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Squats That Actually Cause Low Back Problems

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There are two things that everyone who squats worry about, knees and low backs. We’ve discussed a lot about how different techniques and squats can impact the knees. What about low backs though? There is A LOT of claims made on social media about what squats are best for low back pain or sparring the low back, but how much truth is there to any of it? Let’s delve into a few popular squats that are supposedly good for low backs, but may not be as much as we think.

Belt Squats

Belt squats are often touted as great squats to spare the low back because there isn’t any load coming down from the top onto the back. At first glance, this would make a quite a bit of sense as it is the axial loading (typically found in back squats for example) that is found to be problematic for many low back issues. Therefore, it would stand to reason that something like belt squats would be a good solution. However, there is a pretty large BUT coming!

If we look at where the load connects on belt squats we would see it is around our waist. So?! That means when we move during the squat the load is actually pulling on the lumbar/pelvis areas. This causes the body needing to resist be pulled into great lumbar extension. Without already having great knowledge of how to use the core and as strong existing core, this could cause lifters to be pulled into excessive lumbar movement that could make worse many low back issues.

I would add that most don’t learn to use their core correctly on belt squats as well because you do a quick google search for belt squats and you see trunk angles much more forward leaning that we would see in other squats. That combined with the fact you see another great deal of belt squats results in the lifter holding onto something to balance themselves. While this still stresses muscles it does NOT teach the muscles how to control the body in space more effectively and have the transfer to real life as effectively.

Landmind Squats

Overall, I think people really miss the issues with landmines. I’ve outlined some of the biggest one’s in posts like those HERE. I realize people like landmine squats because they THINK it makes teaching movement much easier. If it did, I would be TOTALLY game for it, but here are a few issues.

-Bad Movement of Weight: If you use just about any other training tool the weight moves completely vertical with your body. Due to the nature of the landmine it creates an arc that is VERY unnatural in squatting. In fact, if you position yourself correctly, the weight moves away from you as you raise up from the squat putting more load in the low back. Take it from someone who has low back issues since they were 14 from a spinal disease, it makes a BIG difference!

-Doesn’t Teach How To Control The Movement: Like many instances where people use artificial support to help balance clients (there is a time and place for this but it is very limited), these types of drills don’t transfer to the lifter controlling their own body very well. Why? Because people use the artificial support for balance and don’t learn how to control their own body as they move. Compared to a Press Out, Goblet, or Bear Hug Squat where the weight helps guide, but you control the movement, the landmine does most of the controlling for you.


Back Squats

Before all the name calling begins and saying that I’ve never squatted heavy, done back squats, or don’t know how to squat starts up, let me assure you that I have a long history with back squats. Like so many, when I began in the fitness industry I thought back squats were essential in developing strength. When I worked in a Division I Strength & Conditioning program, back squats were for everyone, of course our strength coach was also a powerlifter.

Let me try to simplify this point from actual research...” Front squats were found to produce significantly lower maximal joint compressive forces at the knee as well as reduced lumbar stress as compared with back squats. However, the study discovered that this was accomplished without compromising muscle activation of the hamstrings, quadriceps and erector spinae teals. This suggests that S&C coaches should utilise front squats as an alternative to back squats for athletes with ligament and meniscus injuries.”


Gullett, Jonathan C., et al. “A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.1 (2009): 284-292

And...”In addition to this, while performing the back squat the athlete is required to adopt a flexed upper body position at the mid-point of the exercise in order to maintain an efficient balanced technique. Whereas the front squat allows for a more upright posture throughout. Comfort and Kasim (2007) noted this this increase in trunk lean during a back squat, can result in greater shear forces occurring at the lumbar spine region, presenting a possible injury risk. Thus, Comfort et al., (2011) aimed to explore muscle activation of the trunk during dynamic strengthening exercises using EMG. Results reported significantly greater erector spinae activity during the front squat when compared to the back squat. The study was then concluded that the front squat can be a valuable substitute to the back squat as higher muscle activity levels can be achieved using less weight.”

Soooo, same muscle activity, same strength potential, less stress on knees and low back. Why again would we want to use back squats? The funny part the answer I usually receive is because “it is part of the basics” which I say, “says who” and “we can’t evolve the basics when we get better science?” The reality is that people like the big loads you see on back squats because it is a more stable holding position than the front. If you want to get strong, get muscular, and save your low backs and knees, then prioritizing front loaded position squats is probably ideal.

The Solutions?

While you may be expecting this to become one big Ultimate Sandbag promotion, let me say I think there are several tools can be used much more effectively but my TWO favorites are Ultimate Sandbags and kettlebells. Why? For one, we can progress them in ways that most other tools can be done to go from foundations to good squats to some pretty heavy and challenging squatting progressions. That is the other part, one thing that people THINK has to be the reason barbells stay on top of the gym food chain is because they are the heaviest tools. There could be an argument there IF kettlebells and Ultimate Sandbags were constructed and were used in the same manner.

However, kettlebells are two independent weights that sit on the body very differently than a barbell and Ultimate Sandbags have very different dimensional components and sit on the body very differently than barbells or kettlebells. My point is that it is an apples to oranges comparison of load because they are used and structured so differently.

What kettlebells and Ultimate Sandbags allow us to also importantly allow us to accomplish with squats is to keep the core engaged the entire time. In doing so we control the trunk/pelvis better, gain better hip mobility, spare the low back more while stressing the hips and lower body to a high degree. That is why these are better solutions for squats and won’t start to cause the low back issues that some other types (like we discussed) could cause.

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Press Out Squat Form

Physical therapist, Dan Swinscoe breaks down some key elements.

Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Bear Hug Squat Technique

Front Loaded Squat Form

Progressions Of Kettlebell Squats (Hardest to Easiest)