Try finding a Squatter who has never experienced lower back pain at least once during his Squatting career. There was a time where I had to stop doing Squats completely for several months because I couldn't do them painlessly anymore - too much sitting was my culprit. Maybe that sounds familiar to you.
Fast forward today and I'm not only 100% free of lower back pain, I also Squat 400lb raw at 165lb bw. From my personal and coaching experience, here are 5 reasons why Squats might kill your lower back, and what to do about it.
1. The Bar Is Too High. When you Squat high bar don't try to sit back like when Squatting low bar. This is a guaranteed way to stress your lower back because the barbell is too far away from your body's center of gravity. Either Squat high bar and keep your torso upright, or put the bar lower and sit back.
I am NOT against high bar Olympic Squats, but when you're doing StrongLifts 5x5 I recommend you to Squat low bar because that gives you much better leverage (you'll lift more weight, and thus gain more muscle/lose more fat)
2. You're Squatting Too Deep. First, you can not Squat "ass-to-grass" low bar or your lower back will round at the bottom - you need the high bar position for that. Next, if you're going to Squat rock bottom with the high bar position, then make sure you're flexible enough for that otherwise your lower back will round at the bottom, and this will hurt once you're Squatting weights heavy enough.
The fact is that most guys do not have the hip flexibility to Squat "ass-to-grass" because they're too sedentary (not your fault, I'm also a desk jockey). That's why I advise you to Squat low bar and stop when you hit parallel. It's safe on your knees, safer on your lower back, and you'll Squat more weight.
3. You're Not Staying Tight. So you're not Squatting too deep, but your lower back is still rounding at the bottom, now what? Well make sure you're not losing tension in the bottom of the Squat. Here's how to stay tight:
- Tilt your tailbone back - Squat down by sitting back with your hips, and keep your lower back tight by pushing your tailbone towards to ceiling.
- Pinch your psoas - this will automatically pull your lower back straight, pinch the muscle between your belly and your upper-thighs.
- Tighten your upper-back - you can't keep your lower back tight if your upper-back is loose. Lift your chest and keep your shoulder-blades tight.
Be warned, this position will not feel that comfortable if your hips are all tight from sitting a lot. Just keep practicing, you'll quickly improve if you stick with it.
4. You're Not Using Your Glutes. If you're a desk jockey like me, you'll tend to Squat with your lower back too arched. But hyperextending your lower back is as bad as rounding it at the bottom. One trick to keep your lower back neutral is to engage your glutes when you Squat. Here's how:
- Push your knees out - make sure your stance is at least shoulder-width and then rotate your hips outwards as you Squat.
- Grab the floor with your feet - this creates a hollow in your feet and allows you to push your knees out better (wear the right shoes).
- Stand tall - finish the lockout portion of all your Squats by moving your hips forward and contracting your glutes hard.
5. You're Not Using Your Abs. Never Squat with your belly pulled in to activate your TVA like some of those idiot personal trainers will tell you to do. This is a guaranteed way to suffer a hernia because your lower back will round.
You should always take a big breath before you Squat, fill your belly with air, and then push your abs out. This increases pressure in your belly, adds support to your lower back, and will automatically boost your Squat.
One trick to learn how to use your abs correctly is to wear a powerlifting belt when you Squat. Wear it one notch loose, pull air into your belly and then Squat while pushing your abs against the belt. I own the Inzer Forever Belt 10mm single prong and highly recommend it (no affiliate link, not paid to say this).
It should be clear that if your lower back hurts on Squats, it is almost always a problem of technique, not of the exercise. Don't be one of those Squats-hurt-my-back-whiners. Tape yourself, fix your technique and pass on the word.