So you've got a bad back, huh? You may be ready to ax squatting from your workout program, but I'd advise you to think twice about that. Plenty of squat variations can help save your gains while you recover.
RELATED: 10 Ways to Fix Back Pain
Almost every athlete with a moderate amount of experience under the bar experiences back pain at some point in their career. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, between 75 and 85% of people experience some form of low back pain during their lifetimes.
It may just be a few days with stiffness in your back, or it could be more serious with ongoing pain that requires medical attention. Whatever the case, there are countless ways to stay strong while you have a minor injury.
If they hurt your back, I do not recommend doing Barbell Back Squats, but you can try some great Squat variations to reap the same benefits with few drawbacks.
Double Kettlebell Front Squat
In my opinion, the Double Kettlebell Front Squat is the safest and most beneficial Squat variation for anyone lifting with back pain.
For starters, you load the kettlebells in the front rack position rather than directly onto your spine. This takes an immense amount of pressure off your back and allows you to move more efficiently.
Another great benefit of this movement is that is engages and strengthens your core. With the weight in front of you, your core must work twice as hard to maintain a correct position. This is especially important because many back injuries can be traced back to a dysfunctional midsection. With this exercise, you can improve your lower-body strength while addressing the potential root cause of your back pain—your core.
- Clean and rack the kettlebells
- Set your ankles, knees and hips
- Sit down, not back
- Force your knees outward
- Stay tight, sit inside your knees
- Exaggerate your breathing
Not ready for the Double Kettlebell Front Squat? No worries, there is a regression called the Goblet Squat that is just as beneficial. The Goblet Squat features only one implement (kettlebell or dumbbell) racked anteriorly in the center of your chest. Follow the same squat pattern as the Double Kettlebell Front Squat.
Ready for a tougher move? You can use the Barbell Front Squat as a progression. This is ultimately a better movement, but not what you should begin with if you're trying to squat through pain or discomfort. The Double Kettlebell Front Squat will prep you to perfect your Barbell Front Squat form.
Another standout among Squat variations is the Split-Squat, ideally loaded with dumbbells in each hand. Single-leg work can be especially beneficial for your leg strength and back health, as long as it's not contributing factor responsible for your back pain.
The Split-Squat is easy on your back because the loading is out to the sides. By "pulling" yourself down with your hamstrings and glutes, then pushing away from the ground with your whole foot—not just the heel—you get your entire leg engaged in the movement.
Another thing to note is that both legs should make a perfect right angle, or as close as possible to 90 degrees. This helps you open up your hips, evenly split the load, and get a true single-leg workload when performing the Split-Squat.
Again, this move targets two areas—the glutes and the core—that might be working in tandem to create some of your back pain. Most back pain isn't rooted in the actual bony structures of the back, but in imbalances near the area.
- Set your right angles
- Keep a tall posture
- Keep a tight core
- Pull yourself down with your hamstrings
- Push yourself up with a sturdy front foot
- Keep tension on the front leg
If you need a regression, try Eccentric Step Downs. Stand on a box or platform around 12 inches high. Plant one foot on the box and slowly lower the other foot to the floor in a dorsiflexed position (toes pointing up toward your shin). Tap the floor with your heel, then explode up by pushing into the box or platform.
If you need a progression for the Split Squat, try the Bulgarian Split-Squat (a.k.a. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat). When performing this movement, most people elevate their rear foot on a bench, but I believe a bench is too high for someone with back problems. It can get your pelvis in a compromised position, causing you to hyperextend and worsening your back pain.
Instead, use a lower platform. Aim for 18 inches or less, depending on how you feel. I typically stack two or three 45-pound rubber bumper plates and use that as my elevated surface. Many of the same principles of the Split-Squat apply to this movement. Just be sure to take things slow and control your tension.
Last but not least, the Landmine Squat is a great Squat variation for those suffering from back pain. All three variations have this in common: they are all loaded anteriorly or laterally. I'm a big believer that avoiding direct spinal compression can help alleviate pain during the Squat—at least until you feel comfortable going back to traditional Barbell Squats.
The Landmine Press is great because it forces you to get into a comfortable position and squat efficiently. Not only is the weight in front, there's also an anchored bar in front of you, keeping you from excessively leaning forward. The landmine forces you to squat with your legs, not your back, which seems to be an issue for many folks.
Like the two previous variations, this is a great core enhancer. Unlike the previous two, you can really load this one up and go heavy without compromising your safety.
- Rack the weight on an elevated surface if possible so you don't have to deadlift it up into a squat position
- Interlock your fingers around the end of the barbell
- Sit down and keep a firm, upright back position
- Create torque in your upper body
- Breathe big
- Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement
You can use the Goblet Squat or Double Kettlebell Front Squat as regressions. The best progression is the standard Barbell Front Squat.
Training with a back injury is not impossible. You just have to choose your exercises wisely. As someone who has battled a bad back for years, I can say I've had success with all of these movements. That said, everyone is different. If something you're doing is hurting your back, move on to something else.
When an exercise starts to take away more than it gives you, it's time to explore other options. Don't force an exercise on yourself. Make sure everything you do in the gym benefits you in some way.
Hopefully, these variations will help you stay strong while you get yourself back to 100 percent. Remember, movement is medicine. Don't completely shut yourself off from one of the most essential movements humans perform. Just adjust your programming to accommodate what works best for you.
Finally, if your pain worsens with any of these movements, you should get further evaluated—by a physical therapist, spine specialist, MRI, X-Ray, etc.. If you know something just isn't right, get it diagnosed and treated.
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