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.
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.