For some (including me) you can cross all your t’s and dot all of your i’s when it comes to your squat form but what if your still experiencing back pain when you squat?. What do you do? Stop squatting? I want to cover a practical approach to training your lower body when dealing with back pain. Feel free to consider all of these different options but only choose what fits you best and doesn’t cause any more pain then you are already in.

Earlier in the week we covered in detail the proper approach and form when it comes to squatting with weight on your back. If you missed it you definitely want to check it out before moving on!


My journey with training legs during the recovery process I have been going through has been both depressing and extremely rewarding at the same time. I have been through different variations of squatting to doing absolutely nothing at all in hopes that my back would stop hurting. Through all the pain and research I have done I have been able to come up with a simple plan to challenging the legs while recovery remains the number one thing. Always remember, if it hurts STOP DOING IT. Low back pain is not something you fight through in hopes that freedom is at the other end. It’s the opposite, you want to avoid the “Pain Mechanisms”.

The specific exercises that you will be able to do will depend on the cause or “pain mechanism” you are experiencing. If you do nothing else, study, test and retest what positions cause you the most pain when it comes to exercise.  The importance of learning your pain mechanisms is that it will allow you to rule out certain exercises from your program. Your goal with this is to recreate the positions that hurt you and stay away from those all together until further notice.

For example, even with close to perfect form my back always takes a hit when I do loaded back squats. I relate that directly to the damage I have along with the lack of core stability and endurance. So what I had to do was experiment with different unloaded exercises and see how my back reacted (I’ll give you a detailed exercise list later down the page). I started working on single leg also referred to as “unilateral” work and started to find relief. After a series of single leg exercises, I was able to narrow down my list even more with exercises that I was able to do pain free. The end result was a short master list of exercises that both challenged my legs and challenged my progress with core training.

Training the legs to preserve the back:

If squats are doing you in, it’s time to start looking at other options until you are able to bring your form and core endurance to a level to support the demands you’er putting on it.

Your next step is to apply your pain mechanisms that you have discovered with other leg based exercises such as reverse lunges, rear foot elevated lunge, pistol squats, well squats and front squats. Out of these exercises You want to see which one causes more pain and which ones you can do with zero pain. The exercises that cause irritation while performing them need to be noted and thrown out until further notice.

Side note about psychology and training…

I think for me the hardest part about it was having to swallow the fact that I may never be able to do loaded squats again. This may not be the case for you but you have to take all potential outcomes into consideration. Why are you training the way you do? Do you want to be able to lift your kid from their crib pain free or is your main focus hitting personal records on squats? These two people may have the same pain mechanisms but their reason for training could be totally different. I would never suggest the mom or dad just trying to be able to pick up their children pain free to find a way to work in loaded squats. Heck no, if they are getting a workout hitting reverse lunges and pistol squats then stay there! It all depends on priorities. You can strengthen and tone your legs without doing loaded squats! With that in mind, if squats are killing your back then stop! Don’t keep doing it because your workout partner does it or thats what the other people in the gym are doing. Get away from that way of thinking. Your in the business of rebuilding your back not impressing anyone.


What exercises should I start with?

1) The first set of exercise would be single leg work such as single leg leg press, single leg curls and extensions. Training only one leg at a time allows for less of a force being applied to the lower back and hips.

2) The second set of exercises would be lunge variations. The two most common to me are the reverse lunge and rear foot elevated lunge.

Reverse lunge: I prefer people do reverse lunges over forward lunges do to the amount of force going through the knees with forward lunges. You have better control and less of a risk of injuring yourself doing the reverse lunge.

Rear Foot Elevated Lunge or Split Squat: I have a love hate relationship with this exercise. World renown back pain specialist Dr. Stuart McGill says that these can cause low back and si joint pain. From further research I have also found positive influencers in the fitness industry supporting the opposite. For example of this you can check out Michael Boyles short article on his experience with using rear foot elevated lunges on his clients.

My personal experience with this is having an elevated level of pain after the exercise. I believe it is from the angle that it puts on my hip and lower back that causes the irritation to the damaged area. This could be from poor form on my end or having extension as one of my pain mechanisms. Either way this is MY experience with them. I would suggest you find out for yourself!

3) The third group would be alternate squat variations such as what I call Well Squats and Front Squats:

Well Squats: I call them well squats because I imagine myself standing on the top ring of a well while I dangle a weight between my legs as I lower myself into the “well”. Watch your depth and practice on engaging the entire core with these. Increase the weight when you think you can handle it. Refer to How to squat for specifics on form

Front Squats:  These are awesome and I rarely experience any pain while doing these. Key thing is to stay away from the butt wink!


4) Lastly I would work on body weight exercises: My go to exercises are the pistol squat and skater squat. 

Pistol Squat: Use the beginner levels of the pistol squat to work on proper core focus.

Skater Squat: Start slow and focus on a neutral spine and a tight core!


Remember guys, you need to take these exercises and try them out for yourself. Chew up the meat and spit out the bones. Not every exercises listed here will work for you. The most important thing to do is only do what DOESN’T cause you more pain.

Thanks for reading and be sure to share it with anyone you know trying to work through back pain!



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