Lower Back Pain from Squats: Causes, Solutions, and More

Lower back pain from squats

In the world of strength training, squats have earned a reputation as a fundamental lower-body exercise that can build serious leg strength, enhance muscle size, and improve one’s athletic performance. Unfortunately, they also have a bit of a reputation for causing lower back soreness, stiffness, or even pain. It’s not that squats are a bad exercise, but rather that back pain after squatting can arise if a few critical factors are overlooked.

Overlooking these factors can lead to missed squat sessions, missed training in general, decreased physical performance, and decreased physical ability. Thankfully, ensuring you adhere to a few key principles can reduce or even eliminate the problem, which means you can keep building bigger, stronger legs and a more physically robust body.

As a licensed physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist, I can assure you that the following information is critical for any lifter who squats to be aware of – and incorporate – into their training. So, if you’re wondering why squats hurt your lower back, keep reading.

Common causes of lower back pain in squats:

When it comes to experiencing lower back after squatting, it’s critical to realize there can be numerous causes. These causes can range from exercise technique factors, such as poor biomechanics (positioning and movement of the body), to factors involving one’s training parameters.

Additionally, numerous tissues within or near the back can cause sensations of tightness, aching, discomfort, or pain in the lower back region. The most commonly affected tissues that cause lower back pain after squatting are:

  • Muscles and their respective tendons.
  • Joints (notably the facet joints of the spine and the sacroiliac joint).
  • Intervertebral discs (fibrocartilage discs that sit between each vertebra).
  • Nerves (notably the nerve root, which is the portion of the nerve near the spinal cord).

The general warning signs to look out for when dealing with low back pain can be quite numerous, but most often include:

  • Pain that continues to gradually worsen during or after squatting or training sessions.
  • Pain that spreads to larger or different areas of your back or into your buttock or leg.
  • Pain that feels like electrical shocks (indicating a nerve root is being compressed).

Related: 10 Common Exercise Pains You Should Never Ignore

Improper form and technique

Proper form and technique during the squat – any squat – is essential and should be considered a non-negotiable for any lifter. This is especially true as one begins to increase the load of their squats. The heavier the load, the more pristine your squat mechanics must be.

While every lifter’s squat form and technique might have subtle differences, every lifter should incorporate the following form and technique principles into their squat:

  • Maintaining a neutral lumbar spine (lower back) at all times throughout the movement; the lower back should never round or hyperextend at any point.
  • Feel that they have full control of the weight at all times, even when performing fast-tempo squats or explosive squats.
  • Use a stance width that affords balance and stability at all times.
  • Use a range of motion that is appropriate for what their body can tolerate (more on this in the following sections).

Failing to adhere to these principles can lead to nasty and even debilitating injuries of the lumbar spine (the bottom five vertebrae), such as bulged or herniated discs, radiculopathy (compression of nerve roots that exit the spine and run into the leg), strained muscles, and irritated joints within the spine and pelvis.

Related: Lower Back Pain After Deadlift: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Weak core muscles and poor stability

The torso of the human body is comprised of multiple muscles and various other tissues that help to create optimal function (movement and stability). For various reasons, these muscles can be in a dysfunctional state, reducing their ability to effectively help stabilize and control the spine with activities such as squatting.

Some of these muscles act like a corset, wrapping in a somewhat horizontal fashion around the torso, while others run upwards and downwards along the spine, acting like girders or re-enforcement beams supporting a standing tower.

When either or both of these types of muscles lack the capacity to brace and stabilize the torso during a squat, a few things can happen:

  • These muscles can work beyond their capacity and be overexerted, leading to muscle strain and injury of the muscle(s).
  • Certain muscles may have to over-perform to make up for the under-performance of other critical core muscles, leading to muscle tightness, spasm, or soreness.
  • The position of the spine can deviate or move in ways that may irritate the discs (known as the intervertebral discs) or joints of the spine (known as the facet joints).

Thankfully, some interventions, such as wearing weightlifting belts, can help keep your lower back safe when worn properly. Additionally, there are proven core and spine-strengthening exercises that have been scientifically shown to strengthen these critical core muscles and have a proven track record for improving low back health for those suffering from low back pain after squatting. Keep on reading to learn what they are!

Related: Can A Weightlifting Belt Reduce the Risk of Low Back Injury?

Limited ankle, knee and hip mobility

The squat is a compound movement, meaning multiple joints (and, therefore, muscles) within the body must produce effective movement for the successful execution of the exercise. The three major body parts that must undergo movement to complete the squat are:

  • The hip joint
  • The knee joint
  • The ankle joint

The human body should always be thought of as one long kinetic chain, meaning when producing movement, parts of the body are linked together in a manner that collectively helps to contribute to movement and force production. This means that if one area of the chain isn’t moving optimally, it can influence how the body moves and performs elsewhere in the chain, either above or below.

Excessive load or intensity

While it may sound obvious, squatting with excessive load or training with excessive intensity during one’s squat session or workout can lead to lower back pain after squats. Muscle tissue and other tissues within the body (fascia, cartilage, ligaments, etc.) can be stressed beyond their functional capacity, leading to soreness, stiffness, discomfort, or pain in the lower back after squatting.

This type of excessive demand from the lower back tissues is known as acute (sudden or brand-new) over-exertion. It often arises as a sudden pain that you feel when you’re in the middle of performing a physical task.

The counterpart to acute overload is chronic overload, where the tissues (muscles, tendons, joints, etc.) are repeatedly stressed without adequate time to rest and recover, slowly driving the health of the tissue into the ground. This type of pain often sneaks up on lifters since there’s typically no sudden or instantaneous pain that arises (it’s a slow, gradual onset).

Overuse or excessive training

It’s critical to understand that training with excessively heavy resistance loads or intensity when squatting is only part of the equation.

The lower back can become sore or painful from squatting as the result of repeated bouts of physically demanding training or squatting sessions. This ongoing accumulation of training (be it of appropriate intensity or excessive intensity) can lead to chronic overuse. This means the muscles and other associated tissues gradually get overworked as the result of multiple training sessions as opposed to a sudden event from within one particular training session.

This type of overuse can, in part, be offset by incorporating different squat variations and other leg exercises into your training regimen. Doing so can help avoid overuse by preventing overexposure to the exact same positions and loading patterns your back experiences with the traditional squat.

Examples of other effective squat variations can include:

  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Sumo deadlifts
  • Lunges

But there’s more to avoiding chronic overuse than merely incorporating squat variations; keep on reading to learn the importance of training recovery and how to incorporate effective rest and recovery principles into your regimen.

Lack of warm-up or improper warm-up

A proper warm-up is everything, and it should never be discounted by those who plan on squatting with resistance for their workout. Unfortunately, too many lifters fail to incorporate effective warm-up principles and strategies into their squat sessions. A proper warm-up is more than performing a few static stretches to “loosen” your muscles.

When it comes to keeping your lower back healthy and pain-free, a proper warm-up will:

  • Prepare your nervous system to more effectively “talk to” or communicate with your core muscles, helping them to contract and stabilize your torso in a more effective manner.
  • Enhance blood flow into the muscles, keeping them warmer and helping them to be more adaptable to movements and positions involved with the squat.
  • Decrease fluid viscosity in and around the joints of your spine, helping your facet joints (joints of the vertebra) move with less resistance.

Failing to capitalize on any of these principles creates more of an “uphill battle” for your lower back when squatting or working out in general, predisposing you to various aches, pains, and injuries in your lower back.

When it comes to an effective warm-up, your best bet is to learn how to go through the proper sequence of an active dynamic warm-up, which is a type of warm-up that prepares the muscles, tendons, joints, and nervous system for your upcoming workout.

Related: How to Warm-up Before Lifting Weights

Preventing and managing lower back pain:

Knowing about lower back pain when squatting is one thing; being able to eliminate and prevent lower back pain during your squats is another. Use the following insight below to optimize your squat and your overall training routine. This, in turn, will help keep your back (and the rest of your body) as healthy and performance-optimized as possible, allowing you to build stronger legs and increase your physicality without your lower back screaming at you in the process.

Related: How to Avoid the 7 Most Common Back Squat Injuries

Implementing proper form and technique in squats

If you’re not willing to hone and perfect your squat technique, you might as well resign yourself to a lifetime of lousy squats and a lower back that begs for mercy in your later training years. Whether it’s a light goblet squat or a max-effort back squat, optimal squat mechanics will not only increase your lifting performance, but they will also keep your back safe.

While an entire chapter could be written on principles of optimal squat technique, here’s what every lifter should know and incorporate when squatting:

  • Your feet should always stay flat on the ground. Unless you’re deliberately performing sissy squats (which requires a completely different technique), don’t let your heels lift off the floor.
  • Never let your chest point towards the floor. It should be in a somewhat upright position (but not entirely vertical). This can vary based on whether you squat in a low or high bar position. Think of maintaining a “proud chest” for the entire world to see. This keeps your mid-lower spine in a neutral position, saving your back a ton of potential issues.
  • Think about maintaining a stiff or rigid torso throughout the entire movement. Bracing your mid-section like you’re about to receive a punch to the gut is a simple cue you can use to help you explore what it feels like to create tension in your midsection.
  • If you’re new to squatting, be sure to breathe out when rising from the bottom of the squat. If you’re an advanced lifter, you can use the Valsalva maneuver if you’d like.
  • You can opt for wearing a weightlifting belt if you’re squatting relatively heavy loads (usually above 75% one-rep-maximum, for me), but I wouldn’t advise wearing it for lighter squats, as you want to train your core muscles to create stability and tension rather than always relying on the belt to assist.

Strengthening core muscles and improving stability

If you’ve been experiencing lower back pain with squats, it’s almost a guarantee that there’s some extent of muscular dysfunction present within the deep stabilizer muscles of the spine. This can be the deeper segmental stabilizers of the vertebrae or the more global stabilizers of the entire torso. Regardless, eliminating this dysfunction often yields significant improvement in pain reduction and restoration of the functional capacity of the lower back.

Before diving into performing spinal exercises, I would strongly advise getting an assessment from a qualified professional (discussed in the following section). Once a pathoanatomical diagnosis (the determination of which tissues and structures are causing your pain) has been made, dialling in optimal rehabilitative exercises can take place.

For many people, I often advocate incorporating Dr. Stuart McGill’s “big three” exercises into their rehabilitation. This is a series of three exercises that have been shown to have significant effects on improving spine stability and low back health.

If you want proof, read up on Brian Carroll’s lower back rehabilitation (he’s a world-record-holding powerlifter) in the book Gift of Injury, where he talks about incorporating these exercises into his spinal hygiene program.

The three exercises are:

  • The modified curl-up
  • Bird dogs
  • Side planks

These exercises, when done regularly, will help improve the strength and function of various spine-stabilizing muscles, such as:

  • The multifidi muscles
  • The quadratus lumborum
  • The internal obliques
  • The external obliques

Addressing ankle and hip mobility limitations

As mentioned earlier in the article, the squat is a compound movement, meaning multiple joints are involved in the exercise. When some of these joints are limited in producing an adequate range of motion, the lower back must often compensate, typically by flexing (rounding forwards) when lowering into the bottom of the squat. This lower back movement is often known as “butt wink.”

Addressing and restoring any limitations in hip and ankle mobility should be a high priority for anyone performing squats in their training, which can drastically reduce the likelihood of experiencing lower back pain from squats.

Related: Home Stretching Routine: Less Soreness, More Flexibility

Hip mobility issues

While the hips and lower back are anatomically distinct body areas, they’re functionally intertwined when producing movements such as the squat. When one of these two structures is affected by pain or dysfunction, the other often follows along. Sometimes, a painful lower back is merely the victim, while the hip is the true culprit,

You’ll need to make sure you understand the cause of your limited hip mobility (get a physical therapist to help you with this), which will then allow you to determine which types of exercises or mobility drills will be most appropriate and effective for restoring any lost mobility.

There are two general rules you will want to follow when working to restore or improve your hip mobility:

  1. Perform exercises or movements that take your hips through as large of a range of motion as tolerable (there should never be any pain when doing so).
  2. Perform movements that challenge the hip joint’s mobility in all directions (forwards, backwards, sideways, and diagonally.

Any movements and positions should feel like a mild challenge but not aggressive or uncomfortable. It takes time and consistent effort to improve hip mobility, especially if they have been lacking adequate range(s) of motion for a prolonged extent of time.

Ankle mobility issues

The act of pulling your foot upwards is known as dorsiflexion, and ankle dorsiflexion is a critical component of the squat. If the ankle can’t move into a dorsiflexed position during your squat, compensation will arise elsewhere in the lower body, which can place abnormal force or create abnormal movement in your hips or lower back.

If your ankles are limited in their ability to dorsiflex, the first action to consider is squatting with your heels on an elevated surface, such as a slant board, squat wedges, or any similar object. This can also include weightlifting shoes (sometimes known as Oly shoes).

Pro tip: Placing your heels on a 2x4 or 2x6 board works great for those on a budget.

By resting your heels on a slightly elevated surface (one or two inches in height), your ankles will undergo less dorsiflexion during the squat. Ultimately, this will shorten the muscles on the backside of your body (collectively known as the posterior chain) in a manner that allows you to sink deeper into the squat without compromising the position (i.e., rounding) of your lower back in the process.

As you adopt this strategy, get help from a qualified professional who can help you work to improve any ankle mobility issues that may be holding you back from an optimal squat. This heel-elevated squat strategy should be used as a temporary workaround to your limited squat mobility rather than a permanent solution.

Gradually progressing squat intensity and load

It’s admirable that folks want to squat heavy, but sometimes, the body can’t keep pace with the spirit. Even the best lifters in the world don’t train with excessively heavy loads all year round; they periodize their training in a manner that cycles through different training volumes, intensities, and loads.

The easiest way to ensure you’re progressing your squat loads in a safe but effective manner is to use the 2-for-2 rule of progression. This rule states that you can increase the weight for an exercise (in this case, squats) once you can perform two or more repetitions beyond your targeted repetition range on your last set for more than two weeks in a row.

Incorporating regular rest and recovery days

Gaining muscular strength and hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) doesn’t occur while you’re inside the gym; it happens while you’re outside of the gym. You stimulate your muscles when you’re training, but you grow through the process of recovering from your workout (sleep, rest, and proper nutrition).

If you’re not resting, you’re not growing. If you are serious about keeping your body strong, healthy, and resilient against injury, giving your muscles, joints, and nervous system the resources it needs to recover is a non-negotiable. This includes:

  • Allowing at least 48 hours of recovery between lower-body training sessions.
  • Getting ample sleep and rest every evening (eight hours is a general guideline to follow).
  • Eating adequate amounts of protein (the American College of Sports Medicine or ACSM recommends 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day).

Related: Muscle, Recovery, and Results: The Role of Protein in Bodybuilding

If you’re interested in a long and successful pursuit of strength and overall wellness, rest and recovery need to be taken just as seriously as your lifting and conditioning sessions themselves.

Seeking professional guidance from a physical therapist or trainer

Anytime you’re dealing with pain that isn’t going away, it’s in your best interest to get an evaluation and subsequent treatment from a qualified professional. Having a clear-cut understanding of the root cause of the issue allows you to streamline the recovery process while having peace of mind that you’re staying as safe as possible throughout the entire process.

If you’re not sure whether you’re squatting with the ideal technique, hiring a personal trainer or strength coach to evaluate your movement can go a long way in terms of saving you time from trial and error, frustration, and future injury.

It’s best to look at getting guidance from qualified professionals as an investment into your training rather than an impediment; the money you spend now will pay dividends for improving training longevity and physical health in the future.


Building a strong and robust lower body is integral to maximizing your overall athletic performance and physicality. Squats and their subsequent variations can be an outstanding means to achieve this requirement. While experiencing lower back pain during the squat isn’t unheard of, it’s not “normal,” and getting to the bottom of the issue should be your top priority.

Get an evaluation from a qualified professional to help you determine why you’re experiencing lower back pain after squatting, then make a deliberate effort to clean up and optimize your squat routine while ensuring you don’t overload or overtrain your body in the process.

It might take some time, but with the right mindset and dedicated effort, you can make substantial progress with improving your lower back health and return to the squat workouts you long to have.