good mornings. If you’re serious about becoming stronger and more athletic then you are most likely already doing heavy deadlifts, but you should also include some assistance work in the form of Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) and good mornings.
The latter in particular is brutal if done correctly, and will really build up the spinal erectors, glutes, and hamstrings. RDLs and good mornings are superb exercises in improving your speed due to how they work the posterior chain. Make sure you really explode on the upwards portion of these lifts.
5) Do your mobility and warm-up work. You need to start breaking up the tight, scarred tissue that is causing you the pain. I roll on a lacrosse ball to work my lower back and glutes, which is torture. It gets easier over time though, a sign that you are really softening up the chronically-tense muscle tissue. Purchase a lacrosse ball now – it is absolutely worth it!
Not only will proper mobility and rehab work protect you against injuries, it will also improve all aspects of your athletic performance. Dr Kelly Starret’s book ‘Becoming A Supple Leopard’ has done wonders for my performance in and out of the gym – it is a must read for any serious lifter, athlete or coach, and I have a full review on this book coming up very shortly.
It also goes without saying that you should make sure you do a thorough dynamic warm-up before any jumping , lifting, or sprinting. You’ll be surprised at how a short 10 minute warm up can open up your range of movement.
Hope this helps, and if you have any comments/ideas that worked for you, please let me know below.