While myself and the athletes I’ve coached have never experienced shin splits while squatting, there seems to be a lot of discussion on the internet around whether squats cause shin splints. In some cases, people have experienced pain in the lower leg that seems quite debilitating, which really impacts their ability to train and get stronger. So I decided to do some research, consult experts, and provide answers to this problem.
Do squats cause shin splints? There may be some technical deficiencies that contribute to shin splits while squatting. For example, having an improper bar path that leads to a bottom position that puts a lot of stress on the lower limbs. This could be due to several mobility issues or a lack of understanding of effective technique principles. However, it’s likely that a person already has symptoms of shin splints because of reasons outside of the gym, and squatting simply makes it worse.
In this article, I want to discuss in more detail some of the reasons why squatting can make shin splints worse and what to do if you have pain in the lower limb.
What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints are a pain that occurs behind your tibia. The tibia is the large bone that runs straight down from the knee to ankle (often called the shin).
Like many injuries, pain can be caused by an undue amount of stress placed on certain parts of the body. According to Dr. Michael Neely, the Medical Director at the NY Sports Medicine Clinic, shin splints are the result of excessive force placed on the shinbone and connective tissues of the lower leg.
Most often, shin splints are an injury seen by runners, or athletes in ‘jumping sports’, which require a lot of repetition through the ankle and calf muscles. Less common, we see shin splits while squatting, although it can certainly happen if you have some of the underlying causes.
Main Causes & Corrections For Shin Splints While Squatting
If you are experiencing shin splints symptoms, you’ll want to consult a doctor, as shin splints can be a serious injury leading to other issues. I’m not a doctor, and it would be wise to seek medical attention for any injuries.
With that said, let’s look at four common reasons why shin splints might occur while squatting and how to correct those issues:
1. Flat Feet
Flat feet occur when the inside part of the foot touches the ground at the same level as your heel.
A normal foot position would maintain a definite arch on the inside of the foot. While squatting into the bottom position, you want to make sure that this arch doesn’t collapse. This is because the arch acts as a shock-absorber, much like when your car goes over a pothole. The force that would normally travel through your ankle and into the floor, is now distributed unevenly in the lower limb without being supported by the arch.
You can read all about how to fix flat feet while squatting in another article I wrote.
To know if you have flat feet while squatting, set up a camera and take a video of your feet. Try squatting without shoes and socks, and observe whether your arch is collapsing as you get deeper into the bottom position.
If your arch is collapsing, a good cue to implement is to ‘claw the ground with your feet’. In order to keep your arch, you want to feel the pinky toe, big toe, and heel on the floor, and try to ‘grip’ the ground.
2. Poor Ankle Mobility
Getting to proper squat depth, requires you to have adequate mobility through your ankles.
The term ‘dorsiflexion’ is the action of your ankle flexing up or pointing your toes to the ceiling.
The deeper you go in a squat, the more dorsiflexion is required. If you’re struggling to get depth because of poor ankle mobility, then there will be additional stress placed on the medial (inside) ankle, which is the lower part of your shin. This can be a primary cause of shin splints, even for people who don’t squat.
You’ll know if you have poor ankle mobility if your calves feel tight as you get deeper in the squat. You may also find your heels coming off the floor, which is a way the ankle compensates for poor mobility.
To mitigate this issue, you’ll want to make sure to warm up properly for squats, which include dynamic stretching and mobilization drills for the ankle.
My two favorite mobilization drills prior to squatting are one where you try to mobilize the upper part of the calf, and the other a dynamic stretch to increase dorsiflexion:
3. Poor Knee Tracking
While squatting, you want your knees tracking over your toes, avoiding having your knees caving inward.
Your knees caving inward in the squat is primarily due to a lack of stability in your glute medius (the outer/side of your glute). When there is a lack of stability in one part of the body, other areas tend to compensate in order to accommodate the loading on the overall system. In this case, the muscles and tissues of the lower leg are compensating for this glute deficiency and may cause a disproportionate amount of stress.
If your knees cave inward in the squat, it can cause a whole host of issues, one of them being shin splints. knee tracking on its own will likely not produce shin splits, but certainly, in combination with poor ankle mobility and flat feet, it can be one of the contributing factors.
Whether it’s the main cause or not, you’ll want to strengthen your glute medius regardless. My two favorite exercises are Lateral Band Walks and Clamshells. You can perform these exercises before you squat in order to prime the glute medius for greater loads.
4. Inefficient Bar Path
When you squat, you want the barbell to travel in a vertical plane.
While keeping the barbell in a straight line may not be doable for some people based on individual mechanics, you’ll still want to optimize for a vertical bar path as much as possible.
If you find that in the bottom of the squat the barbell travels forward from the vertical bar path, then two things occur:
- You’re requiring more dorsiflexion from the ankle (described above), which if you already have poor ankle mobility will create undue stress of the lower limb.
- You’re compressing the tissues of the outer calf beyond what would be considered optimal, which may cause soreness in the muscles behind the tibia.
If the bar is traveling forward in the bottom of the squat, a good cue to remember is to ‘squat down or back, but not ‘forward’. You may also want to intentionally think about initiating the squat by flexing at the hips first, just to ensure the hips are behind you while in the bottom.
What To Do If You Have Shin Splits While Squatting
In addition to the cues and corrections mentioned above, there are some other things you should do if you have shin splits while squatting:
- Identify other activities that could cause shin splints. If you experience shin splints while squatting, try to identify other activities outside the gym that may have contributed. If you do a lot of walking, running, or jumping, then the shin splints might be due to improper technique or overuse in those activities, and not squatting.
- Reduce squat frequency. While experiencing shin splints, you’ll want to reduce the number of times per week you perform squats. If you’re squatting 2-3 times per week, then consider reducing to one time per week. If you squat one time per week, consider not squatting for a couple of weeks until the pain subsides.
- Reduce the training load. You’ll want to either keep the load the same or reduce it. If you’re dealing with shin splints, this isn’t the time to increase bar load.
- Ice your shins. You can use icing protocols, such as 20-min on, 40-min off, to reduce the inflammation at the shins. This will help improve the healing process.
How Long Can Shin Splints Last?
If you recognie the immediate signs of shin splints while squatting, and you take immediate action, most people have suggested that 1-3 weeks is an adequate amount of time to recover.
However, often times, people experience a slight discomfort in their shins, and continue squatting or performing activities that stress the shin muscles. This can lead to increased recovery time, or even other types of injury.
As I said, most people will not experience shin splints while squatting. Although it can happen, it’s not a common injury. If you do have shin splints while squatting, it is likely due to a combination of flat feet, poor ankle mobility, improper knee tracking, and an inefficient bar path. You’ll want to implement the exercises and cueing strategies mentioned above, in addition to modifying your training program until the pain subsides.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
What other exercises should you avoid if you have shin splints?
Other squatting movements to avoid would be overhead squats and front squats. Both of these movements require more dorsiflexion of the ankle and would be an undue amount of stress on the lower limb if you have poor ankle mobility to start.