Squat Hurts Lower Back: 6 Common Reasons Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 4, 2022

One of the most common complaints by exercisers performing the squat is that of lower back pain - a specific symptom with an unfortunately wide array of causes that may make remedying this particular injury difficult.

Fortunately, most cases of lower back pain from performing squats is due to incorrect form and as such may be fixed nearly immediately, though some recovery time and rehabilitation work may be necessary in more severe instances.

Generally, lower back pain from squatting is from improper spinal column alignment and curvature throughout the repetition. This is either a result of poor hip and core mobility or due to incorrect form adherence during the exercise.

Anatomy of the Vertebral Column

Though most exercisers experiencing lower back pain from squats will report that such pain radiates from the posterior side of their waist or upper hips, the spinal column in fact functions as a single unit and as such the location of the pain may actually be quite distant from the specific point of strain along the back.

The spine is separated into three main sections (tailbone notwithstanding), with the highest point being the cervical portion that supports the neck and skull, the thoracic portion that is attached to the thorax, and the lumbar portion which makes up the lower portion of the back and is the main focus of this article.

spine anatomy

The lumbar segment of the spine contains 5 discs that are positioned with a slight curve that distributes resistance more efficiently along the entirety of the spinal column, allowing the exerciser to remain upright despite their bodyweight and any additional stress placed therein.

However, issue arises when the exerciser places a load upon this segment (or other sections) of the spine while it is deviated from its neutral curvature, bending the discs in a manner wherein they cannot fully support each other and thereby resulting in pain and injury.

One should note that not all cases of lower back pain from squatting are related to the spinal column, and it is possible that it is the paraspinal musculature or the muscles surrounding the spine that are injured instead of the spine itself.

Back and Core Muscle Involvement in the Squat

Just as the three segments of the spine may be injured from performance of the squat, so too can the musculature surrounding these segments - with such muscle groups like the internal obliques, erector spinae and latissimus dorsi all being responsible for proper curvature and stabilization of the lower back.

barbell squat back view

Unlike the spinal column however, these back and core muscles may become injured from simple overuse or poor preparatory work, even in cases where the exerciser is adhering to proper form perfectly, as it is these particular muscles that become strained as sets of the squat and similar movements are performed.

For the most part, pain radiating from the lower back in relation to skeletal muscles are due to tears in the tissue of the muscle groups themselves or ligaments connecting to said muscles being pulled - summarily also causing them to tear as well.

Fortunately, injuries of the lower back and core musculature are usually considered to be less serious than spinal column injuries, and as such are not only more likely to heal, but also do so at a far faster rate.

How to Prevent Lower Back Injury From the Squat

Preventing lower back injury is significantly easier and more advisable than simply rehabilitating an injury once it has occured - with prevention of lower back pain simply requiring that the exerciser adhere to correct form, as well as perform adequate preparatory work prior to squatting so as to minimize the risk of such occurrences.

To begin with, the exerciser must ensure that their core is properly braced throughout the entire exercise. This is done by squeezing the abdomen inwards and ensuring that all core musculature is tensed but not overly stiff as each repetition is performed.

If done properly, this should have the added effect of ensuring that the spinal column remains stable in whatever position it is maintained in.

So as to further support this effect, the exerciser must also retain a minor curve in their lumbar spine by pushing the upper portion of the pelvis forward, jutting the buttocks outward and forcing the chest to also extend forward.

One important factor to note is that the exerciser must also avoid curving their spine in excess, as this too can result in lower back injury and pain as the ligaments and muscles in the lower back are strained beyond their intended range of motion.

Other matters that aid in the reduction and prevention of lower back pain and injury are properly stretching prior to beginning an exercise, performing several warm-up sets and various other manners of preparatory work that reinforce and repair the structures of the lower back.

At What Point is Lower Back Pain a Cause for Concern?

Most healthy individuals can recover from minor lower back injuries sustained during the squats exercise in a relatively short amount of time, especially when combined with proper physical rehabilitation methods and a length of time away from resistance exercises.

However, it is when the pain becomes debilitating or if the exerciser begins to experience other symptoms such as numbness and tingling that the lower back pain may require more serious medical attention.

In serious cases of back pain caused by squatting, compressed discs, hernias and even pinched nerves are just a few among the many injuries that display such symptoms - though the majority of individuals need not worry about this, as such injuries are usually caused by excessive amounts of resistance performed with grossly incorrect form.

So long as the exerciser sticks to an appropriate amount of weight and ensures their form is up to par, they need not worry about developing serious acute or chronic injuries from the squat.

1. The Main Cause of Lower Back Pain - Incorrect Form

As one may have guessed, the main cause of lower back pain in most cases is due to incorrect form adherence, wherein the exerciser either willfully ignores correct form or is otherwise unaware that they are breaking proper form throughout the squat.

In such circumstances, it is specifically because of the exerciser failing to retain correct spinal curvature at a neutral curve. This may be easily fixed by ensuring that the exerciser faces their head forward with their chest pushed outwards and their torso at an upright angle, all of which contribute to the correct curvature of the spinal column.

butt wink
Left Butt Wink - Right Correct Form

It should be noted here that maintaining correct spinal curvature (and correct form in general) is dependent on a multitude of factors not simply relating to the spine or lower back itself, requiring that the exerciser maintain total form adherence in order to remedy or prevent back pain when squatting.

Other Factors Contributing to Lower Back Pain When Squatting

Though as a general rule improper form is the first culprit to look at in instances of back pain, certain other factors can also be responsible for such symptoms - or even share the blame, with multiple issues relating to the exerciser and their performance of the squat leading to lower back injury and discomfort.

2. Poor Mobility

Perhaps the second most common reason behind lower back pain after squatting, poor mobility of the hips, lower back, knees and ankles can all lead to the exerciser compensating by breaking away from proper form, as well as resulting in tears of the soft tissue around these inflexible areas as they are un-adapted to extending to such lengths.

The best way to avoid this from occurring is to perform proper preparatory work such as a stretching routine and warm-up prior to squatting, though certain types of reduced mobility are more difficult to fix, such as in the case of old age or a poorly treated injury.

3. Incompatible Biomechanics

Less common than poor form or a lack of mobility, an exerciser’s own unique body proportions and similar biomechanics may lead them to being incompatible with the particular variation of the squat they are performing - thereby causing lower back pain as they contort themselves in a manner that is against their natural movement patterns.

Remedying this issue is somewhat more complicated, as it requires the exerciser to try different variations of the squat and different stances in order to find what is most comfortable for them.

4. Incompatible Bar Placement

The placement of the barbell atop the shoulders or along the upper back may also cause the exerciser to bend improperly, curving the spinal column beyond a neutral angle and causing lower back pain as well.

low bar squat
Low Bar Squat

While deciding between low bar squats and high bar squats is more a matter of personal comfort, placing the bar too low on the back or utilizing a bar placement that the exerciser finds uncomfortable can lead to the lower back developing injuries due to the angle of resistance involved.

high bar squat
High Bar Squat

5. Poor Core Strength

Another factor that may contribute to back pain is the core muscle groups giving out or struggling during the performance of the squat - generally resulting in instability of the entire torso, a higher risk of injury and more instances of muscles tearing in the lower back or other areas.

As core strength is absolutely vital to the performance of the squat with correct form, this particular issue is remedied by either altering the order of exercises within one’s workout session, or by performing direct core isolation exercises that develop the musculature in a manner that reinforces their function during the squat.

6. History of Previous Injury or Weakness

Not as much a factor caused by the performance of the squat as it is a direct reason for lower back pain during the exercise, a history of injuries in the lower back or nearby areas can cause these injuries to be aggravated or even repeated by the direct stress of the squat.

If the exerciser possesses a history of muscular weakness or injury and begins to notice a return of symptoms or acute lower back pain despite no immediately apparent causes, it is best to stop performing the squat movement until they may be assessed by a medical professional.

References:

1. Myer GD, Kushner AM, Brent JL, Schoenfeld BJ, Hugentobler J, Lloyd RS, Vermeil A, Chu DA, Harbin J, McGill SM. The back squat: A proposed assessment of functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Strength Cond J. 2014 Dec 1;36(6):4-27. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000103. PMID: 25506270; PMCID: PMC4262933.

2. Fares MY, Fares J, Salhab HA, Khachfe HH, Bdeir A, Fares Y. Low Back Pain Among Weightlifting Adolescents and Young Adults. Cureus. 2020 Jul 11;12(7):e9127. doi: 10.7759/cureus.9127. PMID: 32789068; PMCID: PMC7417116.

3. Alexander MJ. Biomechanical aspects of lumbar spine injuries in athletes: a review. Can J Appl Sport Sci. 1985 Mar;10(1):1-20. PMID: 4006039.

4. Kritz, Matthew, John B. Cronin and Patria Hume. “The Bodyweight Squat: A Movement Screen for the Squat Pattern.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 31 (2009): 76-85.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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