The key feature of proper squatting technique is the ability to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. This becomes even more challenging if you’re trying to squat below parallel, and the difficulty that many people have with this only serves to perpetuate the myth that squatting is bad for your back. You may also have observed some really strong lifters performing a squat with a rounded back, which further complicates the issue. While it’s one thing to sacrifice a little bit of form when going for a near maximum-effort lift, this exception doesn’t apply to you if you’re not squatting triple your bodyweight, or if you’re still learning how to squat. Quality of movement should take precedence over the quantity of the resistance being moved.
This doesn’t mean that the lumbar spine should never move into flexion or hyperextension. But it’s probably wise to avoid extreme end ranges of motion when you’re supporting a heavy load on your shoulders. As I explained in a previous post about squatting myths, squats will not destroy your back as long as you do them correctly. Since maintaining a neutral lumbar spine is typically the limiting aspect of the squat, let’s identify the source of the problem and then I’ll show you how you can correct it. First, I want to clear up a widespread misconception in regards to flexibility requirements of the squat.
Hamstring flexibility is unrelated to lower back rounding
Lower back rounding is commonly blamed on poor hamstring flexibility. One physical therapist I’ve spoken with even claimed that squatting below parallel places such an extreme stretch on the hamstrings that you can potentially dislocate the sacroiliac joint in your pelvis. This is simply not true, and these concerns are easily dismissed by comparing the squat movement to the position required for any hamstring stretch. Maximum hamstring extensibility is achieved by flexing at the hip while extending the knee. Full knee joint extension is not required to stretch the hamstrings, but flexing at the knee will always reduce the intensity of any hamstring stretch. Since squatting involves simultaneous flexion at the hips and knees, the hamstrings will essentially remain the same length throughout the entire movement. If you’re stretching for other performance-related goals, your efforts may still be worthwhile (as long as you aren’t trying to prevent injury or muscle soreness), but you can stop stretching your hamstrings for the purpose of improving your squat.
What about the adductor, or groin, muscles? After all, the majority of that muscle group only cross the hip joint, so could they be tight? Well, I hesitate to dismiss that possibility for 100% of all cases, but I think it’s highly unlikely for most people. If you’re suspicious that tight adductors might be your problem, then you can perform this simple test to find out: sit down on a surface that allows your thighs to be about parallel to the ground, with your feet flat on the floor and a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Just get comfortable. Then, reject modern social convention and spread your knees out to the side, widening your stance and turning out your toes as required to remain comfortable without lifting your heels off the floor. Even though you’re sitting, you’ll essentially be emulating the bottom position of a squat. I could be wrong, but I don’t know anyone who can’t do this. As long as you can get into this position, your adductors are not too tight. Next.
Excessive depth with the low bar squat
If a lack of flexibility isn’t the problem, then why does your lower back round in the squat? Well, if you’re performing a low-bar squat, then you may be trying to squat too deep. Attempting to squat below parallel with the low-bar position essentially guarantees that you will round your lower back. The explanation for this is based on simple kinematics, but it’s much easier to follow with a visual aid, which I’ve provided in the video below. Be advised that this will not win any awards for the world’s most exciting squat video, but if you want to understand why you shouldn’t go below parallel with a low-bar squat, then it’s essential information:
Inappropriate use of hip drive in a deep squat
The low bar squat may suit your training purposes just fine as long as you don’t try to squat below parallel. And switching to another squat variation, like a high bar squat or front squat, can allow you to squat deep. However, if you’re still initiating the movement by pushing your hips back, then you’re going to run into the same problem. You should not push your hips back to initiate a deep squat, and you should not be trying to utilize hip drive in a deep squat. This is where hyperextension of the lumbar spine can potentially come into play. If you maintain a more erect torso as you push your hips back into the squat, then the lumbar spine is likely to hyperextend. Then, as you reach maximum squat depth, your lumbar spine will move into flexion as your hips inevitably move forward. At some point, as the resistance is increased, the bar will pin you forward and you will not be able to push your lumbar spine back into extension on the way up. If you want to squat deep, the hips should go down, not back, and the knees should go forward as much as necessary to accommodate the hips. Stop using hip drive in a deep squat!
Create tension to maintain position
Relaxing into the bottom of the squat is another very common mistake. It’s necessary to maintain tension during the entire movement and not just in the lower body muscles of the hips and thighs, but in the upper body as well. It’s possible to create tension and still be out of position though, so it’s critical to learn proper upper body positioning for the squat. With all the emphasis on maintaining a neutral lumbar spine, a typical approach is to focus on keeping the lower back tight, in an attempt to lock it in. I’ve tried that myself and it’s not the solution. What’s needed instead is to create some extension in the thoracic spine, along with sufficient tension to hold that position. Once you start rounding your thoracic spine, the lumbar spine is bound to follow.
You can practice this aspect of your technique without any external resistance, and I like to simulate the high bar back squat for this purpose. Simply stand up tall with your elbows bent and your fists about shoulder height, as if you were preparing for a high bar squat. Then, pull your elbows straight down toward the floor while pushing your chest up and forward. Don’t approach this casually, be a gorilla. Create a big, wide, gorilla chest, and really create some tension in your lats. Once you get the feel of this, try it with an empty bar. Make sure you’re gripping the bar toward your fingers, create that big, strong gorilla chest, and actively pull the bar down into your back. You should not be pushing up into the bar with the base of your palms because you will lose tension in your back that way. If you’re doing this correctly, your elbows will point downward and your wrists will be in a neutral position. If your elbows are pointing behind you and your wrists are bent, then either you’re not creating enough mid-spine extension to begin with, or you’re not generating enough upper body tension to maintain it.
The barbell front squat is a little different because you can’t pull the bar down into your body like that, but you can still create a big chest and then create tension in your lats. While making sure you keep your elbows up, simply pull the elbows straight back toward the bar with your lats, creating tension in your entire upper body as you push your chest up and forward. This is an essential part of your technique, regardless of the squat variation being used. In theory, if you keep your chest up and maintain proper tension in your middle back, the rest of your squat should fall in line. Your torso should stay erect, your knees should track out to the appropriate angle and distance, and your lower back should remain in a neutral position. This doesn’t always happen automatically though, and this is a proprioceptive issue. For one thing, you may not be aware of how much tension you need to create, and you may have been relaxing into your squat without even realizing it. And if you don’t know what a neutral spine should feel like when you’re at the bottom of the squat, then you’re basically just guessing which position to move into and you may be guessing wrong.
Kinesthetic awareness and motor control in the squat
There’s nothing wrong with a little trial and error, and some people have excellent kinesthetic awareness and motor control and the squat movement just comes more naturally to them. But if you’re having a hard time squatting without rounding your lower back, you’ll end up reinforcing a sub-optimal movement pattern every time you squat and this can make it very difficult to un-learn the rounded-back position. If this is your situation, then I would suggest changing your environment a little bit and provide your brain with a different context in which to build a new squat pattern.
First of all, remove any external resistance. Then, reverse the movement and turn the bottom position into the easiest position by starting from a box. The box will also provide more sensory feedback so you can get a better feel for what’s going on in your lower back. And finally, slow the entire movement down so you can pay close attention to what’s happening. You can easily create and maintain a neutral spine position this way, but it’s very important to focus on how that feels if you want to integrate this new pattern into your regular squat movement. Watch this video for a demonstration of how to put that all together:
Once you get a feel for maintaining a neutral spine throughout the squat, that will dictate where you place your feet, where you track your knees, and how to avoid excessive flexion or hyperextension of the lumbar spine through proper positioning and application of tension. You’ll be learning how to squat proprioceptively. This is an important skill to acquire because as you gain experience in the movement and increase the resistance, your form will gradually change as well. Strict rules as to precisely which angle your torso, knees and toes should be at, and the exact squat depth you should reach, etc. do not apply. Incidentally, this is why it’s undesirable to face a mirror when you squat and you should not perform the drills from the video above in view of a mirror. For one thing, the mirror really doesn’t provide accurate visual input, and it will distract you from paying attention to your sensory feedback system.
Make your squat more awesome
Do your lower back a favor and give these suggestions a try. As you can see, they’re much simpler than the typical recommendations for corrective exercise. I’ve shown clients how to go from a horrible-looking squat – back bent over, knees caving in, heels coming up, etc. – to a very solid-looking squat from a box in about 5 minutes by using this approach. Of course, if transferring that new pattern to a heavy back squat is your goal, it will require considerably more time and practice but it will be well worth the effort. Drop the weight, ditch the ego, and learn how to maintain a neutral spine in the squat.