Lower back injuries can be both acute and chronic, from muscle spasms, pinched nerves and muscle tears to tendon and ligament strains, intervertebral disc slips or bone fractures. It’s very hard to distinguish acute from chronic injuries since many factors influnce back pain. Very often, lower back specialists say that back injuries occur progressively as a result of long-term dysfunction of the adjacent body parts and the core itself.
In this article, I would like to share some of my thoughts and practical advice on how to improve squatting technique and prevent lower back injuries.
- Learn how to breathe and brace
The breathing techinque is a crucial element for core muscle activation, overall core stability and health. During the inhalation, intra-abdominal pressure raises and the belly should expand in the front and on the side. The muscles around the core canister (multifidi, QL, obliques, TrA and rectus) together with the pelvic floor muscles and immensly important diaphragm contract together in order to brace, therefore providing an optimal environment for lower back safety. Stand up and place your palms around the core. If you feel your chest coming up while your belly is not pushing your hands away, you need to work on your breathing mechanics. A simple way to improve the quality of your breathing pattern while squatting is explained in this tutorial video.
- Develop appropriate mobility
The human body is structured perfectly so we can easily roll, walk, jump and run. Optimal mobility is mandatory to produce the force through the movements in our joints (i.e. ankles, knees and hips). Everyday lifestyle, especially too much sitting, can lead to stiff ankles, hips and thoracic spine. When people lose hip or t-spine mobility, they start to compensate by overusing the lower back to produce the force. Over some period of time (depending on ones ability to withstand the stress) it is very possible that a person will develop lower back pain. In this video Kelly Starrett explains several exercises for improving hip mobility.
- Maintain mobility and soft tissue suppleness
If you understand and accept the ‘mobility concept’ and you develop appropriate mobility in your ankles, hips, t-spine and shoulders, maintain mobility by performing different full body exercises on a daily basis. The overhead squat (as in the photo above) is definitely one of the best exercises to maintain proper full body mobility. Furthermore, before exercising, unglue your soft tissues with different self myo-fascial release techniques and stretching.
- Strive for technical proficiency
Is it hard to recognize faulty squatting mechanics? No. It is very easy to notice poor feet position, caved in knees and an over-arched back. When squatting, keep your feet pointed forward (or slightly opened), shove your knees towards the little toe, brace your core and squeeze your fists or whatever you’re holding (barbell, dumbbells, medicine ball). The tension will provide even more stability, not just in the core but in the shoulders, knees and feet as well. Look straight ahead to maintain a good head position (neutral spine).
- Set the appropriate load
All the aforementioned advice means nothing if we overload the bar on the weighted squat. The catch is quite simple, a person thinks he/she is able to lift more weight on the following set. It is possible that their legs can lift up a bit more weight, but the more important question is: CAN HIS/HER CORE WITHSTAND THE LOAD ON THE SPINE AND SOFT TISSUES AROUND IT? So, when you go for your PB on weighted squats, listen to your core rather than your legs.
As you can see, performing squats in a safe manner is a complex task. But in order to stay healthy and far from lower back injuries, you need to take into account the aforementioned suggestions. Preventing back pain will not just make your exercising possible, but everyday activities more comfortable and enjoyable too.