“My Back Hurts Every Time I Squat or Deadlift”

“My back Hurts every time and squat or deadlift”

Back pain associated with lifting weights is unfortunately far too common. Most of the time, for people in the gym, back pain comes on after squatting or deadlifting relatively heavy. I want to be very clear that this is NOT NORMAL! Your back should not hurt after exercising! If it does, there are typically four common issues that could be going wrong for you: Mobility/Flexibility, lack of motor control, poor bracing mechanics, and too much load for your current capacity.

Mobility and Flexibility

The role of mobility in back pain comes down to positioning. You must be able to get into mechanically advantageous positions in order to lift weight properly. Let’s use deadlift as an example. If you have short hamstrings (I.e. you can’t touch the floor with your knees fully extended in a toe touch test), you may not be able to set up for your deadlift with a neutral spine because you can’t reach the bar without rounding through your back. At this point there are two options: You either do a deadlift with a rounded back, or you bend your knees more and “squat” the bar off the ground. Both are no good! Obviously a rounded back puts extra stress on your spine, but squatting the bar when you’re trying to deadlift is just as bad. Overtime, if you squat every time you’re supposed to be deadlifting and you squat every time you’re supposed to be squatting you’re going to end up with an overuse injury. It may not be your back, but it’ll be something! All of this because you couldn’t achieve safe positions to perform the lift. The same thing happens with squatting, but typically the mobility restriction is at the hips or ankles. If both don’t function properly, you’ll end up with a leaned forward squat and the weight of the bar in front of your center of gravity, adding extra stress to the spine and causing your squat to look like a deadlift. Now every time you think you’re squatting, you’re actually deadlifting and overuse injuries can happen.

Be mobile enough to achieve perfect technique in your lifts and you’ll prevent a large majority of injuries.

Lack of Motor Control

Motor control is your ability to control your body in space. For example, your brain tells your left arm to move. That’s motor control. Often, we lack the ability to control our bodies through certain movements, especially at the beginning stages of our fitness journey. Your body simply doesn’t understand how to keep your spine neutral, or knees from caving in, or elbows from flaring out. When it comes to back pain, often we do not know how to keep our lower back from moving, while everything else around it moves. For example, when you run your arms and legs move, but your lower back should stay in the same position. The same goes for when you deadlift and squat. We should be able to keep our spine in a neutral position while your extremities do work. The two common ways we work on motor control of the lower back are through deadbugs and birddogs. For general control of different movements we use tempos to slow down movement and really allow your brain to grasp and coordinate the pattern you are going through.

Poor Bracing Mechanics

Bracing is a huge issue when it comes to back pain. Our core’s job is to keep your spine in the same position. To resist movement. Part of that comes down to breathing and properly using your core. If your spine is a wet noodle under a bar, you’re likely not going to be able to move much weight and you’re going to be compromising your safety. However if you can turn that wet noodle into a stone pillar, you’re going to be able to transfer force much better and move more weight while maintaining safety. Here are a few simple steps to brace your core before a lift.

  1. Take a deep breath into your belly (not your chest & shoulders!). Fill it with air fully!
  2. Push out 360 degrees around your spine (not just squeezing in the front). This will feel similar to try to push out a poop. Your lats should pull down, your side abs should drive outward, and your anterior core (front) should stay tight.
  3. Lift the weight.

A final note is about wearing a belt here. What a belt does is cue you to push out against it, bracing 360 degrees around your spine. That is great, but you need to learn how to brace your core before using a belt for your lifts. 

Too Much Load

Your body is made up of tissues (bones, ligaments, muscles, organs etc). Those tissues have a certain capacity to withstand loads. Loads can be anything from the weight on the bar, to stress or poor diet, to being hit by a car. If you exceed that tissue’s capacity to withstand a load, pain and injury occur. At the end of the day, all pain and injury come down to too much load. The three problems above (mobility/flexibility, motor control, and bracing) simply reduce your capacity. They did not necessarily cause the problem, but they lowered your threshold for injury. 

If we’re specifically talking about weight on the bar, too much load often contributes to back pain but is almost never the only thing involved. Stress, mobility, diet, sleep, etc etc. all play a role. However, complete disregard for movement quality in order to move more weight or go faster is not going to help.

At the end of the day, back pain from exercise is not normal. It shouldn’t be something you simply accept as normal either! There are likely corrections for whatever you have going on, it just might take a deeper dive to figure it out. If you are having pain when you exercise and want it to go away, send us an email to set up an assessment so we can start the process of getting you pain free! Yankeecrossfit@gmail.com 


– Coach Andrew