If you’re rounding in the back while squatting, this can decrease your performance and increase your risk of injury. However, depending on where you’re rounding in your back (i.e. low-back, mid-back, or upper-back), the causes and solutions are going to different.
So what causes a round back during squats? If you round in the low back, it can be caused by a shallow hip structure, tight hips, or a loss of balance. If you round in the mid-back, it can be caused by weak spinal erectors. If you round in the upper back, it can be caused by a lack of tightness prior to lifting the barbell or poor bar placement.
What you need to assess is where your rounding is coming from while squatting and then implement solutions to fix it. In this article, I’ll cover the exact steps you need to fix a rounded back during squats.
Let’s get started!
If you’re rounding your back while squatting, you might also experience a rounded back while deadlifting. The causes and solutions are different for deadlifting, so make sure to check out my two articles on Is It Okay To Deadlift With A Round Back? And, How To Keep Your Back Straight Deadlifting.
Is Squatting With A Round Back Bad?
If you’re squatting with a round back it’s going to be one of the technical improvements that you’ll want to address right away.
This is because the most efficient position to be in while squatting is where your joints are stacked and your spine is neutral. The more your back rounds, the greater the shear force on the spine, which over time and with heavy enough loads can be dangerous.
Let me explain:
Sheer Force is a force that acts parallel (or horizontal) to a surface.
So during a normal squat, you have a vertical line of force from the load sitting on your back going into the spine (i.e. the surface). This is normal, and with a neutral spine, you can build immense muscular strength and spinal durability.
However, once your back starts rounding, you create horizontal (parallel) forces that act on the vertebrae. In this scenario, not only is the force of the barbell pressing down into your spine, it’s now pressing sideways as well (parallel to the floor).
If you continue to apply these parallel forces to your spine it can cause extreme stress, which can prolapse or herniate discs when heavy loads are applied over time.
So it’s not to say that if you round your back today that you’ll be injured automatically. But this sort of technique is extremely risky if you continue to squat like this long-term, especially if you’re a powerlifter or strength athlete.
Is There Any Time Where Squatting With A Round Back Is Okay?
The only time where squatting with a round back might be considered acceptable is if you’re an elite powerlifter going for a max attempt in a competition setting.
This is not to say that I endorse squatting heavy with a round back.
However, when a competitive powerlifter is squatting a maximal attempt, their bodily structure is going to breakdown in some way. Sometimes this might look like their back rounding slightly under the extreme stress of pushing their muscles, tissues, and ligaments to the limit.
In all circumstances though these lifters do not squat with a rounded back in training, and they make every effort to maintain neutral alignment of their spine.
If these lifters identified that their back was rounding in competition, they will go back to the training environment knowing they have a weakness in that area and will implement fixes so that it doesn’t happen again in the future.
Low Back Rounding While Squatting
The low back rounding in the squat looks like the hips tucking underneath of you causing excessive lumbar flexion. It usually happens when you’re performing ass to grass squats, as you drop your hips below parallel. Low back rounding can occur with light loads, as often the cause is not weak muscle groups. Low back rounding in the squat is also referred to as a ‘butt wink’.
Why Does Your Low Back Round? And, What To Do About It?
There are three main reasons why your low back rounds in the squat:
- Shallow hip socket
- Tight hips
- Loss of balance
1. You have a shallow hip socket
Having a shallow hip socket means that the way the pelvis, hip socket, and femur (upper leg bone) connect has a lower angle than what’s considered normal (coxa vara – far left image in the diagram).
What this means is that the way that you’re built will simply cause low back rounding while performing deep squats.
With a shallow hip socket, as you squat down your hips will have a harder time extending beyond the neutral position. So the extra range of motion to get deeper needs to come from the low back (not the hips).
Unfortunately, this is an anatomical difference that can’t be stretched or strengthened.
You can test whether you have a shallow hip socket by performing the following test:
If it’s determined that you have a shallow hip socket, then you can try two things:
- Assume a wider squat stance
Someone with a shallow hip socket will feel more uncomfortable the narrower they squat.
As such, you should experiment with a stance wider than shoulder-width, and as you squat down, think about pushing your hips back and your knees out.
Keep in mind, the wider you squat, the more your toes should be flared out.
- Invest in a pair of squat shoes
Most lifters with a shallow hip socket will prefer wearing heeled vs flat shoes for squatting.
After testing and reviewing over 10 pairs of squat shoes, my top pick based on cost and performance is the Adidas Powerlift 4 (click for today’s price on Amazon).
The heeled portion of the shoe will give you slightly more range in the ankle, which means your hips don’t need to travel as far to achieve greater levels of depth in the squat.
2. You have tight hips
In order to squat to a full range of motion, your hips need to travel through an extended range of motion.
If you force your hips into a deep end range and they’re not ready to handle this level of mobility, your body will still allow you to squat lower, but the extra range will come from lumbar flexion (low back), not hip flexion.
So unlike having a shallow hip structure where your hips are restricted from an anatomical perspective, in this scenario, your hips are designed properly but your tissues and muscles are simply too tight.
The good news is that you can stretch and work on your hip mobility over time and achieve a greater range of motion without having your low back do all of the work.
The three best stretches for working on your hip mobility are:
- Frog Stretch
- Foot Elevated Runner’s Lunge
- Pigeon Stretch
3. You lack balance
If your hip socket is not shallow and you’ve determined that you have adequate hip mobility, then your low back rounding might be due to postural shifts while squatting.
A postural shift is when you feel your body moving off its natural center of gravity, where you typically rock between the front and back of the foot.
While your feet may stay flat on the floor, your weight will constantly be shifting forward and back.
In the case of your low back rounding in the squat, if you feel like you’re falling forward in the squat as you get deeper, your low back will need to compensate for a lack of balance and control.
In an optimal squat position, you want your centre of gravity directly over the midline of the foot throughout the entire range of motion.
To improve your balance, you should work on the following things:
- Cue “Claw The Ground With Your Feet”
To feel balanced, you must cue your feet into the floor.
You want to think about clawing (or gripping) your big toe and pinky toe into the floor, while at the same time feeling pressure on your heel.
If you’re interested in reading more about cues to use for the squat, check out my article on the 9 Squat Cues To Improve Your Technique.
- Crack At Your Hips And Knees At The Same Time
You may feel like you’re falling forward in the squat if you initiate the squat by bending at the knees first. By doing this, you automatically shift your body weight onto the front part of the foot.
Instead, you should think about starting the squatting by bending both your knees and hips at the same time.
- Record Your Training From The Side
You’ll only be able to identify whether you’re keeping the barbell over the midfoot while you squat if you record yourself squatting from the side.
This is also an excellent practice to determine whether you’re making improvements over time because you can compare video footage.
Mid-Back Rounding While Squatting:
The mid-back rounding in the squat looks like the middle of your back curled forward. Lifters who have this problem can usually start the squat with a neutral back, but as they drive out of the bottom position the mid-back starts to round. This is especially the case when the lifter uses heavy weights.
Why Does Your Mid-Back Round? And, What To Do About It?
There are two main reasons why your mid-back rounds in the squat:
- Poor proprioception
- Weak spinal erectors
1. You have poor proprioception
Proprioception is the body’s ability to perceive how we move in space, including how our different limbs work together to produce movement.
The squat is considered a complex movement because of the role of multiple muscle groups and joints needing to work together, from your ankles, knees, hips, and torso.
If you are new to squatting, you might be rounding in the mid-back simply because you haven’t learned how to keep your spine neutral in relation to the rest of your body.
The best way that I’ve found to teach athletes how to keep their spine neutral is by getting them to both flex and extend their spine, and then allow them to find the mid-point between these two end ranges.
The best exercise for teaching spinal alignment is the cat-cow stretch:
As you can see, you’ll move the spine through both of its end ranges, rounding and extending. Then once you’ve got the hang of what that feels like, you’ll try to bring your spine into ‘neutral’, which is the halfway point between these end ranges.
By learning how to find a neutral spine, you’ll then be better equipped to replicate that while you’re squatting.
2. You have weak spinal erectors
So unless you’re brand new to lifting, the primary reason why you’re rounding in the mid-back while you squat is because you have weak spinal erectors.
The spinal erectors are the muscles that run vertically along each side of your spine. They have a role in extending the spine and maintaining posture while keeping the spine on the pelvis when you lift.
When you have a muscular weakness of any kind, the fix is usually pretty obvious, i.e. implement exercises that work on your areas of development.
However, the fix is not immediate. You typically need between 8-12 weeks of consistent training before you start to see any improvement.
To fix, I would only use loads in the squat that allow you to keep your spine neutral. Then, I would dedicate an entire training day to bring up your spinal erector strength, which should include some of the following exercises:
- Block Deadlifts
- Snatch Grip Deadlifts
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Good Mornings
- Standing Cable Pull Throughs
- Pendlay Rows
- 45-Degree Back Extension
- Reverse Hypers
Upper-Back Rounding While Squatting
The upper back rounding in the squat looks like your shoulders curled forward. Lifters who squat with a rounded upper back usually experience it throughout the entire movement, starting right from when they pick up the barbell off the rack. It’s most often caused by poor posture and technique, and in rare cases, weak upper back muscles.
Why Does Your Upper Back Round? And, What To Do About It?
There are four main reasons why your upper back rounds in the squat:
- Poor Bar Placement
- Lack of Upper Back Tightness
- Lack of Scapular Retraction
- Weak Upper Back Muscles
1. You have poor bar placement
Placing the barbell properly on your back is critical in ensuring your upper back doesn’t round while you squat.
I wrote an entire article on where you should put the barbell on your back.
In short, if you place the barbell too high on your back (at the base of the neck), it can force your shoulders to round forward. There is also the risk that over time you experience neck pain while squatting.
This is why I recommend for most lifters to assume a low bar position while they squat, which would have the barbell sitting somewhere between the middle and top of the rear delt.
If you think you have poor bar placement while squatting, experiment with a lower position and see if it helps with your rounded upper back.
2. You lack upper back tightness
If you’ve picked the barbell off the rack without drawing attention to getting your upper back muscles tight, then it can cause your shoulders to round forward, especially under heavy loads.
The key is to get your upper back muscles tight prior to unracking the barbell. You cannot get your upper back muscles tight once the load is sitting on your back.
In order to get your upper back muscles tight, you need to think about pulling the barbell down and into your back (almost like a lat pulldown). This will activate the muscles in your upper back.
At the same time that you’re actively pulling the bar down with your arms, you want to think about pushing up with your legs into the barbell.
You’re not pushing so hard with your legs where the barbell is going to lift from the rack. But rather, you are trying to create tension at both ends of the barbell. At one end, you’re pulling down, and on the other, you’re pushing up.
Once you feel this tension on the barbell, and your upper back muscles are engaged, you can then lift the barbell from the rack and start squatting. You should see an immediate improvement in keeping your upper back more neutral.
Some lifters also benefit by modifying their grip width on the barbell, either bringing their hands closer or further apart to create eve more upper back tightness.
3. You lack scapular retraction
As part of your squat set-up, you should be thinking about pulling your shoulder blades down and back.
This is called scapular retraction, which is the process of setting your shoulder blades on the back of your ribs. If you don’t do this prior to squatting, then your shoulders will more likely curl forward causing your upper back to look rounded.
When you retract your shoulder blades it will improve your posture and provide additional stability to the shoulder joint.
If you have a hard time engaging the muscles to retract your shoulder blades, you could try to activate them by using a band pull apart prior to squatting:
4. You have weak upper back muscles
While an upper back weakness is less common than having a mid-back weakness, it can still occur if you’re neglecting those muscle groups in your training program.
The muscles that help prevent upper back rounding are the: rear delts, lats, rhomboids, and rotator cuffs.
Even if you don’t think the main reason for your upper back rounding is caused by weak muscles, there’s no harm in implementing more upper back exercises into your program since they will only improve your everyday posture and allow you to maintain optimal shoulder health.
Like any improvement in muscular strength, you’ll want to target the same exercises consistently for 8-12 weeks with increased loads in order to see any progress.
You can either dedicate an entire training day to your upper back development, or you can tag on a couple of upper back exercises after your squat day.
Here are some of the exercises I would include for upper back development:
- Wide-Grip Pull-Up
- Wide-Grip Seated Row
- Rope Face Pull
- Bentover Dumbbell Flys
- Resistance Band External Shoulder Rotation
Depending on where you’re rounding in the squat (low-back, mid-back, upper-back), the causes and corrections will be different. However, once you’ve identified where you’re rounding, and whether the cause is related to muscular weakness, a lack of mobility, or poor technique, you can work to implement the appropriate solution to improve the position of your spine.