Lower Back Pain From Squats: Why It's Happening And How To Fix It
By: Zack Mathews, NASM - CPT, CES, PES, & PN-L1
Low back pain from squats is an unfortunate injury that can linger for months and cause you to have to take time off from the gym.
I always tell my clients that the best workout program is one that they can do consistently and doesn’t cause them pain or discomfort. If you’re experiencing low back pain from squatting, that consistently is in jeopardy if you have to take time off.
It’s important to mention you should consult with a doctor about your pain and follow their recommended advice when necessary.
Today you’ll learn why squats are causing your lower back pain, the best stretches for a sore lower back from squats, and the best alternatives you can do while your back heals.
- Why You Have Lower Back Pain From Squats
- Poor technique
- Tight muscles
- Bad exercise selection
- The 5 Best Stretches For A Sore Lower Back From Squats
- Foot elevated hip flexor stretch
- One legged inner thigh stretch
- Rotating 90/90’s
- Pigeon pose
- QL stretch
- 4 Exercise Alternatives To Try If You Have Low Back Pain From Squatting
- Goblet squats
- Split stance squats
- Reverse lunges
- Bulgarian split squats
- Frequently Asked Questions
One of the main reasons why I hear people have low back pain squatting is because of poor form.
A mentor I have in the fitness industry once said “you have to earn the right to have the bar on your back”.
Too many people are rushing to squat with barbells on their back or with heavy dumbbells without knowing how to do a squat properly.
The main technique flaws I see are:
- Overarching the back which deactivates the core muscles and puts excess stress on the low back.
- Squatting too deep where the hips roll underneath and the lower back starts pushing out.
- Not bracing the core before going into a squat.
To perform a proper squat, watch yourself in a mirror and focus on taking a deep breath to fill your stomach with air, keeping your spine neutral, and squatting to an appropriate depth to where your lower back doesn’t round or arch.
Many of the technique issues listed above are due strictly to having certain muscles being too tight.
When a muscle is too tight, other muscles will have to help with the movement and this will cause lower back pain from squats.
The most common tight muscles that need to be stretched to avoid lower back pain from squatting are:
- Hip flexor (upper thigh)
- Adductors (inner thigh)
- Muscles in the hip complex
- QL (lower back muscles)
Bad Exercise Selection
It’s common for people to associate squats with the barbell squat and that is the only leg exercise they should be doing for strength and muscle gains.
That is far from the truth.
The barbell squat is the main squat variation that can cause lower back pain because of the bar creating spinal compression during the exercise.
There are plenty of other squat variations that you’ll learn about below that are better alternatives and won’t put excess stress on your spine.
Foot Elevated Hip Flexor Stretch
Tight hip flexors can attribute to lower back pain so you’ll start with this stretch on the wall.
To really get the most out of it, actively be squeezing your glutes as you hold the stretch.
Hold for 30 - 45 seconds on each side.
One Legged Inner Thigh Stretch
The adductors are the muscles in your inner thigh. To fully lengthen and stretch them, you’ll do one leg at a time.
As you can see in the video, I get deep into the stretch and hold for a few seconds and then come out of the stretch for 2 - 3 seconds before I go back in for another rep. If you want to make this movement more dynamic, perform lateral lunges with your bodyweight.
Hold for 30 - 45 seconds on each leg.
Tight hips are often the main reasons why people experience lower back pain from squatting.
To get your hips moving internally and externally, the 90/90 will take care of that.
There are so many different variations of 90/90’s based on how tight your hips are. If you want to learn other variations, check out my article How To Stretch Your Hips To Help With Back Pain
Rotate back and forth for 8 reps on each side.
While the rotating 90/90 was a dynamic stretch (not staying still), the pigeon pose will loosen your hips as you sit in the stretch for an extended period of time.
This stretch is one of my client’s favorites and we will often do it before a workout and at the end as a cool down.
Hold for 45 - 60 seconds on each side.
To wrap up your stretches, targeting the QL muscle in your lower back is going to be important.
The quadratus lumborum muscle is on each side of your spine and is a common area of pain from squatting.
20 - 30 seconds on each side is a good hold time.
When I talked about earning the right to have the bar on your back after you’ve learned how to squat properly, the goblet squat is the perfect in between exercise.
Lower back pain from squatting can be from too heavy of a load on your spine so having the weight in from of you in goblet position is a simple fix.
You’ll still get the benefits that a barbell squat provides without risking injury. Learn more about how many sets and reps of squats you should perform.
Split Stance Squats
An easy swap to replace barbell squats when you have low back issues is to do single leg exercises.
Single leg exercises are a staple in my programs because they are joint friendly, challenging, and have a high reward low risk ratio. That’s what I look for in an exercise!
You can do these bodyweight, with two dumbbells, or holding one dumbbell goblet style.
This is one the exercises in my Leg Workout With Back Pain article.
Not only can a reverse lunge be a good alternative for regular squats, but it’s also easier on your knees.
This is the exercise I start all my clients on when learning how to do lunges.
Bulgarian Split Squats
If you really want to challenge yourself with a squat variation when you have lower back pain, try Bulgarian split squats.
It’s an amazing exercise to build strength, muscle, and mental grit. Doing a heavy set of Bulgarians and knowing you have still do the other side can be a daunting task!
Learn more about barbell squat variations with these 12 exercises.
Frequently Asked Questions
My #1 rule to being consistent in the gym and not missing is a workout is to never train through pain. If squats are hurting your back you need to stop doing them, find the source of your pain, and find alternatives to that specific exercise.
The good news is that when stopping immediately, you are lessening your chance of long term injury. Also, there are so many great variations of squats that you should be able to find one that you can do without pain.
Poor technique and too heavy of a load are a bad combination that can damage your back over time. You might not feel it right away but over time of repeatedly doing squats with bad form, injuries will eventually catch up to you.
Your Lower Back Pain From Squats Game Plan
To overcome your low back pain from squatting, do this:
- Stop the exercise that is causing the issue.
- Do daily stretching of the 5 stretches listed above for the allotted time.
- Practice the joint friendly squat variations I provided and see if you can do any of them pain free. If you can, add them into your routine to replace the exercise that is causing issues.
- Rest and recover as needed.