Ask a STACK Expert: The Bar Hurts My Back When I Squat. Am I Doing Something Wrong?

STACK Expert Jim Smith tells you how to fix your Squat form so the bar doesn't hurt your back during the exercise.

Chain Squat

Probably, but there are many ways you can fix the problem. First: your form. If your technique is poor, it makes no sense to add more weight and risk injuring yourself. Try adjusting the placement of the bar on your back, then address some of the subtle areas of weakness in your body that might be affecting your form. And if all else fails, you may need to swap out your shoes (seriously). But let's start at the top, with form.

The Keys to Good Squat Form

Think about three simple cues when squatting: chest up, hinge at the hips, and drive the knees out. Most people squat straight down instead of pushing their hips back into a hip hinge pattern while driving their knees out, and this forces them into a vertical and quad-dominant squatting pattern. To pull this off correctly requires great mobility in the upper back, hips and ankles, as well as a strong core and upper back. If you don't have all of these attributes,  you'll be more likely to fall forward (and in doing so, risk an injury) when the weight gets heavier.

Two drills to help you keep your chest up, push your hips back and drive your knees out are Wall Squats (which will load your posterior chain to a greater extent) and Goblet Squats. For Wall Squats, face a wall with your feet about 6 inches away and squat down as deep as possible without hitting the wall. For Goblet Squats, hold a dumbbell by one end and squat down keeping your chest up and driving your knees out. Both exercises teach proper positioning during the conventional squat pattern.

Position the Bar Differently (Or Change It Entirely)

When the bar is bothering your back, try positioning it differently. A higher bar position—at the base of the neck—requires good mobility in the upper back, hips, and ankles to keep the torso vertical during the squat. If you don't have this mobility and you're weak, you will more than likely tip forward as you descend to the bottom of the squat (which, again, is not a good thing).

When you use a lower bar position (around the middle of your trapezius) and take a wider stance (feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart), you decrease the distance from the bar to your hips, giving yourself better leverage and allowing you to stay more vertical when you squat, assuming you have good core stability and hip mobility. Bottom line: experiment with the bar position until you find one that works best for you.

The type of bar you use may also be a factor. A straight barbell requires good shoulder, upper back, hip, and ankle mobility. Not everyone has all this mobility, so not everyone can remain in a good position throughout a squatting pattern with a fixed barbell on their back. If you cannot, go back to Wall Squats and Goblet Squats to dial in the squat pattern and work on your functional squat mobility. Or try a different bar—such as a buffalo bar, safety squat bar or giant cambered bar—to help you get a stronger squat and stay in a better position as you work on your individual limitations.

Strengthen Your Weak Spots

If your core (which comprises all of the muscles that surround your torso, from the shoulders to the knees) is weak, you are more likely to fall forward when you squat. You need a strong core to stay tight and keep your torso as straight as possible.

Setting tension in your core starts with breathing. Before you begin the squat, take a full deep breath—expanding your abdomen and your chest—and hold it to set intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and to help neutralize your hips. Starting the squat movement with a better position at the hips and with good IAP is essential to moving through a full range of motion with a vertical torso angle. After you complete one repetition, repeat the deep breath and hold before you hit the next rep.

To squat properly, you also need a strong upper back. When your upper back is strong, you create more core stability and stay more upright while under the bar. Back strength also helps you drive your elbows down when squatting, which helps keep your chest up, especially at the bottom of the squat. Every strength program should include Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups, Bent Over Rows, Seated Rows, Band Pull-Aparts and Face Pulls.

If your hips are weak, whether stemming from your hamstrings, glutes or spinal erectors, you have a tendency to fall forward with your hips shooting up when you come out of the hole at the bottom of a squat. Strengthening your hips (and all of the muscles that tie into them) with Romanian Deadlifts, Rack Pulls, Good Mornings and Kettlebell Swings will help prevent that.

Other Surprising Fixes

If your grip on the bar is loose, your arms, shoulders and upper back will also be loose. You should have a death grip on the bar to create tension across your entire upper body. The harder you grip the bar, the more tension you create in your hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, and upper back. This tension, along with a deep breath to set your IAP, creates the core stability and tension you need to stay upright and safe when you squat.

Another helpful change might lie underfoot. You've probably seen lifters who squat with their heels on 10-pound plates. People do this because it allows them to squat deeper and stay more upright, even though they have tight ankles. Ankle immobility or tightness—often caused by a bad combination of heavy workout shoes and sedentary careers—is a major reason why most people can't squat through a full range of motion.

Squatting with your heels on 10-pound plates is a way to overcome ankle immobility and help you squat with a more upright torso angle. You can also try special weightlifting shoes, which have firm soles and elevated heels. This footwear can change your squat immediately. Like the plates, weightlifting shoes allow you to squat better and stay more upright, even when your ankle mobility isn't that great. In either case, you'll want eventually to wean yourself off the assistance. Your best bet? Perform your warm-up sets barefoot (or in socks) and do ankle mobility drills. You can also incorporate Goblet Squats to increase ankle mobility so that, over time, you can do your squats au naturale.

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