The Importance of Correct Exercise Form
Many people query how they can protect their lower backs when using the squat or the deadlift. The example below is typical of many and I use it because it also brings in aspects of correct intensity progression – which is another aspect to avoiding injuries.
I have noticed that lower back pain has been mentioned regularly in connection with squatting. I imagine the weight other people might have in mind is much heavier than I am currently using, but I seem to be really struggling with squats.
My problem is that I have particularly long femurs so, as I descend, I have to lean further forward than is desirable (to ensure the bar stays on the same vertical plane as it goes down then back up). Obviously, even though my form’s not at all bad, there’s an element of a good morning exercise as I ascend. I’m worried that as I add more weight to the bar it will unduly stress my lower back – which seems strange, given that (like most) I dead lift more than I squat and I never do the two in the same workout.
I don’t think having long femurs will hamper your form. Most cases of lower back pain from squatting relate to bad form and that is probably the cause in your case. I also recommend that you do squats on the same day as deadlifts – they are complimentary exercises and will warm up the spine if a specific strategy is used. Also, doing them on different days is potentially overtraining the spinal stabilisers and that may be the simple cause of your problems.
Always do the squat before the deadlift – and if you do lunges (I’ll explain later why you need to consider this) always do lunges before the squat. To start off the leg training session it may also be useful to do crunches or inclined situps (abdominal work without stressing the lower back too much) to warm up the spinal stabilisers before training. This works for many people.
There is a quick and easy way to rectify bad form and that relates to getting the weight right first. You may not be squatting with a lot of weight – but it’s still too much weight for you. Throw ego out of the window and lighten the burden (until it’s so light that you can perfect your form). That is the only way. Reduce poundage lifted until your back no longer hurts after training – then you know you’ve got it right. After this you will have to build up by adding just 3-4% of additional weight every week. This is another disadvantage of home training – you probably don’t have enough tiny weights to fine-tune this gradual increase in weekly poundage.
There is a way around this. You do need to overcome the disadvantages of training at home – something I am familiar with myself – because you don’t have access to the same tools as you’d have in a good gym. In a gym one strategy would be for you to strengthen the quadriceps using the leg press and strengthen the area around the knees using the hack squat rack. At home these options don’t apply which leaves you in the situation where you need to build up endurance through body weight training.
I would recommend that you work up to 100 lunges with your body weight (while also working on the lighter squats to get form right). You can then start using the squat bar to add weight to your lunges – but start very light so you can still do many reps.
The lunge is half a squat, in many ways, and is more coordinated so that the lower body is strengthened without stressing the lower back. You may well find that once you get the hang of this you may never want to progress the squat any further. Lunges CAN be a substitute for squats.
Back to squatting and deadlifting, it is important that you emphasise the ‘lordosis’ aspects of these lifts. ‘Lordosis’ refers to the “S” shape in the spinal curvature being maintained and is the main way to protect the lower back. Almost all form-related training injuries will be as a result of not consciously observing this aspect of posture. To do this properly you must curve your torso as if you are trying to force your belly to stick out and as if you are trying to force your backside to stick out (something like what some of those topless models tend to do on the covers of so-called “lads mags”). I think you get the point. Lastly – and essentially – power must be driven through the heels.
If you can’t drive the power through the heels your form is still wrong (this advice applies to both the squat and the deadlift and many people may not be able to hold correct form in squats and deadlifts if there is no weight on the bar – because the weight counterbalances you to allow you to be stable when balancing on your heels). Get that aspect right and also learn to feel which parts of the body should be moving as you lift and lower the weight.
Last safety tip, slow it down as much as you can without losing natural form. Form comes first in those exercises, so you can’t slow them down too much (or you’ll cause other problems).
Please consider these points. Leaning forward is not the end of the world in the squat (if you observe lordosis), but if you are overdoing that it will be due to your legs not doing their share of the work because you are overburdened. Go for the burning feel in the muscle and for the pump – poundage is secondary, feel must come first.