Low back pain affects many people worldwide but can especially become a cause for concern if you are someone who frequently squats in the gym.
Depending on the severity, duration and the cause of your back pain, you may choose to avoid traditional barbell back squats entirely and opt for other alternatives. Or, you may be able to stick to back squats but just work within your limits while making adjustments to your technique.
So, which squat is best for lower back pain? The best types of squats for lower back pain are those that do not load your back and spine directly and ultimately squats that are executed with good mechanics and technique.
Low back pain in general is not well understood and in some cases strength training can improve such aches and pains, but in other cases it may only prolong recovery. Therefore, there is no one size fits all approach and you will need to choose the best option for you.
In this article I will suggest:
- 5 squat variations that may work better than back squats if you are experiencing low back pain
- 9 tips for adjusting your current squat technique to prevent exacerbation of the pain
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, always consult with a physician and/or a physical therapist if you have serious concerns about any pain in your back that is getting in the way of activities of daily living or exercise.
5 Best Type Of Squat For Lower Back Pain
While you may need to pause the barbell back squats…
The 5 best types of squats for lower back pain are:
- Landmine squats
- Hack squats
- Kettlebell front squats
- Barbell split squats
- Belt squats
1. Landmine Squats
Landmine squats are a great option for those with low back pain or discomfort since the load is at your chest and not adding extra load on to your spine while still challenging your legs, core and even upper body.
How to Landmine Squat:
- Grab a barbell and place it into the landmine attachment
- Hold on to the end of the bar and place it at chest height
- Place your feet as if you’re going to squat (slightly wider than shoulder width apart)
- Lean your body slightly toward the bar
- Squat down while keeping the bar at your chest
- As you squat down, the barbell will come closer to your chest so don’t start too close to it to give it room to move toward you
- Keep your arms tucked and close to your torso so they don’t tire too quickly
- Don’t be afraid to lean into the landmine, it will take more pressure off your back
2. Hack Squats
Hack squats are an exercise done on a hack squat machine and it is a variation of a squat that places more emphasis on your lower body and does not put as much stress on the muscles in your back.
How To Use a Hack Squat:
- Place your back on the back rest and your feet on the platform in a shoulder width stance
- Set your shoulders under the shoulder pads
- Hold on to the safety handles and unlock the safety as you straighten your legs
- While holding the handles in the unlocked position, bend your knees, allowing the machine help you sink into a squat
- Stand back up by applying pressure through your legs
- Point your toes slightly outwards to feel your glutes more
- Use a stance similar to your regular barbell squat stance
- The machine mechanics will allow you to sink extra low, use it to your advantage for extra muscle building unless it aggravates your back
- You can also do reverse hack squats by facing the opposite direction if you’re looking to feel your hamstrings and glutes more
Related Article: The 9 Best Hack Squat Alternatives
3. Kettlebell Front Squat
Kettlebell front squats are an option where the weight is loaded in front of you and as a result may give you lower back a bit of a needed break.
How to Kettlebell Front Squat:
- Grab 2 kettlebells in each hand
- Place them in a front rack position
- Set your feet in your desired stance
- Squat down, keeping the weights close and core braced
- Stand up and repeat
- Start with really light loads until you feel comfortable setting up in the position
- If you don’t have the mobility for a front rack position you can substitute with a goblet squat
- Add a pause at the bottom of the squat to build up your core strength
4. Barbell Split Squat
The barbell split squat is a variation that is done in a split stance with a barbell on your back. This is a variation that you may find doesn’t cause as much low back irritation as a proper back squat.
How to Barbell Split Squat:
- Unrack the barbell in the high bar or low bar position
- Walk out a few steps with the barbell
- Place one foot in front of the other in a split stance
- Bend both knees and come down into a split squat
- Stand back up, repeat for as many reps as you like and then switch legs
- Keep the angle of your front knee at 90 degrees and make sure you’re sinking into both your leg and your glutes of the front leg
- Keep your foot steady and planted into the ground without any wobbling
- If holding the barbell on your back is irritating your back you can make this a front loaded split squat instead
5. Belt Squat
The belt squat is an excellent squat option for those who are looking to reduce load on their spine while still loading their legs with more weight since you don’t need to hold up the weight with your arms like in some of these other variations.
How to Belt Squat:
- Grab the bar and wrap it around your torso, just above your hips and clip in the carabiner
- Place your feet in your preferred squat stance
- Stand up and pull the handle toward your to unlock the safety
- Squat down while lightly placing your hands on the safety handle
- Push safety back in once the set is done and squat down to stop the exercise
- Most commercial gyms do not have a belt squat machine but you can mimic the movement by standing on a sturdy platform like on an assisted pull up machine or using 2 boxes and then using a dip belt loaded with weight.
Related Article: The 9 Best Belt Squat Alternatives
9 Other Tips To Squatting With Lower Back Pain
If low back pain can directly traced to when you started squatting regularly, it’s likely there is something going awry with your squat mechanics. With that in mind, here are 9 tips to squatting with lower back pain:
- Adjust your stance
- Improve your bracing
- Use a belt
- Keep a neutral pelvis
- Reduce the weight
- Slow down (tempo and pause squats)
- Improve your mobility
- Decrease range of motion
- Stay focused
1. Adjust Your Stance
One way to potentially help your squat feel better is to adjust your stance. It is possible that a suboptimal stance is causing you to lean over far too much in your squat or to not activate all the right muscles in your hips, causing your back to take on too much stress.
The squat is a compound movement that requires multiple muscle groups to work together and when one starts to lag, others will pick up the slack. Ways you can adjust your stance include:
- Bringing your feet wider: This can help you sink lower into your hips
- Bring your feet closer together: This can help activate your quads better if you were too wide previously
- Point your toes outward: This can help you activate your glutes if they are not firing adequately
2. Improve Your Bracing
Bracing when performing squats is what keeps your back muscles protecting during heavy lifting. Therefore, it is common among novices and beginners to run into minor aches and pains in their back associated with not adequately bracing their core.
Part of bracing is learning how to breathe into your belly and then letting out a slow and controlled breath while creating a 360 degree pressure around your torso. This should not feel like you are pushing your stomach out but rather like you are bracing for an impact.
When I was a beginner I found it helpful to pretend like I was about to get punched in the gut in order to cue those muscles to respond properly.
To learn more about breathing technique while lifting, check out: Why Do Powerlifters Hold Their Breath? (5 Benefits)
3. Use a Belt
Using a belt when lifting can be a great tool to enhance the degree to which you are able to brace (see above).
The weightlifting belt provides an external cue for your core muscles to maintain stiffness and it provides a physical surface upon which to push on when expanding your intra-abdominal pressure.
To put on a belt you will need to inhale really big, fasten it around your torso, just above your hip bones and then exhale and push out against the belt.
Not sure where to start looking for a belt? Check out Best Powerlifting Belt: In-Depth Guide & Review.
4. Keep a Neutral Pelvis
One reason you may be struggling with lower back pain associated with or exacerbated by squatting is if you are someone with an anterior pelvic tilt. An anterior pelvic tilt is when the front part of your pelvis dips lower than the posterior aspect of your pelvis and results in an overexaggerated arch in your lower back.
This can often be the result of weak abdominal muscles and may go unnoticed until the person starts to complain of low back pain. Sometimes those who don’t normally have a tilted pelvis can sometimes incorrectly create one because they think that is how you “sit back” in a squat.
To counter this, before initiating the squat, practice tucking your tailbone slightly, in what is called a posterior pelvic tilt. You don’t want to have an exaggerated posterior tilt either, but if you do have that extra arch in your back, doing so will just bring you to neutral.
Related Article: Does Overhead Press Hurt Your Back? Try These 6 Tips
5. Reduce the Weight
The best way to really hone in on your skills and improve your lifting mechanics is to drop the weight.
This is especially important if your low back pain creeps up after lifting a certain threshold. It would be wise to choose loads as tolerated by your discomfort and therefore creating a threshold that keeps you within the range of being pain free.
Therefore if the pain creeps up when you lift over 80% of your 1RM, stick to weights closer to 70% and work on improving the quality of your reps instead and building up some resilience.
6. Slow Down (Tempo and Pause Squats)
In addition to reducing the load on the bar, slowing down the tempo of your reps can be another important strategy in improving your squat.
It’s possible you are dive-bombing into the bottom of your squats and not really approaching the movement with full control of the weights and, as a result, placing your back in a vulnerable position.
Adding in some tempo squats, where you intentionally slow down the downward portion of the lift, can be beneficial in exposing your weak areas and help work in getting all the right muscles firing at the right time.
Alternatively you can also add in pause squats where you go down at the same speed but then you need to pause for 1-2 seconds at the bottom of the lift.
Related Article: Is It Better To Do Squats Fast or Slow? (Follow These Tips)
7. Improve Your Mobility
Poor mobility may be the reason your back is suffering after sets of squats.
This is because if you don’t have the adequate mobility to bend enough at the ankles, knees or hips; the muscles in your lower body that are required to fire probably aren’t doing so in the most optimal way. As a result, your back is taking on more of the load than it should and as a result is causing you discomfort.
Therefore, improving your lifting mechanics can mean improving your mobility. This can be done through having a good warm-up, doing various exercises and drills, and just simply by squatting more frequently, being careful to stay within your pain threshold.
If ankle mobility is the culprit, a pair of squat shoes may be able to help you resolve the issue pretty quickly.
For more information on improving your squat mobility, read:
- How To Increase Hip Mobility For Squats: 13 Drills To Follow
- How To Increase Ankle Mobility For Squats: 13 Exercises
8. Decrease Your Range of Motion
While the goal for most powerlifters is increasing range of motion, it is possible that you may either be going too low in your squats or you simply can not handle full depth and need to accommodate in the meantime.
More stress is placed on the back when you go into an “ass-to-grass” squat and so shaving a few inches or even just stopping at parallel may be necessary for you at this time.
You will still be able to get some great benefits even if you stop at parallel, while potentially keeping your discomfort at bay. This can just be a temporary modification to stay within the pain threshold until you can handle more depth or if you aren’t particularly interested in competing as a powerlifter you can just get away with sticking to a parallel squat long term if that’s what suits you.
9. Stay Focused
Staying focused in training is an underrated concept when it comes to lifting. When we are distracted, tired, unmotivated and dragging our feet in the gym is when we tend to see slip ups in technique which can lead to avoidable aches and pains.
Treat every squat rep as if it is the most important rep you’re ever going to do. Keep your squat cues top of mind and try to do your best with every single rep and set. This will also hopefully help you get more in tune with your body and will be useful in identifying perhaps when your low back pain is most prevalent, what aggravates it and also what helps it.
Back pain is often nonspecific and can result from any number of reasons. Unless you have been directed otherwise by a physical therapist or doctor, squats can still remain in your exercise routine; they just likely require some extra attention or modifications.
Whether you swap out the barbell squat for a belt squat or drop the load and work on your mechanics, there are strategies available for anyone struggling with squats due to low back pain.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.