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When I squat my low back feels stiff, what can I do?

Brian Yee
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

If your squatting is causing your low back to feel stiff it indicates that either your form, the amount of load or repetition, or the sequence of muscle contractions are incorrect and not safe for your back. With your form - there are many proper ways to squat, but people we see that have back pain or stiffness after lifting typically let the back arch or round too much. It may be the angle your squatting at, but it may also mean that your spine is more structurally unstable than you may think it is. Have a qualified practitioner observe your form to look for any inefficiencies.

 

In regards to load or repetition - even if your form is perfect eventually your back can wear out due to excessive weight or overdoing the number of times that you squat. I would recommend finding out the repetition, sets, or weight that you feel like you back just begins to stiffen. Next time you do squats, do less than that so your back does not stiffen. As you improve your form and the proper muscle sequence you should notice that you can increase your weight and repetitions gIradually without worsening your back stiffness.

 

Most importantly - back stiffness can occur with squats due to improper muscle sequence. With a squat, the trunk and back muscles should all activate to provide stability to your spine. The muscles that should provide the most power and movement in the squat are your gluteal / buttock muscles. The primary joint that moves in the squat should be the hip - which is controlled by the glute muscles. But what we see are patients that use their knees or back more - causing the quadriceps or back muscles to be used more. This develops an improper sequence of muscle firing patterns and ultimately places more stress on your back as your form and coordination of movement is inefficient. You should contact a skilled health practitioner such as a Physical Therapist to assess the strength and control of your hip, back, and leg muscles if your back stiffens while squatting.

If you experience tightness in your back when you squat you need to perform a more thorough warm up to prepare your body for squatting. Start with foam rolling all the normally tight during squatting such as your low back, hips, and upper thighs and glutes. Perform stretches to stretch the low back and hamstrings. Follow this with a dynamic warm up to help mobilize your low back and prepare it for squatting. Movements like prisoner squats and rotational lunges will help activate and mobilize your low back. To perform prisoner squats stand with a shoulder width stance, feet facing forward shins in line with your second and third toe hands gently laced behind your head. Keep your spine in neutral alignment and engage your core, squat down to chair height and stand back up, perform 15-20 repetitions to help mobilize your low back hamstrings and knees. To perform a rotational lunge stand in a split stance with one leg forward and one leg back dips down until both your front leg and back leg are bent to approximately 90 degrees. Keep your torso upright with your core engage and arms stretched out in front of you. While holding the position rotate your torso to the left and then to the right, repeat with the opposite leg forward, perform 8-10 repetitions per side. This dynamic warm up will help mobilize your core and low back and better prepare your body to perform squats. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.