A key movement to build a strong, muscular and more resilient body, squats are a commonly prescribed exercise for athletes and the fitness enthusiast.
Unfortunately though, squats have been known to cause unwanted low back soreness. While the squat will work the muscles of the lower back, if the low back becomes the most targeted region during the squat, chronic soreness and overuse injury can occur.
To prevent this from happening, and to continue to maximize the benefits you can experience with the squat, keep in mind the following key considerations.
Understand first the technique for a safe and effective squat.
In a squat, you want to sit back and down -- producing the movement from the hips and knees, and not the lower back.
If your hips roll underneath you and your back rounds, you place your lower back in a position that is at a greater risk for injury. The more your back rounds the greater the shear force on the spine, which is dangerous.
Likewise, if you overarch your lower back, when your hips tip forward and your butt pops out, you're not only compressing the spinal segments, but using the muscles of the lower back to keep your spine from rounding forward. While preventing the spine from rounding is a good thing, doing so by only using the muscles of the low back will overwork those muscles and create soreness and potential injury. You can tell this happens when you complete the squat and your lower back feels overworked and tight.
Aim to keep your back neutral throughout the movement, meaning you don't allow it to round or over extend. Use a mirror to monitor your low back position.
Strengthen Your Core
Your core is the other group of muscles that has a major influence on the position of the hips and spine. When the core muscles -- particularly the fronts of your abs, hips and low back -- are strong and working in unison, they help to stabilize the pelvis and spine. This reduces the demand on the muscles of the low back, therefore preventing them from becoming overworked.
Some exercises that help to strengthen the core and encourage it to hold your back in a safe position are planks, side planks and anti-rotation presses.
The plank is a great exercise that targets the anterior, or front, of your core.
How To: Lie belly-first on a mat. Tuck your toes, rise up to your forearms. Engage your abs to lift your hips off of the ground, making sure that the low back is flat and not over arched or rounded. Feel the work taking place in your abs, not your lower back.
The side plank targets the lateral or side core, strengthening your ability to prevent movement sideways.
How To: From a side-lying position with one forearm on the ground, the elbow directly beneath the shoulders and the legs straight with the feet stacked on top of each other, bridge your hips up towards the ceiling. Stop when there is a straight line from the shoulders to the feet. Keep the abs engaged to prevent the low back from compensating.
The anti-rotation press challenges your ability to prevent rotation about the hips and spine. Use the exercise to further solidify a stable core.
How To: Standing perpendicular (sideways) to a cable column or secured band, take an athletic stance: engage your abs and push your hips back slightly with soft knees. Press the cable or band straight out from the chest, not allowing the hips to rotate or low back to arch. Bring the cable back to the chest and repeat the pressing motion for the desired reps.
Squat to YOUR Depth
While you may have heard that you need to squat to or past parallel (when your thighs are parallel to the ground), no one's hips are exactly the same. This means that you may have a hip that is built to squat to parallel or below, or you may have a hip that is built to squat to above parallel before running out of room.
If you squat past your available range of motion you will likely compensate and move through other joints (the most likely being the back). This will create extra movement through the lower back that will result in soreness and injury over time.
So only squat to the depth that you can control and maintain a neutral back position with. If you push past this and go deeper, you are placing yourself at a greater risk for injury and a sore lower back.
Try Different Squat Variations
The back squat is the classic squat variation, but is also the most difficult variation to master. Because of the position of the bar being on your back, it places more direct stress on the back than other variations. Venture beyond the back squat and use different variations to prevent low back soreness.
The goblet squat helps tighten up your technique with the squat. You hold the weight in front of you to provide an offset load, which allows you to more easily sit back and keep your back neutral.
How To: Holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in a goblet grip -- holding the horns of the kettle bell just below your chin -- take a slightly wider than hip-width stance. Keep your abs engaged and sit your hips back and down as you place most of your weight in your heels without the toes coming off the ground.
Keep your back flat and reverse directions pushing through your heels to return to the standing position.
Landmine Front Squat
In the landmine front squat, the weight is also in front of you. The unique angle the landline front squat provides allows you to also sit back more easily while keeping the back in a neutral position.
How To: With a barbell in the landmine set up with one end of the barbell secured in a corner of a wall or in a landmine collar, bring the other end of the barbell just below your chin. Take a slightly wider than hip-width stance and achieve a slight forward lean with your body against the barbell. Keep the abs engaged as you sit down and back, reversing directions at the bottom and driving through your heels and return to the standing angled position.
Barbell Front Squat
One more variation of the squat that might relieve discomfort in the low back is the front squat.
How To: Hold a barbell across the front of the shoulders, keep your abs engaged and take a slightly wider than hip-width stance. Sit your hips down and back, stopping at a depth that allows you to keep your back neutral. Drive through your heels and return to the starting position.