How to Overcome Lower Back Pain While Squatting
To me, squats have always been one of my favorite exercises.
There’s nothing quite like loading up a barbell with plates and sinking down into a deep squat. Feeling that satisfying stretch in your legs as you drive back up through your heels. Squats are amazing for building lower body strength and muscle. Or at least they’re supposed to be.
Because for me, as much as I loved squats, they didn’t always love me back. I started developing a nagging lower back pain whenever I squatted heavy.
At first I thought maybe I just needed to strengthen my core.
But as I pushed through it and tried to keep increasing the weight, the pain only got worse. My back would be so tight I could barely bend over to tie my shoes after leg days. Not exactly conducive for making gains.
I knew I had to change my approach if I ever wanted to squat pain-free again. It took time and patience, not to mention plenty of mobility work, core exercises, form practice, and learning how to properly brace. But I’m so grateful to say that I eventually overcame my back pain while squatting.
Now I can load up a barbell with more plates than ever before and squat deep into the hole without an ounce of fear. The best part? My legs have gotten stronger in the process! Turns out good form allows you to keep progressing the weight safely over time.
If you also struggle with lower back pain while squatting, I hope my story and experience can help you. Because living with chronic pain is the worst – I know firsthand. But you CAN fix it, just like I did!
Here is what worked for me:
Stop Squatting Through the Pain!
I’ll be the first to admit – when I initially started feeling that nagging twinge of pain during squats, I didn’t take it too seriously. I figured it was just weakness in my core that I could power through until my abs got stronger. Boy was that dumb.
Ignoring the pain and trying to progress the weight regardless only made things exponentially worse. My lower back was becoming so inflamed that any type of bending or movement would irritate it.
Getting in and out of my car became a chore. And walking up a flight of stairs? Forget about it. My quality of life was really starting to suffer, all because I was too stubborn to listen to my own body.
I had friends and gym buddies telling me to lay off the heavy squats until I got my pain under control. But that bruised my ego. I wanted to keep chasing PRs, pain be damned! Clearly that strategy backfired. If you’re in a similar position, please learn from my mistakes. Do not try to squat through lower back pain – it will only worsen the injury and make your rehab process that much harder.
Be smart and take it as a sign to reset. Start focusing on exercises and modalities that will calm down the inflammation and set you up for a successful return to squats. It requires patience and being kind to yourself, especially knowing you may need to reduce the weight substantially.
But it’s so worth it in the long run to squat pain-free again!
Mobility and Soft Tissue Work Were Game Changers
Once I finally swallowed my pride and committed to rehabbing my back properly, the first order of business was improving my mobility. I realized that limited range of motion in my hips, ankles, and thoracic spine was probably contributing to my back pain when squatting.
So I started taking my mobility work a lot more seriously. I made it a habit to foam roll and stretch for at least 10 minutes before every workout, focusing on areas like my quads, hip flexors, glutes, calves, and thoracic spine.
Let me tell you, investing in those extra minutes made a huge difference! I immediately noticed an improvement in my comfort and depth when squatting just from improving mobility alone. I could actually squat without pain again, albeit with very light weight.
#1 Foam Rolling and Stretching Became Non-Negotiable
If you’re dealing with squatting back pain like I was, please do yourself a favor and don’t skip the foam rolling and stretching! Soft tissue work helps loosen up those tight muscles and connective tissue to allow for greater mobility.
I like to spend 30-60 seconds slowly rolling each area – quads, IT bands, glutes, hips, thoracic spine, calves. The pressure can be uncomfortable at first but it’s so beneficial. I also make sure to stretch my hip flexors, piriformis, hamstrings, and groin, holding each for at least 30 seconds.
Over time this made an incredible difference in my flexibility and squat form. Foam rolling and stretching is now non-negotiable in my warm up routine. My body thanks me!
#2 Core Strength Helped Support My Spine
After improving my mobility, I knew the next puzzle piece was strengthening my core. A weak core contributed to my back rounding forward during squats, which put unnecessary strain on my lower spine.
I added targeted core exercises like planks, dead bugs, and pallof presses to my program 3-4 days per week. This really helped train my transverse abdominus to stabilize and support my spine better. My planks and pallof presses in particular got substantially stronger over time.
#3 Perfecting Squat Form
Next up in my squat rehab journey – relearning proper squat form from the ground up. I dropped my ego, stripped the weight way back, and focused solely on quality reps with textbook technique.
Filming my sets was huge here. Being able to watch the footage back allowed me to catch little issues I couldn’t feel in real time. I noticed my hips were shooting up too fast and my chest was collapsing forward. Simple fixes but tough to identify without the visual feedback.
I also started doing box squats to really ingrain that nice vertical bar path while preventing forward lean. Taking those steps back to square one was humbling but so beneficial for building a strong foundation.
Leave Your Ego at the Door
I can’t tell you how tempting it was to throw on more plates even when I knew my form wasn’t perfect. No one wants to go backwards with the weight after making progress. But checking your ego is crucial here. Build up gradually with flawless form and the long term gains will thank you.
Box Squats Teach Perfect Technique
Box squats are amazing for reinforcing proper squat motor patterns. Sitting back onto a box keeps your shins vertical, hips and back angle constant, and chest upright. Pausing on the box also cues you to engage your glutes and brace your core. Such a great teaching tool!
Film Your Squats!
I can’t recommend filming yourself squat enough, especially if you have back pain. You’ll pick up on things you never would have noticed just squatting regularly. I still film my sets to this day to monitor form. It keeps me honest!
#4 Targeted Back Accessories Built Raw Strength
To directly strengthen my lower back, I knew I couldn’t just rely on compounds alone. I needed targeted posterior chain accessories.
Exercises like good mornings, supermans, and back extensions became staples in my program 2-3 days per week. This helped bulletproof my back while balancing out all the anterior core work.
Good Mornings Are the Truth
Good mornings are now one of my favorite lifts for building brute back and hamstring strength. That loaded stretch along your entire posterior chain feels incredible. They train hip hinge mechanics too which carries over big time to squats and deadlifts.
Don’t Neglect Back Extensions!
Same goes for back extensions – what a phenomenal exercise for your spinal erectors and glutes. I like doing them on a 45 degree back extension bench to isolate the movement. Lower with control, squeeze your glutes and back to return to neutral, repeat. So simple yet effective.
Supermans Build Upper Back Strength
Supermans made me feel like Superman! Simultaneously lifting your arms, legs, and chest off the ground requires full upper and lower back activation. It’s like a bodyweight back extension but also hits your rear delts and rhomboids. Killer combo move.
#5 Learning to Brace Changed the Squatting Game
The final piece that brought my whole squat rehab journey together – learning how to properly brace my core.
I had no clue the dramatic difference bracing could make until I made a point to implement it consciously. Now I take a big breath in, brace my core tightly, and get my whole body ridiculously stiff before unracking the bar. Total game changer!
Big Breath, Get Tight
Before squatting, I take the biggest belly breath possible and brace like I’m about to get punched in the stomach. A strong brace protects your spine and allows you to transmit force into the ground effectively. Don’t be shy with it!
Brace and Get Tight All Over
It’s not just bracing my core either – I make sure to get tight from head to toe before squatting. Grip the bar as hard as possible, screw your feet into the ground, pull your shoulder blades down and back. Getting tight all over really reinforces that strong base.
Weight Belts Can Help!
There’s no shame in wearing a belt while you rehab your back! The belt gives your core something to brace against. It can help remind you to brace while allowing you to squat and pull heavier as you work your way back up.
After months of mobility work, light and high rep accessory training, and drilling perfect squat form, I was finally ready to start upping the weight again.
To my delight, ALL of my lower back pain during squats was gone! I could squat deeper than ever before thanks to my improved mobility. My core stability and bracing allowed me to handle heavier loads without any back pain. It was truly life changing.
These days I’m squatting more than I could in years past – with zero pain!
All of the corrective exercises, patience, leaving my ego at the door, and learning proper technique finally paid dividends. And you know what? My legs have NEVER been stronger.
Funny how that works!