“Squats are the king of all exercises!”
If you have ready anything on fitness you have likely come across sayings such as this. Read enough and you could come to the conclusion that squats are the solution for all things fitness. For example you will often encounter:
Want big legs? – Squat!
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Want a nice butt? – Squat!
Want to build a bigger upper body? – Squat!
Want to melt fat off your body? – Squat!
Want to look great in yoga pants? – Squat!
Want to run faster? – Squat!
Want to jump higher? – Squat!
Want to naturally increase your testosterone? – Squat!
Want world peace? – Get more people squatting! (okay I’ll stop now)
What about squatting with back problems?
While this can be great advice for some people, what happens if you have a bad back?
Does that mean you are doomed to fitness failure? Absolutely not! The only people who have to do barbell back squats are powerlifters. There are many alternatives to the traditional barbell back squat and once you find the ones that keep your back happy, you are set to go!
Disclaimer: the following are ideas presented for educational purposes only. This is not medical advice or individualized exercise prescription. Always consult your health care provider before starting any exercise program or before trying any of these exercises.
Bad Back Alternative #1: Anterior Loaded Squats
With a barbell on your back, you will have more direct compression on your spine. By moving the weight to the front, four wonderful things happen, all of which can make squatting easier on your back:
1) You are able to squat with a more vertical torso
2) You will have an easier time maintaining neutral spine (thus avoiding tail tuck)
3) You remove the direct compression force on your spine
4) You naturally recruit more core stabilizers
Here is a list of some great anterior loaded squat variation videos:
Bad Back Alternative #2: Single Leg Squats
Another fantastic and low-back friendly alternative to back squats are the single leg squat, split squat or lunge exercise variations. These exercises offer similar benefits to the anterior loaded squat variations given above. They also offer these additional benefits:
1) Lunge and split squat variations allow your spine to stay even more vertical than an anterior loaded double-leg squat variation.
They reduce the total load needed to get a training effect since more or all of your body weight plus the external load, i.e. the dumbbell(s) you are holding, is on one leg.
2) Single leg work may help assess and correct left-to-right imbalances in your legs. If there is a difference between your legs, this may result in hip shifting which could put more stress on your low back.
3) They may work just as well if not slightly better than double-leg squats.
Earlier this year, a study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of regular squats to Bulgarian Split Squats. Athletes were divided into a double and single leg squat training groups and each group trained twice a week for five weeks. At the end the time the athletes were re-tested on their speed and agility. The results showed no significant difference in speed or agility with a very slight advantage to the single leg squat group.
Here is a list of some great single leg squat, split squat and lunge variation videos:
**Note: if you lack flexibility in your thigh and hip flexors fix this before using Bulgarian Split Squats. When you elevate the back leg too much you can tilt the hips forward and over-arch your low back.
Hey, what about pistol squats?
Pistol squats are a very impressive looking exercise that require tremendous strength, balance and mobility. However, they also require a lot of lumbar (low back) flexion at the bottom. While lumbar flexion without a barbell on your shoulders is better than with a barbell on your shoulders, can still stress the spine and enforce a movement pattern of squatting with excessive lumbar flexion.
Here is my favorite alternative to pistol squats.
Hey, what about the leg press?
Many people with bad backs turn to the leg press machine. While I think the leg press works for young, healthy bodybuilders wanting to pack mass on the thighs, I would not recommend it for the following reasons:
1) The leg press puts you in an awkward position with a lot of hip flexion – even at the start. As you come down you can easily go beyond your body’s hip range of motion. At this point you will go into lumbar flexion which when combined with load is a great way to herniate a disk.
2) The leg press trains your rectus femoris (middle quad muscle which also helps with hip flexion) in an unnatural, shortened position. It also trains the glutes in a stretched-out position. Both of these problems can contribute to anterior pelvic tilt (when your low back over-arches, your bum sticks out and your lower abs protrude) which is hard on your low back.
3) The leg press is not functional (this is not a big deal if you are bodybuilding, but leg presses will not improve real-life strength or sport-performance which may be a big deal for you.
4) Leg presses build leg strength without trunk stability. When you build strength in your legs without the corresponding strength and stability in your trunk, you can be more susceptible to low back injury in real-life situations (e.g. lifting something heavy from the ground).
While a little more awkward, a great alternative to the leg press is a Hip Belt Squat.
Do what works for you!
Unless you are competing in a lifting sport, there is no rule that you have to do a specific variation of a movement. While there are only a few basic movements the human body can do, there are endless variations of these movements.
Find the ones that feel great on your back and allow you to progress and you will be on your way to stronger, better-looking legs while keeping your cranky back happy. Enjoy!
Connect with WatchFit Expert Andrew Heming.
Speirs, D.E., Bennet, M., Finn, C.V., Turner, A.P. Unilateral vs bilateral squat training for strength, sprints and agility in academy rugby players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2015. Published Ahead of Print.