Are Squats Hurting Your Back?

proper squat formSquatting exercises have long been touted as the magic behind everything from total body fitness to weight loss. Basically, squatting exercises involve bending at the waist and bending your knees, with or without additional weight. Trainers everywhere inject squats and squat combinations into exercise routines for their clients often. But are squatting exercises doing more harm that good?

The answer lies in your understanding of how squats work and how much attention you pay to form and exercise patterns. Here’s a short list of things to consider that can reduce your likelihood of injury from poorly executed squats.

Know how a squat works

Muscles involved in a squat are primarily located in your lower back, hip and legs. The gluteus maximus muscle is the prime mover of hip extension. If your glutes are weak, you’ll tend to tip forward while you squat. your abdominal muscles will attempt to compensate and you will likely hurt your back.

The prime movers in hip flexion are upper leg muscles called rector femoris and sartorius helped along by the iliopsoas muscle. When your form is off, these muscles compensate and throw off muscle patterns, which can also lead to back and hip problems.

In general, bad form can lead to exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt and difficulty activating posterior hip muscles. So you’ll be left with poor posture and lower back pain. Not so good, right? Good news is that is you warm up properly and watch your form, these things are less likely to happen.

Always warm up

Even before you squat, you should ready your muscles for doing the work of squatting. That means warming up your glutes and leg muscles. Stretching can help. You can also use exercise, like glute bridges and fire hydrants to prep the muscle groups. The key is to warm your glutes (butt muscles) and upper leg muscles (like your hamstrings) so they are ready to take on the weight of the squat.

Watch your form and body mechanics

The proper way to perform a squat is to stand with your feet shoulder width apart with your toes pointed forward (slight outward point is OK, too). Keep your back in a neutral position and knees centered over your feet. SLOWLY bend your knees until you reach a 90-degree angle, creating in, then return to your starting position, breathing out as you rise.

Many trainers recommend a “hip-hinge” pattern. That means starting your descent by pushing your hips back rather than knees forward. This pattern focuses the exertion on hamstrings and glutes and will force your knees out to open up your stance.

Pay attention to how deeply you squat as well. If you have significant past or present injuries, like ACL tears or femoral acetabular impingement, for example, go light on your squats. Otherwise, squat deeply.

Try a box squat (squatting to literally sit briefly on a correctly positioned box) will help you know the proper depth and keep your squat focused on a hip-hinge pattern. A good box is usually about 14 inches tall. When you sit on the box, your butt should be slightly below your knees. If you can squat without shoes, that can help too. Ask a trainer at your gym to help you set up the first time.

Overdo it and you will get hurt

If you experience lower back pain, even a little, after squats you should immediate do two things: lower your weights, and focus on the downward (eccentric) portion of the squat, thinking about your body mechanics along the way. There is a difference between pushing muscles to the limit and experiencing pain. Know your limits and do not be too quick to push them. In your later years, you will be thankful you stuck to that rule.

Always squat without extra weight until you master the correct form. Add weight carefully and slowly over time to increase muscle strength.

So the bottom line is that squats are one of the best exercises you can do for your core, to improve balance, and to work your leg muscles. Being thoughtful and knowing how the exercise works can help prevent injury and make your workouts more effective.

Sources:

  • Manual of Structural Kinesiology; Clem W. Thompson
  • Fundamentals of Anatomy and Movement; Carla Z. Hinkle
  • ACSM’s Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 5th edition; Leonard A. Kaminsky