Lower back pain is a common issue that many weightlifters face, hindering their ability to train effectively and make progress in the gym. As a Performance Physical Therapist with over ten years of experience, I have worked with a wide range of athletes, from NCAA Division One athletes to professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts. I have seen firsthand how back pain can derail training and prevent individuals from participating in the activities they love. One exercise that frequently causes back pain is the Back Squat. While it’s important to note that no single exercise “causes” lower back pain, the Back Squat is often mentioned by lifters seeking to return to training. This exercise is complex and requires a combination of skill, coordination, strength, mobility, and stability in multiple joints. The causes of pain during training can be multifactorial, and it is crucial to approach treatment in a comprehensive manner. In this guide, we will explore key concepts related to lower back pain, discuss strategies to alleviate and prevent pain, and help you continue training and achieve your fitness goals. It’s important to note that this post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Always consult with a healthcare professional before attempting any new exercises or treatments.
Understanding Pain Science and Lower Back Pain
To effectively address lower back pain, it is essential to understand the nature of pain itself. Pain is a warning signal that the brain receives in response to stimuli. Throughout the body, there are receptors known as nociceptors that detect potentially harmful stimuli and transmit this information to the brain. The greater the threat, the stronger the pain signal. These nociceptors initiate a chain of reactions that send pain signals to the brain via pain nerves. This process allows us to respond appropriately to harmful stimuli, such as removing our hand from a hot stove. However, if pain persists or if our response to external stimuli is inappropriate, chronic pain can develop. Inappropriate responses to external stimuli are often the cause of chronic lower back pain. By undergoing proper rehabilitation and gradually reintroducing training, it is possible to mitigate pain and return to exercise or continue training without exacerbating the issue.
Common Causes of Lower Back Pain During Back Squats
Based on my experience working with individuals and addressing my own lower back pain, I have identified several common conditions that can cause pain during back squats.
1. Herniated Disc: Herniated discs are among the most common lower back injuries. The spine is composed of vertebrae, with cartilaginous discs providing cushioning between each vertebra. During back squats, the spine is subjected to significant loads. When a herniated disc occurs, the soft inner layer of the disc protrudes through weakened areas of the outer layer, compressing nerves in the spine. This compression leads to pain, numbness, and weakness. Pain from a herniated disc is typically worsened by flexion of the spine.
2. Spinal Stenosis: Lumbar Spinal Stenosis is a degenerative condition that causes the narrowing of the spinal canal or the neural foramina, which are the spaces where nerves exit the spine. This narrowing can lead to compression of neural structures, resulting in lower back pain, leg pain, numbness, and weakness. Several factors contribute to spinal stenosis, including degeneration of spinal discs, thickening of the Ligamentum Flavum (a ligament that supports the spine), and narrowing of the facet joints. Pain from spinal stenosis is typically worsened by full extension of the spine.
3. Facet Arthropathy: Facet Arthropathy is a condition characterized by the degeneration of the facet joints in the spine. These small joints connect each vertebra to the one above and below it. Facet joint degeneration can occur due to age-related wear and tear or repetitive stress from heavy lifting during training. Pain from facet arthropathy is usually one-sided and may radiate into the glutes, groin, or legs. Pain is typically experienced during twisting and extension movements.
4. Sacroiliac Joint (SIJ) Dysfunction: The sacroiliac joints connect the innominate bones to the sacrum and are located in the gluteal muscles. SIJ dysfunction can result from various factors, including direct trauma to the joint or supporting ligaments, joint instability, degeneration within the joint, or abnormal movement patterns. Pain from SIJ dysfunction can be felt in the lower back, buttocks, and legs.
These are just a few of the common causes of lower back pain during back squats. It’s important to note that each individual’s experience may vary, and a thorough assessment by a healthcare professional is necessary to determine the exact cause of pain.
In the next part of this comprehensive guide, we will delve into strategies for addressing and preventing lower back pain during back squats. Stay tuned for valuable insights and techniques that will help you train effectively and stay pain-free.