So we all know squats are the king leg exercise. You pile on heavy weight and overload your entire leg, while also working other muscles as it is a compound exercise. However, many people wonder if they are safe to do.
Do Barbell Squats Compress Your Spine?
Squatting does compress the spine, but not to the content that it’s seriously dangerous. Unless you have a pre-existing spinal injury, then the compression is minimal and should not cause any real issues. The main things to keep in mind are proper form and not leaning forward when you squat.
What Is Spinal Cord Compression?
There are disks filled with fluid located in between the vertebrae or bones of the spine. In response to stress, these disks compress. It doesn’t take much and even happens while walking.
Sudden movements are the main danger toward the disks. The amount of weight lifted, speed of the rep, and your form all play factors in how much the disks will compress during a squat.
By slowing down your reps and not lifting too heavy, you can eliminate most dangers. Leaning forward during the squat does not actually compress the spine anymore, but does cause uneven compression.
If you happen to lean too far forward, the disks are pushed down at an angle. This may cause too much fluid to be pushed out of the vertebrae, which results in the bones of the spine grinding together.
If you have any serious spinal cord compression symptoms, you should stop training and see a doctor. These include pain and stiffness in the neck or back, numbness in the arms, hands, or legs, loss of sensation in feet, burning pain down the arms or legs.
They will usually prescribe an anti-inflammatory medicine or recommended physical therapy sessions to strengthen the back muscles.
How To Squat Safely
Squats are extremely safe and beneficial when they are performed correctly. They will actually strengthen the spine and the muscles surrounding it when done properly. Focus on using light weight and getting your form down before you go heavy.
Position your body fully under the bar with it resting in the middle of your traps, make sure it is not compressing your neck. For more information on neck pain during the squat, click here. Squeeze your glutes to lift the bar from the racks and take two steps backwards. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart.
Pull your shoulders back and keep your head stationary throughout the movement. Take a deep breath in and brace your core before the descent.
Keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground, slowly bend your knees and lower your butt as if you were sitting down. The most important part is keeping your chest up and making sure that you do not arch your back and lean forward.
This will cause spinal compression and become dangerous. If you can’t seem to get low enough without leaning forward, there’s a couple of things that could be happening.
Try lowering the weight and performing a rep without leaning forward.
Try stretching out your hip flexors and inner thighs before squatting. Many people often have poor mobility and tight legs which can be solved by stretching prior to the exercise.
A lifting belt can be worn to compress your spine and keep it straight during the movement. If you have issues with leaning forward, you may want to invest in one. Here’s a cheap, yet effective option.
Protecting Your Spine
The best way to protect your spine is to prevent yourself from leaning forward during the squat. This will prevent your disks from being pushed on at an angle.
When pushing up from the bottom of the movement, push your head and shoulders backwards while you come up. This will help reduce shear on your lower back and spine.
Slightly tilting your toes so that they’re pointing out rather than straight forward can also help reduce back pain. This actually lowers the loading force on the spine during the squat.
Flexing your abs and glutes during the movement can further protect against spinal injury. This is because it makes your back and body more rigid as everything is tightly braced. It also prevents you from leaning forward. Stand up right now and flex your abs and glutes. Now try to lean forward. It’s a lot more difficult than if you’re relaxed.
Stretching out your muscles before a training session is always the best way to protect yourself from injury. This will get blood into the muscles and prevent them from getting tight. It also allows for more range of motion, allowing you to keep your back straight and prevent discomfort when squatting low.
Lifting too heavy is a huge factor towards lower back and spinal injuries. This is conflicting because everyone tells you to lift heavy to build strong muscles. However, lifting properly with lighter weight is not only better for muscle gains, it also will protect you from injury.
Improper footwear can change the way that the weight distributes force throughout the body and spine. If you have flat feet, ensure that you are using proper arch support that doesn’t cause you back pain.
Flat shoes or lifting shoes are best for squats because you need a flat, hard surface to push off of. They will also make sure that your feet don’t rock back and forth, which will cause spinal pain.
If you still are experiencing pain, consider acupuncture, massage therapy, physical therapy, muscle relaxants, or visiting a doctor. Spine issues are not something you want to mess with, so it’s best to stop training and visit a professional before resuming training.
Alternatives To The Squat
If you have tried the squat and can’t seem to perform it without spinal or back pain, you may want to consider different variations or other leg exercises.
The front squat is a great variation which uses less weight and focuses most of the muscles on the front of the body, rather than the back. Both of these factors will reduce a lot of spinal pain.
Hold the bar with hands slightly outside shoulder width with your palms facing upwards and the bar resting in your fingertips. The bar should be touching your upper chest and the front of your shoulders.
Keep your elbows up as high as possible while still holding the bar against your upper chest. This will help keep your body upright during the exercise.
It is tough to get the hand and elbow positioning down at first so practice and start with low weight.
Here’s an informative video to help make sure your form is perfect.
The leg press is a great way to overload the legs that does not place pressure on the spine. As long as you keep your back flat against the pad and do not raise your butt, you won’t have any back issues.
It won’t build the same stabilizer muscles that the squat does, but it is a great way to focus solely on the leg muscles, while still using heavyweight.
As long as you’re squatting with appropriate weight and using proper form, you don’t have to worry about any serious compression of your spine. Make sure you are not leaning forward while squatting. Use a belt and proper footwear to assure maximum protection.
The squat is a great exercise that will strengthen the leg and back muscles, which will actually protect against spinal injury.
Let me know if this post helped and feel free to leave any questions or comments below!