There’s nothing like throwing a bunch of weight on the bar and challenging your true strength with squats, but what if you’re struggling with lower back pain? You try to push through it and ignore that little nagging voice in the back of your head that’s telling you to stop squatting, right? Wrong.
I’ve personally been there and know exactly what you’re going through, which is why I’ve put together this coaching on the best low back friendly squat alternative, along with some exercises to get rid of that lower back pain, so you can keep working towards beast mode status.
HOW TO SQUAT WITH LOW BACK PAIN (WITHOUT MAKING IT WORSE)
If you’re dealing with lower back pain, but want to still be able to squat without making it worse, you need to modify how you’re squatting by first addressing how deep your squat should be. We do this by identifying your current hip mobility, specifically looking at how much hip flexion you possess without lumbar compensation. This is a fancy way of saying how high can you lift each knee toward your chest without your lower back rounding. The better the hip mobility you have, the lower you can squat without irritating your lower back.
THE BEST SQUAT ALTERNATIVE FOR LOWER BACK PAIN
The best squat alternative for lower back pain is a box squat that is set to the appropriate height for your current hip mobility.
Utilizing a box for squats allows you to make sure you’re only squatting to as low as you’re capable of, without using your lower back. The box gives you a target to shoot for as your hips go down and back. Without it, you’re pretty much just guessing what your depth is, therefore increasing your risk of injuring your back further.
HOW TO DO THIS LOW BACK FRIENDLY SQUAT ALTERNATIVE
There are a few simple steps to get ready for, and setup, the box squat. You can follow along in the video above or keep reading for descriptions.
Step 1: Test Your Hip Flexion
First, you need to figure out what your current mobility level for hip flexion is. Slowly raise each leg individually towards your chest without your lower back rounding (flexing). Whichever leg has less hip flexion is the one you use for setting up the height of the box in the next step.
Step 2: Setup Your Box Height
Next, set up your box height so that your squat only allows you to reach the height of the hip flexion you just tested. When sitting on the box, make sure your lower back is neutral (not flexed or extended).
Step 3: Perform the Box Squat
Using a barbell, dumbbell, or any other type of weight, place your feet shoulder width apart or wider with your toes slightly turned out. Bracing your core, slowly drive your hips down and back until your butt reaches the box. Staying rigid, pause on the box, and then drive your feet through the floor to rise back up to the starting position.
The equipment you’ll need for this exercise would be a plyometric box or bench for you to lower yourself down to. Adjust the height of the box using plates or pads to make sure it’s not too low for your hip mobility.
For weight, you can use a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or a sandbag.
HOW TO PROGRAM THIS
Box squats can be programmed the exact same way as a conventional squat. For beginners, I suggest squatting 1-2 times per week, using 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps and placing them in the beginning of your strength training routine. From there you can progress very similarly to any other type of exercise, increasing weight, reps, and frequency.
BENEFITS OF SQUATTING
Squatting is considered one of the best lifts for the human body and should be a staple of every fitness program. Some benefits include:
Increased bone density - As we age, maintaining bone density is extremely important and squats allow you to load the entire bone structure of the body
Multi-joint/muscle movement - Few exercises stimulate as many joints and muscles as a squat
Enhanced mobility - Lifting weights through a large range of motion like squats can improve mobility of the joints and tissues being used
Core strength - Nothing strengthens a core quicker than loading the spine with weight like a squat
Stronger legs - Want to go on a hike? Play with your kids? Run longer? Stronger legs from squats are the answer.
WHERE SHOULD YOU BE SORE AFTER A SQUAT
When you’re done squatting, the only thing that should be sore is your legs. However, you may feel fatigue, rather than soreness all over the body because squatting has a large central nervous system demand since and so many muscles are being used. This fatigue should subside within a few hours but leg soreness may be present for the next two days.
It’s worth saying that soreness should not be the determining factor as to wether your workout was good or not. Soreness is usually caused by an increase in either reps and/or weight, or if a new exercise was introduced, but a great workout doesn’t always mean you will be sore the next few days.
CAN SQUATS CAUSE LOWER BACK PAIN?
Squatting can definitely cause lower back pain if you’re squatting with poor hip and ankle mobility, or overextending your spine as you start to move your hips, which causes undue pressure and strain to be placed upon the lower back.
If your hip flexion (knee lifting towards your chest) and ankle dorsiflexion (top of foot moving towards your shin) are limited, squatting to a depth that’s past what your capable of will cause the lower back to start to round, aka butt wink, placing a ton of stress on the vertebrates and discs.
During the initial movement of the squat, the lower back has a tendency to extend (think arching the lower back) as the first movement, instead of pushing the hips down and back with a neutral spine. This extension can lead to the muscles of the lower back to be strained or even go into a spasmed state.
WHEN YOU SQUAT SHOULD YOU FEEL YOUR LOWER BACK?
In a perfect world, you should not feel your lower back at all when squatting, especially as a beginner. However, if you’ve been squatting for at least a few years, and are moving a substantial amount of weight, lower back tightness or mild soreness may show up temporarily. This is the price of squatting big weight.
WHY DOES MY LOWER BACK HURT FROM SQUATS?
Your lower back can hurt from squatting because your lower back is either flexing or extending while moving the weight.
Flexing Your Lower Back When Squatting
If your lower back is flexing (rounding or butt winking), this is caused by poor hip and ankle mobility. As your hips lower to the ground the inability of these two joints to move well, will force the lower back to round, placing a ton of stress on the muscles and vertebrates of the lower back.
Extending Your Lower Back When Squatting
Extending the lower back during squatting occurs at the top of the lift when the hips start to move down and back. However, at this point, the lower back will extend (think arching), instead of the hips doing all the work. This poor movement pattern can lead to the lower back muscles to spasm or sharp pain to come from the vertebrates.
The Key: A Neutral Spine
Keeping a neutral spine during the entire squat is the key to not hurting your back from squatting.
CAN I KEEP SQUATTING IF I HAVE LOWER BACK PAIN?
You can definitely keep squatting if you have lower back pain, as long as you’re not experiencing it while squatting. If this is happening, it's when I’d recommend shutting it down and scheduling an appointment with a licensed professional to get assessed. Take it from someone who couldn’t walk because of their low back pain. It’s not worth “pushing” through it so your ego in the gym can feel good.
If pain or discomfort is setting in after your squatting session is over, then raise the height of your box for your next session while continuing to work on your hip, ankle, and spinal mobility.
WHAT NOT TO DO IF YOU HAVE LOWER BACK PAIN FROM SQUATS
The first thing to do if you’re currently experiencing pain in your lower back while squatting is to get assessed by a licensed professional. Get a proper diagnosis so that you don’t make things worse.
Other things to avoid:
Flexing or extending the spine
Too much sitting
High intensity activities (running, sports, etc.)
Anything requiring the knees to come up towards your chest
HOW TO FIX LOWER BACK PAIN FROM SQUATS
If you’re experiencing lower back pain from squatting and want to get rid of it, you have to improve mobility in these three areas: hip, ankles, and the lower back.
How to Improve Your Hip Mobility
A healthy, mobile hip must be able move freely in all directions. Being compromised here will inevitably lead to lower back pain. In this hip mobility routine, we attack every movement the hip must be able to do.
How to Improve Your Ankle Mobility
The inability for the ankle to dorsiflex (think top of foot moving towards the shin bone) prevents proper mechanics from occurring in the knee and hips, therefore placing undue stress on the lower back. Everything you need to improve ankle mobility is located in this guide.
How to Improve Lower Back Mobility
When the back is inflamed or sore, it’s crucial to get the small muscles of the lower back moving again. I’ve got you covered with a few simple strategies to start attacking that area.
HOW TO PREVENT LOWER BACK PAIN WHEN YOU SQUAT
There are a couple of steps you need to take in order to prevent lower back when squatting:
Make sure your ankle, hip, and spinal mobility are working at a high level with the guides above. If any of these are compromised, back pain will soon show up.
Only squat to the appropriate depth for your current hip and ankle mobility. Use the video and the explanation above to find how high to set your box.
Don’t be in a rush to squat big weight. This may sound like an obvious statement, but slow and steady wins the race when it comes to moving big weight. If you progress too fast too soon, your body will not be ready for the big weight on your back and problems will quickly show up. If you have a history of lower back pain from squatting, make sure your form is always perfect no matter what the weight is.
GET TO WORK ON YOUR MOBILITY
And if you want to work on that mobility, be sure to check out the link below for a mobility toolkit I put together that includes my 3 favorite mobility exercises to address any pain you’re having. It’s free so give it a shot.
*Some of these items were found on Amazon so I wanted to be sure to mention that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field. He's coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. CLICK HERE to learn more.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified