Back squats have long been hailed as one of the best lower-body exercises. Squats are a bodily movement that come very natural to humans, as we’ve squatted to perform various tasks throughout history. We’ve squatted while cooking food, hunting, going to the bathroom, etc. It makes sense that we’d want to incorporate this natural movement into our workout routine. However, back squats in particular can be very unnatural for our bodies and can have many disadvantages if done incorrectly.
If you’re considering adding back squats to your workout routine, or you already perform back squats regularly, you may want to consider a different form of squat to build your lower-body muscles.
The Back Squat
There are a few different variations in back squat form. However, the most commonly taught form involves standing with your feet at a slight outward angle shoulder-width apart. From this stance you’d take in a deep breath and lower both your knees and hips into a squat position until your thighs are parallel with the ground – breathing out as you descend. You’d then rise up by straightening your hips and knees to stand up out of the back squat.
Back squats can be performed with just your body weight, but they are often performed with additional weight added via dumbbells or barbells. If a barbell is used, it is positioned evenly across the body at about the same height as your shoulders.
Why Are Back Squats Dangerous?
On its face, the act of performing a back squat may seem relatively harmless. In fact, you may have been taught back squats as a good exercise to do in school gym class. However, back squats can cause your spine to move in unnatural ways and they can produce a whole host of different injuries if performed incorrectly. For this reason, many professional trainers like Mike Boyle and Erica Suter have completely removed back squats from their training programs. Below are a few injuries you could sustain doing back squats.
In theory, back squats would be safe with the correct posture. In practice, it’s almost impossible to perform a back squat with a completely erect spine and pelvis. If you lean too far forward, bend your lower back forward (pelvic tilt), or place the barbell on your neck while performing a back squat, you can severely strain your back. Back strain via back squats can lead to intense pain along the lumbar spine, which could extend to other portions of the spine.
Tilting the pelvis is one of the most common causes of chronic lower back pain. At best, incorrect form could lead to minor lower back pain and swelling. However, incorrect posture could lead to more disabling conditions like sciatica.
Back squats not only place a lot of pressure on your back, but also place a lot of pressure on your knees. If your feet aren’t the correct width apart while squatting, you could internally rotate your knees while squatting or rising or lower your body too fast and place strain on your lateral meniscus. This strain and pressure can lead to pain in the knee joint and could also lead to long-term mobility issues.
Hip injuries don’t necessarily occur from back squats alone. They are often caused by underlying issues, but those issues become a major problem when performing back squats. Hip injuries can occur if you have tight hip flexors or weak hip flexors. You can attempt to loosen your hips with stretches or strengthen your hips with leg lifts if you believe you suffer from tight or weak hip flexors.
If squat workouts are taken to an extreme, rhabdomyolysis can occur. Rhabdomyolysis is a condition that results from the death of muscle fibers. The dying muscle fibers release their contents into the bloodstream, which can then cause kidney failure if the kidneys cannot remove the contents. Rhabdomyolysis is really only a concern if the body is overexerted, but it is something to be aware of, because it has occured to individuals performing back squats.
How To Improve Back Squat Form?
If you are committed to performing back squats (which we don’t recommend), there are mistakes you can work to avoid to reduce the risk of injury. Below are things you can do to improve your back squat form:
- Perform a pre-workout stretch before squatting.
- Reduce the weight you’re squatting if you’re having trouble keeping your back straight.
- Externally rotate your knees before squatting so that they aren’t caving in.
- Lower your body slowly into a squat to avoid knee tears.
- Start doing yoga or some other form of flexibility training to improve muscle and joint flexibility that might be preventing you from achieving proper form.
Consider Switching To Front Squats
Front squats are similar to back squats, except the barbell or dumbbells are placed on the front side of your shoulders instead of your back side. Front squats do require mobility and may not be a good fit for those new to exercise or those that don’t regularly exercise. However, they are inherently safer than back squats, because they require less weight to produce the same workout intensity for the body. Reducing weight helps to eliminate the strain on the back and knees, which significantly reduces the risk of injury.
It was once believed that back squats were better workouts than front squats, because they supposedly activated more muscle fibers. However, studies have shown that this belief is a myth. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that there is ultimately no difference in muscle activation between front and back squats. Therefore, if you’re looking for an alternative to back squats that are safer and just as effective, you’ll want to consider adding front squats to your workout regimine.
About Dr. Geri Williams
Dr. Geri Williams is the supervising doctor at Ideal You Health Centers. Ideal You Health Centers focuses on reaching a healthier, happier life through a total lifestyle transformation. The goal is to help you become the ideal version of yourself.