I have spent a lot of time on the anatomy of back pain and the foundation of treating it on a basic level. I wanted to take some time and focus on the training aspect and dial in on some potential reasons your experiencing back pain during specific movements. The information is for ANYONE looking to improve basic body mechanics used in the squat. Squatting is one of the best exercises for the bodies as long as it is done within the limits of your anatomical structure.
Like I always say, be sure to check with your physician before attempting any exercise, especially if your experiencing back pain.
So you love to squat but you keep getting this terrible pain in your lower back when you do. Or maybe it’s not while your lifting but for days after your experiencing this annoying pain in your lower back that you cant seem to shake. It’s actually pretty common and most people just train through it. That’s definitely not what I would suggest you do. Instead, lets get to the nuts and bolts of the squat. I am going to give you some of the best coaching ques used by some of the best squatters in the world!
Great example of a bad squat position (left) Vs Good squats position (right)
There is a lot that goes into squatting technique but there are some non negotiable that you have to check off every time you get under the bar. If you know your lower back is in pain and squatting is going to aggravate the pain further, then slowing the process down is definitely a must. It might be worth considering a safety squat bar for your first few exercises. This will support your lower back as your upper back will take some of the strain due to the supporting bars. After you have built the muscle up, you can be gin to consider removing the safety bar.
Getting Under the Bar
A lot of squatters make the mistake of getting everything tight and in check right before they drop into their first squat. That’s the exact opposite of what you want to do. All the magic happens before you even lift the bar. When squatting, you want to approach the bar with every muscle in your body as tight as possible. DON’T step under the bar with one foot, set up under the bar, lift and walk out. You want to place both feet under the bar with your body as stiff as a board. When you go to lift the weight off the rack your feet are firmly planted on the floor as evenly as possible.
Before you lift you want your feet planted and screwed into the ground creating tension from the feet up. When the bar is on your back you want to be gripping the bar with both hands as close to your shoulders as possible while “hypothetically speaking” trying to bend the bar over your shoulders. This insures tightness in your upper body and helps continue to maintain a stiff body. Think about tearing the floor apart with your feet on both the decent and upward movement.
Best stance to have
It depends. Really, it does. It all depends on how tall you are. In the powerlifting world it’s measured on length of femur but at the end of the day it’s a basic rule of thumb. Tall people (longer legs shorter torso) squat better with a wider stance while shorter people can get more muscle activation and control from a more narrower squat. So don’t just squat the way your buddy does. You always want to feel what works for you best. You don’t have to be a power lifter to have a wide stance, go off of how the position feels. Odds are your not trying to break any records so what matters most is that you can continue to workout for years to come.
As far as your feet, this is another trial and error situation. For starters you want to take a slight “toes turned out” approach. What your really looking for is the heel drive out of the bottom of the squat. If one foot position holds you back from having good muscle control with the heel drive then adjust accordingly. Once you find your sweet spot don’t change it up!
The Lift and the Rack
Once you have your body locked in under the bar and you have lifted the weight off the rack and stepped out, this is where the mental check list is looked over before the descent.
- Head is not looking straight up or straight down but rather fixed on the top of the mirror in front of you or where the wall meets the ceiling (depending on how far away you are from the wall)
- Your elbows are locked in the down position and your entire upper body is stiff and contracted.
- Before your descent be sure your entire body is locked in tight, take a deep breath and hold it during the entire motion.
- You always want to lead with your butt. So many people descend knees first which is terrible. Sit BACK on your heals and allow your hips and butt to be the first move.
- Once the weight is back at the top step forward and rack the weight.
Things to consider:
If you’re currently experiencing back pain. I would suggest you focus more on rehabbing then squatting. It’s not worth it for guys like you and me to trash our backs just to say we hit leg day. Repair your body first before moving on to any kind of spinal loading.
All of these ques may be new to you and seem confusing when your trying to do them under the bar. I always suggest starting with an empty bar and do reps until each key part is like second nature. Your not trying to break any records here your just trying to squat without setting yourself up for damage down the road.
Stay away from Smith Machines when trying to learn proper technique, the fixed bar doesn’t allow the bar to travel naturally with your body. At the bottom position, the fixed bar forces you into an unnatural position causing strain to the lower back.
The specific ques in this article take time to master when it comes to it being a consistent habit. If you have covered all of these steps and still are experiencing pain then I would consider reevaluating your training protocol and putting more of an emphasis on core training until you see improvement.
Best way to train your core:
How low should I squat and what about butt wink?
This was never really something I argued about. I have always been a firm believer in listening to YOUR OWN body. When it comes to squat depth, I would work up to the point where you feel comfortable going to at least parallel to the ground. You may have heard of the phrase “butt wink”, this is just when at the lowest part of your range of motion your lower back begins to tuck under due to lack of ROM along with being at the end range of your body anatomy. Since your probably in the process of working through back pain I would suggest you stay far away from the butt wink. Dr. Stuart McGill talks about finding your ideal depth in the video you see below. If you have any kind of squatting in your program you need to watch this video!
When ti comes to addressing your own squat form, the best thing you can do is video tape yourself squatting and critique your form from there. If you ever have any questions or would like me to look at your squat form you can email the video to Fitness4BackPain@gmail.com
If you are a heavy lifter and would like more information about powerlifting technique visit Brian Carroll over at www.powerrackstrength.com.
Talk to you soon!