Workout Tips

How to Squat Heavy Without Back Pain

Make these small tweaks to build muscle without the pain.

Barbell Front Squat
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“I can’t squat with high weights due to a heavy pain in my lower back (yes, I already train my lower back). How can I prevent this from happening?”
—Ben Pepe

If you’re training your lower back and making it stronger, but there is still pain when you squat, then it might not be a weakness issue.  Most times when you squat, pain comes from trying to force your body into positions it’s not ready for. Putting a weighted barbell on your back will make it easier to get lower in the squat, but this isn’t always a good thing.

To stay in a good position when you squat, your upper back, hips, and ankles require a certain range of motion dependent upon the length of your torso and legs (femur). When any of these joints or joint segments are tight or restricted, forces are transferred to the joints above and below.

For example, if your hips are tight, then it won’t be able to move through the required range of motion.  So the motion that SHOULD occur at the hips, happens at the lower back. Unfortunately, the low back isn’t designed for great degrees of movement (flexion), so it causes irritation and pain. 

I would suggest a couple of things to help improve your position and get you through a full-range squat without pain. 

1) Stay in a safe range of motion 

Only squat through a range of motion where you can keep your entire torso straight. Video yourself from the side and find the range where your hips tuck under or “butt wink”. This will show you your current capabilities. Use box squats—where you squat to a box—to keep your range of motion above your problem range. Use box squats to gain confidence and strength while you work on your hip mobility in-between sets and throughout your workout—make it a priority.

2) Train a full range of motion in a good position  

Use goblet squats—squats where you hold one dumbbell in front of you in a vertical position—to train a full range of motion squat with less weight.  Holding a dumbbell in front of you will engage your core (anterior load) and turn on your lats, which will set a good vertical position of your torso and teach you how to brace your entire torso.  This type of front-loading will also tell your body that you do have the stability you need to move through a fuller range of motion and your mobility will improve.  Because you’re moving through a full squat with extra weight, you will develop more control in this extended range of motion.

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