Have Back Pain During Squats? Here Are 5 Things You May Be Doing Wrong and How To Fix Them

Squats are a staple workout—and it’s easy to see why. Known as a compound exercise, they work several muscle groups all at once. They’re also a functional movement because they mirror activities we do in everyday life.

“They are an effective exercise to strengthen the entire lower body, targeting the glutes and quadriceps, and are a part of everyday activities such as sitting and standing,” says Portia Page, CPT, NCPT, a fitness educator with Balanced Body.

Squats can also be a source of lower back pain for some people if not done properly. However, these mistakes can usually be corrected so you can enjoy all the benefits squats have to offer.

“Squats tend to be an exercise that scare people—they worry about their back, knees, lifting too much weight, or they can become too focused on perfect form,” says physical therapist Kathryn Sawyer, PhD, assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine’s doctor of physical therapy program in Seattle. “We want people to move mindfully, not fearfully, and squats can be a fantastic exercise for many people.”

Tips for doing a squat with correct form

To do a squat, start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Make sure your head and neck are in alignment with the rest of your spine, your pelvis is in a neutral position, and your shoulders are back and down.

Engage and brace your core as you keep your chest square. Push your hips back as you descend, bending your knees as if you’re going to sit down. Once you reach the end of your range of motion, press back up through your feet to a standing position.

“As you lower, your back should remain in a neutral position, and the knees should stay in alignment with the toes,” says Melissa Kendter, CPT, certified functional strength coach at United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

However, keep in mind that one type of squat won’t work for everyone—you may find you need modifications for your specific body type. For instance, you might prefer to point your toes straight forward or it may feel more natural to turn the feet slightly outward.

“I think some people believe there’s a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to performing squats, and that’s a mistake,” Dr. Sawyer says. “Things like positioning, center of gravity, placement of the load like dumbbells or barbells, and range of motion will be slightly different for everyone.”

5 mistakes that can cause lower back pain during squats

You shouldn’t experience lower back pain—or any type of back pain, for that matter—while you squat. If you are, here are common reasons why it might be happening and how to fix them.

1. You don’t keep your back neutral

As you squat, check to see if your upper back is curving. Remember, it’s key to keep a neutral spine and a square chest throughout the movement.

“If you lean too far forward during the exercise, this will put a tremendous amount of stress on the spine and back, which could lead to low back discomfort,” Kendter says.

Overarching or overextending the back can also place too much stress on your low back and spine. Engaging your core to maintain a neutral spine and initiating the movement with your hips will help avoid this.

However, a “neutral” spine may not necessarily mean “straight” for you.

“Don’t worry so much about keeping your back ‘straight,’ but focus on maintaining the natural curves in your back,” Dr. Sawyer says. “This is also known as a ‘neutral’ spine, and it helps distribute force more evenly. Neutral looks a little different for everyone, due to anatomical differences.”

2. You lift your heels off the floor

Imagine adhering your feet into the ground as you squat.

“It’s essential that the heels stay in contact with the floor throughout the entire movement,” Kendter says. “Press up through the heels, both the balls of the feet, and the toes.”

That balance is important: Lifting your heels off the ground or pressing so far into your heels that you tip backward can cause back pain during a squat.

If you have limited ankle mobility, your knees and lower back can overcompensate, leading to improper squat mechanics and increased stress on your lower back. A common test for lack of ankle mobility is if you can’t squat without lifting your heels.

Several factors can cause poor ankle mobility, including genetics and disease like osteoarthritis, per the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). The normal range of motion for ankle mobility is between 10 and 20 degrees. If you think you might have limited ankle mobility, chat with your physician or physical therapist to determine the cause, plus exercises or stretches for improvement.

“I think some people believe there’s a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to performing squats, and that’s a mistake.” —Kathryn Sawyer, PhD

3. You have tight hip muscles

If you experience low back pain during squats, it could also be due to tight hip muscles.

“When these muscles are tight, they can pull on the pelvis, causing an anterior pelvic tilt and placing increased stress on the lower back,” Kendter says.

Hip muscles tend to get tight when you sit throughout the day because this position puts muscles like the hip flexors in a compressed position, per the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). (Try these stretches for tight hips to start moving better in just 12 minutes.)

“A daily practice of squats will also create more dynamic flexibility around the hips, knees, and ankles, helping to ease the stiffness that comes with age,” Page says.

4. Your knees cave in during the squat

Weak hips can cause your knees to cave in during squat, which plays a role in back pain.

“There is a significant amount of stress put on the knees and hips when the knees cave in during a squat,” Kendter says. “Ideally, the knees should stay in alignment with the toes throughout the movement.”

If this is difficult for you, you may need to work on improving your glute and hip strength. Here are personal trainers’ favorite glute exercises that actually work.

Contrary to traditional advice, you can let your knees extend past your toes during a squat (as long as they don’t cave inward).

“We used to tell people not to let their knees go past their toes, but recent research recommends not to limit this motion in healthy people,” Dr. Sawyer says.

That research, an April 2023 review in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, found allowing the toes-over-knees motion may even be favorable or necessary for a large number of athletes to achieve the best optimal training outcomes and reduce stress on the lumbar spine and hip.

5. You go beyond your limits

If you’re lifting too much during a squat and experiencing back pain, you might not be strong enough for that load yet.

“A common mistake that can cause lower back pain during squats is using excessive weight,” Kendter says. “When you attempt to squat with a weight that is too heavy for your current strength level, your lower back may compensate for the lack of stability, leading to strain and discomfort.”

That said, Dr. Sawyer adds that lifting heavier weights shouldn’t be feared—there are several benefits to it and your body will adapt to load in favorable ways. It is important, however, to gradually work up to heavier loads to avoid injury and pain.

“If pain persists, a physical therapist can be helpful in determining the cause and working with you to figure out what solutions are best for you as an individual,” Dr. Sawyer says.

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