Performing the barbell back squat can help you build muscle and strength, burn fat, and develop raw power, but these benefits can quickly be cancelled out if you injure yourself. Let’s review the most common types of back squat injuries, their causes, and how to avoid them.
1. LOWER BACK PAIN AND INJURY
While the barbell back squat does not directly target the lower back, many people complain about lower back soreness or pain following a leg workout for two key reasons:
Many people, especially beginners, tend to have an extensive forward lean. While descending, the upper body leans forward, straining the lower back muscles When you add weight on top of that, you are exacerbating the situation. The result is lower back strain or even injury.
The other reason is from posterior pelvic tilt or butt wink. This is when your pelvis begins to rotate underneath your body as you squat. Tight hamstring muscles pull the pelvis (your butt) towards your knees, placing strain across the lower back. Again, adding weight from the barbell only makes it worse.
HOW TO FIX IT?
To correct a forward lean and butt wink, you must do two things: First, get into the habit of stretching your hamstring muscles, especially post-workout. Dynamic stretches are ideal pre-workout but after a workout is complete, make sure you’re using 30-second static stretch holds. Second, if your hamstrings are weak, incorporate more exercises to strengthen them.
Above all, practice and master bodyweight squats while focusing on keeping the upper half upright with a tight core.
Do you have lower back pain? Check out our article on what you can do to fix lower back pain.
2. NECK PAIN AND INJURY
The positioning of the barbell makes neck strain a common back squat injury, especially when you aren’t using a squat pad. Most people make the mistake of placing the barbell too high where it sits directly on the neck. An uncontrolled gaze coupled with an extensive forward lean can also cause neck pain. The weight bearing down directly on the neck is enough to cause a sore neck in the best-case scenario and a permanent injury in the worst-case scenario.
HOW TO FIX IT?
The barbell should be placed along the shelf created by your upper trapezoid muscles. When you flex the traps as you bring your arms back, this creates a perfect shelf to lay the barbell. As you descend during the squat, your gaze needs to be neutral. The gaze should be following the body, not looking up or looking down. Keep it simple and relaxed. This will keep your neck and shoulder muscles safe.
Again, practicing bodyweight squats in front of a mirror can help you confirm if your knees track in line with the toes. If you’re performing the squat correctly, the weight placement will be in the hips and thighs.
3. KNEE PAIN AND INJURY
Improper form is the first reason that your knees are hurting. When someone has an excessive forward lean, they are putting too much of the weight on the knees when it should be focused back on the hips and thighs. The second reason could be over doing it with the added weight on the barbell as this can promote bad posture, forward lean, and excessive pressure on the connective tissue.
HOW TO FIX IT?
Take the progressive approach beginning with bodyweight squats. Do not add any weight until you’re able to break parallel with perfect form and no pelvic tilt. To eliminate excessive forward lean, take yourself through an extensive stretching session every day. We would recommend performing the following stretches three times each for 30 seconds:
- Forward bends
- Laying lateral stretch
- Downward dog
Also, while it’s important to add weight to the barbell back squat for more strength and muscle, you have to know when to throw in the towel. Start slow with light weights, higher repetitions, and more sets. Eventually, add weight plates little by little.
4. SHOULDER PAIN AND INJURY
Since the shoulders are the place point of the barbell, if you try to increase the weight too soon, the traps may not be able to handle it. The compression of the shoulder muscles from too much weight that your body is not accustomed to can cause tightness, bruising, and strain.
What’s more, excessive weight can cause a number of other issues. It can negatively impact your form. The more unstable you are during your squat, the higher the risk of getting seriously hurt. Your knees in particular are at great risk as excessive weight presents a dual dilemma of too much stress and a highly unstable forward lean.
Low bar placement can also cause shoulder issues. Low bar placement is an effective and safe technique when performed correctly. It suits some people better than others, especially those with a natural forward lean, as we mentioned above. However, when the bar is too low, it pulls down and back on the shoulder muscles that are already struggling to hold the weight steady.
HOW TO FIX IT?
Increase the weight used in a responsible way that is in line with your ability. If you’re currently squatting 100 pounds, for example, and you attempt to squat 200 pounds, you’re going to have a mess on your hands. Try increasing the weight by between 5% and 10%.
Instead of using your traps as the shelf where you rest the barbell, you’ll be using your shoulder blades. Before placing the bar on your back, bring your shoulder blades together to form the shelf that will hold the barbell. This will be about two to three inches lower than what you may be used to. If the barbell is resting on your triceps (back of the arms) then you know that you’ve gone too low. Consider using a squat pad for extra comfort.
You should also work to improve shoulder mobility. Take 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening to perform an external rotation shoulder stretch using a towel. Using this simple move will help to loosen tight muscles and ligaments surrounding the shoulder.
5. ELBOW PAIN AND INJURY
As you align yourself under the barbell, the elbows must be driven backward then turned down to allow the hands to grab the bar. Your hands and wrists are working to stabilize the bar as you descend and ascend during the squat; however, it is your elbows that are taking most of the pressure. Add to this the risk of using too much weight coupled with a low bar squat position and your elbows are going to hurt more and more over time.
Another reason that people complain of elbow pain is that they may be giving themselves extra work with the best of intentions. In order to secure the bar, many people don’t realize they are pushing the bar against their back. This additional force is coming from muscles surrounding the elbow joint, which is going to increase the pressure and tension on the connective tissue in the elbow. Combine the awkward positioning of the elbow with excessive weight and a low bar position. What you have is a recipe for elbow problems.
HOW TO FIX IT?
Practice your squats with only the barbell and a side profile in the mirror. Watch the positioning of your elbows, which should follow your torso. As the upper body has a slight forward angle during the descent, so too should your elbows. You want to avoid having the elbows flaring out too much and at the same time, you don’t want them too close to your body.
Also, take your elbows through a series of stretches. This should include wrist stretches as well since you want to loosen up the area as a whole. You can begin with wrist flexor stretches, move up to forearm stretches, then stretch out the biceps and triceps.
Lastly, strengthen the muscles surrounding the elbow so that you can build up elbow endurance. Wrist curls, hammer curls, alternating bicep curls, and triceps extensions can help to improve elbow endurance and allow you to withstand more pressure during barbell back squats.
To stop excessive tension, it’s important that you relax your arms during the barbell back squat. You want to secure the barbell but you can do this without forcing the barbell into your back. This will quickly burn out the elbow. Instead, practice your squatting form. Let the traps hold the bar. The hand, wrist, and elbows are just there for security. The barbell should be sitting comfortably on your traps and this will be enough to keep the bar in place.
6. WRIST PAIN AND INJURY
If you’re trying to support the bar primarily with your hands, this will put pressure on the wrists. Just like we mentioned above, it’s not the job of your wrists or elbows to support the barbell. That is the job of your traps. Unconsciously, you may want to put even more security on the barbell and you begin pushing the bar into the back while taking some of the weight into your hands. This is going to tweak the wrists and cause pain.
Your hand grip may also cause wrist pain. People tend to use either a thumbed grip and thumb-less grip. The majority of people use a thumbed-grip on the barbell primarily for that secure feeling. For some, thumb grip may turn the wrist and put it in an awkward position where it juts out and back. Once you add weight to this, the strain may become too great for the wrist, causing discomfort and pain.
HOW TO FIX IT?
Just like with the elbow, you have to allow the shoulders, in particular the traps, to do their job. Your traps are the shelf that will support the barbell. The hands, wrists, and elbows are just there as security, not to share the bulk of the weight on your back. Practice relaxing the pressure from the arms and let the barbell rest securely on your traps as you move through a squat with no additional weight.
If the thumb positioning is the cause of wrist strain and pain, give the thumb-less grip a try. Simply let the thumb rest alongside the rest of your fingers, forming something of a cupping grip over the barbell. This may help to keep your hand, wrist, and elbow all in a straight line and eliminate the discomfort you feel in the wrist.
For those with pain in the wrist regardless of the exercise, consider using wrist wraps to alleviate strain and soreness.
7. ANKLE PAIN AND INJURY
Ankle discomfort and pain isn’t as common with a standard barbell back squat but when foot placement changes then people are more prone to ankle issues. The severity of the symptoms usually falls in line with how wide or narrow the stance becomes. This ankle pain is a result of tight muscles, poor ankle mobility, and possible aggravation of previous injuries or surgeries.
Wide stance squats, for example, require a high degree of external rotation in the ankle, not to mention the required range of motion for the execution of the squat regardless of where your feet are. Ankles that are not accustomed to this type of movement will immediately feel like they are being pulled on and a tight feeling will be followed by soreness.
HOW TO FIX IT?
The way to solve this is to simply take your ankle and calf muscles through a series of rotation and stretching work. We recommend the following easy-to-do mobility workout:
- Stand on the right leg – You can hold on to a wall or chair for stability
- Point the toes of the left foot down then up
- Repeat twenty times
- Now, rotate the left foot in a clockwise fashion 20 times, stop, and rotate it the other way 20 times
- Switch legs and repeat
Once you complete the suggested mobility work, perform calf stretches by placing your foot against a wall, leaning forward slightly and allowing the calf muscle to release. Conclude the session by using a foam roller on the entire length of the calf.
This mobility workout should be done daily, especially if you have extremely tight ankles or previous injuries to the ankle.
HAVE YOU EVER HAD ONE OF THESE BARBELL BACK SQUAT INJURIES?
Which injury have you dealt with? What did you do to remedy the injury? Let us know on our Facebook.