Veteran trainees are often forced to drop key exercises from their programs. The bench press and behind-the-neck press usually go because of shoulder pain. The barbell row is another that gets eliminated, usually because of lower-back pain. And, of course, trainees get rid of the squat due to either lower-back or knee pain. I addressed the squat 16 years ago in this very column, and judging by the amount of mail and the telephone calls I received, it was one of the most popular installments. It’s time to take a look at the problem again.
One of the key instructions we all heard when we learned to squat was, ‘Pick a spot up on the wall, and don’t take your eyes off it the whole time you squat.’ That’s repeated in every gym in the country every day. Every generation has heard it from gym veterans, mentors, friends, training partners and trainers, but is it a good idea?
Unfortunately, no. When you look up while squatting, you may actually increase lower-back pain. The facet joints that guide the movement of the spine are often somewhat compressed and irritated from tight hip flexors. Tight hip flexors pull your spine forward and make it more arched, or sway-back, in appearance. That alone can cause you to wake in the morning with a dull lower-back ache. You also may notice increased pain if you lie on your stomach, especially if you prop yourself up on your elbows to read or watch TV. The facet joints can become chronically inflamed and subject to wear and tear, which can cause the ache. If you look up while you squat, the situation becomes worse.
Looking up extends the neck, and that activates reflexes in the body that cause the lower back to extend, or arch. If the arch of the lower back is increased, the facet joints are compressed, or jammed, even more. Add to that hundreds of pounds on a bar that compresses the spine, and it’s easy to see how back pain can increase. If you perform exercises that increase the strength of the hip flexors’such as leg raises, hanging leg raises, Roman-chair situps or kneeups’you increase the arch of the lower back and things can get even worse.
What’s the answer? Simple: Don’t look up when you squat! Instead, look slightly downward. I usually instruct trainees to look at the point where the wall meets the floor. Don’t just lower your gaze. Lower your head (or chin) slightly too. That activates reflexes in the body and flattens the lower back a little, taking stress off the facet joints. The decreased arch gives the load to the large bony segments known as the bodies of the vertebrae and the shock-absorbing disks located between the vertebrae, which makes for more normal weight distribution.
One additional point: Avoid the tendency to let your neck arch back as you lower into the squat. Try to keep your head and neck in a constant position.
You don’t see world-record squats in powerlifting being performed with the lifter looking up. The stress on the spine is far too great. Those athletes usually look slightly down or straight ahead.
There are other causes of lower-back pain from squats. I’ll discuss those in the months to come. IM
Editor’s note: Visit www.softtissuecenter.com for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRONMAN. You can order the book, Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. ‘Doc’ Kreis, D.A., from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at www.home-gym.com.