I talk with and see many athletes on a daily basis with back injuries or pain, many of which are avoidable. When I say avoidable, I am not talking about a person lifting a weight heavier than is safe for them or using what appears to be poor technique. What I am talking about are the more subtle parts of the lift, the things that go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
When it comes to the squatting motion, there are very small subtleties between a squat that will not aggravate the back and a squat that will cause issues eventually. These subtleties come both from how you initiate the movement as well as how you stand up from the bottom position.
What does this difference look like?
It starts with how you initiate the movement from standing. You can initiate by unlocking the knees, allowing them to come forward slightly. Or you can initiate by hinging at the hips first and taking your butt slightly backward. You will end up at the same point regardless of how you initiate, which is why this is often overlooked, but the muscles being activated and the position the joints are put in during the movement is where the difference lies.
When standing up from the bottom of the squat, once again, I am looking at how the movement begins. Are you extending your back slightly to start the motion? Or are you pushing through your legs and using the hips as the driver? Once again, you end up at the same point regardless of which method you use, but the muscles that are firing are the big difference. This difference is ultimately where most injuries occur.
What causes these differences of movements?
The common contributors to these movement pattern differences are
Core (trunk) control deficits
Your body just doesn’t know what to do
If your body doesn’t have the ability to get in the proper positions due to stiffness/tightness, then your body will naturally compensate in order to achieve what it believes is the proper movement. The common areas where mobility deficits are found that contribute to these injuries are the upper back, the hips, and the ankles. Unless you are one of the lucky few that have great mobility or you have worked on these for the purpose of improving your mobility, they are likely stiffer than ideal.
I can say firsthand that I was that tight/stiff person for years; I thought there was nothing that could be done. My upper back has been stiff for as long as I can remember. I had surgery on my right ankle 15 years ago and truly thought it was not going to loosen up any more. Once I started to focus on mobility in those areas daily, everything improved! Who knew it was that simple!?!?!
Core (trunk) control deficits
When in the bottom of a squat, many people have a very forward torso. This is often a compensation because of mobility deficits, but at times it is a situation of poor stability and control of the trunk, aka weakness! We need a significant amount of trunk control and stability with squats. It is required with all squats, but as you change from back squats, to front squats, to overhead squats, the amount of stability and control required increases.
There are hundreds of ways to address the control, stability, and strength of the torso. I always suggest keeping it fun and mixing it up. The more you challenge yourself with different types of exercises, the better off you will be in the long run for everything fitness or life may throw at you.
The body doesn’t know what to do
The other issue I find is sometimes the body just doesn’t know how to move correctly. As we go through life, we create bad habits in the way we do our day to day tasks. Those habits carry over into the gym. If your body has not actually performed a correct squat for many years, then it is not magically going to move in perfect form.
More often than not, though, this issue occurs once the mobility is regained. Just because we now have the mobility to actually move properly, doesn’t mean it is just going to happen. The body remembers how it has moved for years and sticks with those habits. This can be the most frustrating stage, as it can take a long time for the body to learn how to move differently, especially when we add speed or weight to the movement. Once I regained my mobility, it took a good 3-4 months for me to actually be able to hit the correct position when moving quickly to catch a squat clean or squat snatch.
If some of this hits home, it is time to start working addressing your deficits. Need help with this? Not sure what to do for your specific situation? Email [email protected] to receive the help you need.