Squats can be a great way to condition your back muscles in order to help reduce back pain.
Back pain is rampant in our country and there are plenty of people who could benefit from performing squats daily.
Current statistics show 80 percent of people will have back pain at some time in their life. Back pain has a tremendous economic impact, costing an estimated $100 to $200 billion annually.
I have been treating back pain for 25 years and have seen my share of ailments in patients of all ages and with varying levels of severity.
I have come to the conclusion that not one person is like another, no matter how similar they think they are to someone else.
Take a trip across the country and you will likely travel byways and highways familiar to many travelers. While the route hasn’t changed, the vehicle you are in is different, the people with you are unique and the cast of characters you meet along the way are not the same
Just like how a road trip across Interstate 10 is different for each person who drives the stretch, so is the experience of each back pain patient. Every patient has had different experiences, activity levels, and habits that contribute to their pain. However, I feel that the majority of us are built the same. We have a spine and two arms and two legs attached to it. I know there are individuals with unique congenital defects and their own issues. It is the majority that I am addressing.
Beautiful Balance: The Anatomy of the Spine
The spine is made up of bones we call vertebras. We have a large group of muscles called the paraspinals that attach to the base of the skull and extend down to the sacrum. It is a muscle system, so when the top part moves it directly affects the bottom part. These muscles hold us up against gravity and activate with almost everything we do. They are small but powerful and should be the strongest part of our body as almost everything attaches to the spine.
The hips and shoulders are ball and socket joints, which offer a wide range of movement. Therefore, when we are putting on our pants or lifting our arms to wash our hair, the muscles that move our limbs pull on their attachment sites on the spine. Those hundreds of spine muscles activate in return to keep our body from falling over.
When babies first start to walk they teeter until they develop this balance. And when they finally bend over it is a perfect squat: full range of motion at the hips and equal strength of the spine. So, as humans, we have to have functional strength in our spine and a little flexibility in our hips to move the right way. It’s a beautiful balance. Prolonged sitting and a sedentary lifestyle will inhibit this from happening. The body will eventually breakdown, and we will experience pain.
Focus on the back to strengthen the core with squats
Contrary to popular belief, the abdominals are not the most important thing to focus on when strengthening your core. Core has so many different meanings to each individual. The abdominals get all the credit for keeping the back strong, but this is absolutely untrue. Almost everything we do is in front of us; therefore, the back of us has to be strong. Doing repetitive abdominal exercises that shorten the front of us, lengthens the back of us, which will eventually weaken the spine muscles. Sitting in front of a computer all day at work does the same thing. Our lifestyles have changed from 50 years ago and we have to accommodate appropriately by keeping the back of us strong.
One of the exercises I show every single one of my patients is the squat.
If they are unable to perform them properly when standing, I have them sit in a chair and then stand up without using their hands if possible.
When performing a squat keep the spine erect without pitching forward. This is a functional exercise since we sit and stand every day. The proper way to execute a squat is to hing from the bend in your groin area (hips) pushing the butt behind you while keeping the weight on your heels. The upper torso should counteract by slightly leaning forward but remaining erect, but not enough to where the face goes way in front of the toes. The knees will bend but not go over the toes. Imagine sitting in a low chair. There are also many ways to make this exercise easier or more difficult depending on the condition of the individual. Since we live in gravity, it is important to control our own body weight through our every-day functional movement patterns. Because we live in gravity, performing the majority of your exercises lying down will not prepare you for functional life activities. Practice as you play. Try to use exercises in bed as an adjunct to increase avtivity.
“Good morning” squats
Another exercise I show people is the good morning, or as I call it: “the oven position.” We don’t squat in the oven (I hope you don’t!), we reach forward while keeping our feet and buts behind us.
The proper execution is hinging again at the bend in our groin (hips), slightly bending the knees, leaning our erect torso forward and over our feet, which really puts the tension on our hip and spine muscles. Reaching our arms out (to get the cake out of the over) makes these muscles work even more. When done properly, this exercise actively stretches the hamstring muscles, which is a big culprit of back pain.
The squat and good morning exercises are two great ways to start practicing proper body mechanics and movement patterns. If these are difficult, painful or even impossible for you to do, there is an imbalance in your body to address.
Many of the exercises we recommend are often for people who are recovering from back surgery or experiencing chronic back pain. If you want more information on how to incorporate weights into your squat routine or how squatting can cause pain, the folks at Dark Iron Fitness have a great article on “Why do Squats Hurt My Lower Back.”