Barbell back squatting is one of the most popular exercises in the fitness industry. From powerlifting to bodybuilding, the back squat is a staple. When you go to your typical gym, you are essentially guaranteed to come across barbell squatting equipment. It is a go to exercise for fitness trainers as well as physical therapists to increase the size and strength of the legs and glutes. Outside of the deadlift, you’ll be hard pressed to find an exercise more prevalent than the back squat or some other form of squats with weights.
Another phenomenon you’d be hard pressed to find more common is lower back pain. Lower back pain affects a large population of people throughout the world; in fact, 4 out of 5 people will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives (Lower Back Pain, Cleveland Clinic). But is lower back pain normal? Is lower back pain after squatting normal? Just because many people experience it, does that mean we should normalize it? What if we told you that one of the staple exercises that is prescribed in the vast majority of all fitness routines was actually a culprit to your lower back pain?
In this article, we’ll be explaining why low back pain when squatting isn’t normal, why they compress your spine, and we’ll guide you towards some alternatives to squats so you don’t have to compress your spine to strengthen your legs and glutes.
Do Squats Compress Your Spine?
For some of you, this may already be something you’re sensing. Many people will feel lower back pain and/or soreness after squatting. Many trainers and even physical therapists normalize lower back pain and soreness after squatting, claiming that the client’s back is just “getting stronger”. Or they’ll prescribe exercises to “strengthen the lower back” claiming that it will solve the issue clients are having with their pain. At Functional Patterns, we’re here to tell you that it’s not you, or your lower back. It’s the back squat. As well as many other types of squatting variations, that ultimately put too much longitudinal compression on your body and spine.
So how do squats compress your spine? For some of you, it may seem obvious. Progressively loading heavy weight directly onto your back will clearly cause some compression. Many fitness professionals claim that compression is good for you, and that if you’re using “good form”, then you should be able to responsibly progressively overload the back squat indefinitely. We’re here to tell you that that is not the case. Compression is actually good, but how that compression is dispersed throughout your body matters greatly. You cannot just indefinitely load your back when the force vector (the way that the weight is loaded on your body) is solely up and down.
Did Humans evolve to Squat?
Why that is, and why back squats end up compressing your spine and eventually cause low back pain and injury, is because as a human being you evolved to mostly adapt to horizontal force vectors. [In other words, the direction of the force when you exercise shouldn’t be mostly vertical, but the opposite. For example, if you throw a ball along a level ground, the force that you apply to the ball to make it move horizontally is a horizontal force vector.] . Our evolutionary imperative is the FP big four: standing, walking, running, and throwing. Although longitudinal force vectors certainly play a role in all of these, your spine was just not made to prioritize heavy loading with your feet standing side by side over and over and over again. You CAN back squat, but that doesn’t mean you SHOULD.
We also have to consider certain postural imbalances when we exercise. Most of the time, people don’t think about whether or not they have a kyphosis (rounded upper back) or an anterior pelvic tilt or posterior pelvic tilt or a hip shift in one direction etc. This along with other asymmetries in the body will likely translate into pain once you start squatting regularly.
Check out our article “The Truth About the Back Squat” to learn more about the imbalances that can occur during squatting.
So Then, Which Exercises Strengthen Your Lower Back?
For all intents and purposes, your back will become stronger by working on your body holistically. In other words, by utilizing first principles and training in accordance with your evolutionary biology, your lower back will be able to stabilize against forces from your daily living and exercising, as long as your type of exercise respects the fundamental principles of gait (walking and running) mechanics.
This is why at Functional Patterns we don’t compromise when it comes to staying true to first principles. There is no silver bullet in terms of how to fix lower back pain from squats, you have to learn how to move well and distribute tension throughout your body in a way that makes evolutionary sense. Squatting unfortunately does not respect these principles effectively enough to not have long term consequences, one of them being lower back pain.
To be clear, at FP, we squat. Squatting is a fairly fundamental exercise. We just don’t prioritize bilateral squatting in the same way as the rest of the industry. In our online training course, the Functional Training System, we cover squatting extensively, such as the Pendulum Squat. But we make sure we cover the foundational principles, such as your standing posture, in the 10 week course to make sure that by the time you get to squatting, you won’t have the same problems you did when barbell squatting. We’ll show you a safer way to squat with weights.
We look at squatting as a derivative of walking and running. When we mention the FP Big Four, we’re not saying that that’s all we do. We’re saying that that’s what human movement stems from and it’s the blueprint that your body follows. Functional Patterns takes this roadmap and breaks it down into its most fundamental elements, so you can exercise and move pain free.
In closing, lower back pain affects a large part of the population, but you shouldn’t be having lower back pain when squatting. It’s important to look at the fundamental nature of the exercises we choose, to determine whether it’s going to be beneficial in the long term. The barbell back squat is flawed in its application as it doesn’t coincide with how we evolved to move as humans. Lower back pain when squatting can be avoided by changing the types of forces you put on your spine. We go over this extensively in our 10 week course and Functional Training System, so you can strengthen your lower body without lower back pain after squatting.