Sunday, June 29, 2008

Squats & Lower Back Pain (Part I)


Recently, I've had a number of questions posed to me online about lower back rounding and lower back strain when squatting. Here are my thoughts on lower back pain as it concerns squatters. Please feel free to comment.


*The lower back is rounding at the bottom of the squat because of inflexibility, previous injuries, and/or poor technique

Work on your hamstring and hip flexibility. Practice holding proper posture at the bottom of the squat movement. If you cannot full squat without rounding the back, DON'T SQUAT TO ROCK BOTTOM - only squat as deep as you can while still maintaining proper back positioning. Do not lose tension at the bottom of the hole - tension is uncomfortable, but it is your friend. Make sure to keep your chest out, head back, and core tight throughout the movement.
Understand that there may or may not be a quick fix to your particular situation - if flexibility is lacking, it will require more than a week or two of stretching and practice and it may, in fact, take many months, even years to develop a "mature" and deep squat and improve posterior pelvic tilt. Be patient.

*Performing a good morning out of the bottom of the hole because the core is weak, the hips and hamstrings are tight or weak or inactive, and/or focus on keeping the chest out throughout the movement is lacking

*You are doing a high-bar squat and sitting too far back when squatting

This is probably one of the most common errors I see among trainers and trainees alike. Because of the bar's greater distance from the body's center of gravity, it is essential to maintain a relatively upright upper body when squatting with a high-bar position. You will not dramatically drive the hips backwards as you would with a low-bar position AND it will be difficult to keep your shins perpendicular to the floor. Remember that outwardly rotating the hips is a key to engaging them and will also help you maintain proper posture and shins relatively perpendicular to the floor.

**A Quick Checklist**

Are my hamstrings and hips inflexible?
Are my shoulders and/or upper body inflexible?
Does my lower back round at the bottom of the squat?
Do I do a good morning out of the bottom of the squat?
Are my abs weak?
Do I hunch over when squatting?
Do I relax at the bottom of my squat at all?
Do I have a high-bar position and "sit back" when squatting?

If you answer "yes" to any of the questions above, you will have a good notion as to what may be causing your back pain when squatting - get busy improving them. The next installment will focus on rehabilitation and recovery methods that I have found to be helpful.


Ezrie said...

Rippetoe says to drive the hips first (, while the attached videos show squatting in a more upright position. Who is right. I like squatting, and I certainly would want to do it the way that leaves me the least open to LB pain/Injury.

Ezrie said...

To Clarify:
It looks a lot like Rippetoe is instructing the squatter to GM out of the hole because of his insistence on what appears to be excessive hip drive.

Boris said...

I haven't had a whole lot of correspondence w. Mark Rippetoe, but he's a crazy smart guy, great coach, very nice man. I respect the hell out of him.

I get what he's trying to do w. the young man and different situations/form issues call for different cues. That young man's form certainly improved from the beginning to the end, though it was subtle.

Do you squat high-bar or low bar? I can't remember what Starting Strength says (great, great book btw), but Coach Rippetoe recommends a low-bar positioning. IMO, it boils down to this: if you have a low bar positioning and you are not going to be doing full squats, then it's fine to sit back as far as possible to take full advantage of the hamstrings and glutes. If, on the other hand, you have a high-bar positioning and/or you are going to do FULL squats, then your hips will not flex as much at the beginning of the eccentric.

I hope that makes sense.

Andy and Judy said...


I'm on low-back rest for two weeks (self-imposed) because of what I think is an over use injury, probably contributed to by several lifts. When I start squatting again, I'm planning to stay at very low weights until I'm confident my form is good. I'm also going to limit the lifts that may affect the low back (even as a stabilizer) and add them back in slowly.

I think I have some hip flexibility issues, but you mention posterior pelvic tilt. Is that common? I always thought that anterior tilt was far more common.


Unknown said...


Firstly, man, your stuff is great! Squat Rx is such an awesome FREE resource.

Alas, I've hit a snag, like many, in my squats. I wasn't having a problem early on in the lighter weights, even with high bar and narrow stance squatting (this felt comfortable for me for whatever reason). However, recently after pushing some weights (nothing crazy) and fiddling around with a wider stance, I've got the symptoms of hip flexor tendonitis (or tendinopathy of some kind). I just get a sharp nagging pain right in the front of the hip (the crease) at the bottom position, as deep as I can go which isn't ATG but beyond parallel.

After reading more and more, I realize that I tend to 'relax' as you say at the very bottom of the movement, in an effort to 'reset' or something. Any tips on this? I assume getting in the bottom position as a drill during non-lifting can help?

Thanks man.

Boris said...

Thank YOU for the push.
When I referred to posterior pelvic tilt, I meant lower back rounding/back flattening at the bottom of the squat, not a chronic condition.

Thank you.
If relaxing at the bottom is an issue, then sitting at the bottom for extended periods of time is probably going to be counter-productive. You probably want to spend LESS time there.
Rest and ice is probably the first thing you need. After allowing it to heal (and w. a yes from your doctor), walking, light flexibility work, and strengthening exercises would be the way to go IMO.

Ezrie said...

"Do you squat high-bar or low bar?"

Low Bar. As I understand it, (I hope correctly) a low bar position emphasizes the posterior chain while a high bar position emphasis glute activation.

"If, on the other hand, you have a high-bar positioning and/or you are going to do FULL squats, then your hips will not flex as much at the beginning of the eccentric."

Do this mean the lower you go the more upright you should come out of the hole? I.E. Less Rippetoe style hip drive?

Boris, Thanks for your time (I am a big fan)

Ezrie said...

I just read what you wrote again. I think you are saying that with a low bar postion and/or going deep, one should sit down more than back. Meaning sit between your legs as opposed to sitting back as you would onto a toilet. Am I getting it?

SF said...

Great post boris. I just want to say to beginners that it boils down to proper technique/form and maintaining tightness throughout the squat. I have seen too many people who decide to rely on their lifting belts to save their back rather than practice proper form. They usually end up injuring their back again.

Boris said...

Thanks Ezrie and SF.

In the simplest terms (these are NOT absolutes but..):
full squats = high bar
high bar = upright, hips do NOT track back as far, straighter up-down bar path
low bar = more upper body lean and hips back

So, if you are trying to squat very upright with a high bar placement, it's going to be very tough on your back if the hips are driven back. High bar + hips back = a lot more torque on your back.

Ezrie said...


Thank you very much. Very Helpful.

Boris said...

Glad it was helpful Ezrie! Thanks for posting.

D said...

Hey Boris,
I've only been squatting a few months now, so my techinque is far from perfect. I was squatting low bar with a medium wide stance. I've had a tedancy to GM out of the hole. I've been on a low rep programme so I've mostly just muscled through it. But recently I switched to a high rep programme and it is nowhere near as forgiving for poor technique. Consequently my back has been getting wasted.

My problem is definately tight hamstring pulling my lower back to round when I'm getting low, hence losing my tension. I tried some high bar squats, and while I lose a bit of power there is nowhere near as much stress on my back.

Long story short, should I continue with my programme with high bar and continue stretching until I can move the bar down. Or ditch the programme all together and lower the weight until I can avoid rounding?

Boris said...

I think if you ultimately want to squat the most weight possible, you should work toward a powerlifter's low-bar wider stance squat to a little below parallel.

If you are doing well w. the high-bar work, then stick with it, but do some less intense low-rep sets of low bar squats to work on form (after your main sets). Work on your flexibility - ignoring it and just plowing ahead is going to give you problems later on.

Sean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

As always, great post! When I originally started training, I had a lot of mobility issues. Thanks to Starting Strength and your videos, I believe I am just starting to squat correctly.

Boris said...

Thank you Sean - I appreciate that.

Gubernatrix said...

Just to comment on the Rippetoe hip drive issue, I use a low bar, wide stance and have quite a pronounced hip drive a la Rip. For me, it works (my squat is improving well at the moment, currently 1.7 x bodyweight). Some people who see my squat think I have a bit too much forward lean, others think the technique is good. As always, it's a question of degree. I would say that unless your forward lean really is excessive and you are feeling it in your back, some forward lean is fine, especially if your hips and back feel strong.

Where I depart from Rip (I've mentioned before) is head position and maybe this is because I have a bit of forward lean. If I look at the floor ahead of me, I am in danger of tipping forward so like most squatters I look straight ahead.

Rodney McNeely said...

Hi, Boris!

Amazing videos. Am a former exercise physiologist that's been out of the game for years due to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Still work out, but have to be extremely careful with energy rationing. So, not up on current research and hoping you can help.

How much do you know about adjusting squats for different body types? I've always had hypertonic quads (working on that furiously), in conjunction with short legs and a rather long trunk. As a result, I've always found squats very diffucult, to the point of painful. Also toe out a bit, probably 35 degrees in a neutral stance.

What kind of adjustments and/or techniques would you recommend in such a case? Thank you again for your videos, and keep up the great work!

KrishaLiva said...

Nice video post! I enjoyed watching it. It gives me an idea to try it too. Anyway, I'm just afraid about my back pain. Hahaha..


Álvaro Shiokawa Alvarez said...

Hello Boris, I am Alvaro, and I must say the contents of your site concerning the Squat exercise are REALLY awesome, interesting and helfpul :).

In fact I go this site, and the Starting Strenght book as my main sources of information concerning squats and other stuff :D.

As of now I am trying to choose some of the stretching exercises you illustrate through the videos (Hard to choose one ha ha, so many possibilities) to incorporate to my daily stretching routine (If possible, doing them early in the morning, as soon as I wake up, and before breakfast) becase I think my lower back is unfortunately rounding when I squat down at the "Low Bar Back Squat", even though I feel my "chest is up + abs contracted and out + tryin to maintain the proper shoulder and head positions".

Cheers from Brazil,


Anonymous said...

Learning initially from Rippetoe, I always drove my hips up first (hip drive) which lead to a good morning and extreme lower back pain.

I've been practicing with raising my head up first and it has greatly reduced incidence of the good morning squat. However I can't seem to eliminate knee pain after squatting.

The squat seems like a very complex exercise, and I constantly hear of injuries sustained from it.

Anonymous said...

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J. Whitman said...

Great information! I can definitely see how having a baby or just being pregnant can affect our pain, especially back or neck pain. I'm so sorry it seems to have developed into a chronic condition for you. I've heard a lot of people asking what is lumbar myelopathy lately and have had some trouble finding good, definitive answers. Have you ever written about myelopathy? It seems like this condition is making it's way through the medical community and with aching patients lately. If you have any details about lumbar myelopathy symptoms I would be thrilled to see it posted! That would be incredibly helpful.