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Doing squats with a light weight (25% of max) I find no problem, but once I go to 50% of max (barbell i.e. not in a smith machine) and get to my third set of 20, I feel a dull pain in my lower back at the insertion point for the hamstrings. It's not my muscles that cause me to stop, it is this pain. Working at a higher weight is the same, so it appears to be fatigue. Going to the leg press machine (sat down) there is no pain in the lower back at all.

I had thought that tight hamstrings might be the cause of this, given where the pain is, but can anyone give me some advice as to how I can be certain? Or what I can do to alleviate this?

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My guess is that you aren't using good form. You probably aren't keeping your knees out the entire time, which causes the pelvis to tip down in the back (aka butt wink). That has a tendency to put a lot of the load on the low back. Just to give us an idea of your experience, what is your 1RM back squat? What form are you using? (e.g., high bar, low bar, below parallel, above parallel, etc) –  Daniel Feb 28 at 17:28
    
High bar below parallel. I've not actually done a 1RM but I will squat 20 with 80kgs in the smith machine (I cannot lift more than 50kgs up off the floor and over my head for dumbell). So in the above I mean 80kgs is 100% though this is technically incorrect –  VictorySaber Feb 28 at 17:50
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Well, smith squatting opens a lot of doors for dysfunction and is generally considered a "bad" movement. Your pain is most likely due to using this exercise rather than free weights. Visit this link for more information –  Daniel Feb 28 at 18:11
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Keep your chest up and your upper back tight. If you are squatting with a wider stance point your feet inward a little and open your hips up. The only way we can be 100% positive in our assessments is to see a video of you squatting. Just take your phone and point it at the mirror or yourself when squatting and record video. Then upload to youtube. –  Christopher Bruce Feb 28 at 22:24
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@VictorySaber, you might want to check out these two videos for squat form reference: [1], [2]. If you have a hard time with these positions, work on mobility. –  Daniel Mar 2 at 17:34

1 Answer 1

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How sharp is the pain? If we are talking about a dull feeling of pressure in the lower lumbar pressure that is quite uncomfortable then we are probably talking about back pump. Any muscle can get a pump, and after 20 rep sets it's pretty much a given. However, if the pain is sharp, then we might be looking at a strain or tear.

Dealing with Back Pump

Back pump is just the same phenomenon as when your biceps get pumped after doing a lot of curls. The only difference is that the location of the pump is very uncomfortable. Just as 20 minutes away from the bar will clear up a bicep pump, the same is generally true for the back pump. The only difference is that the muscles are larger so it can take a little longer for that discomfort to dissipate.

Back pump is only uncomfortable, but it is associated with fatigue. Considering that 20 rep squats are very fatiguing to the body, you may want to focus on rep ranges between 6-12 and just do more sets.

Dealing with Back Strain

A strain in your muscle is a very sharp pain, that occurs whenever you cause damage to the muscle. Here's the important thing: a damaged muscle needs time to repair. That means you'll have to:

  • Rest--compression, cold and hot compresses, etc will help the muscle relax
  • Train around the injured muscle (i.e. don't do exercises that aggravate it, but try to find something that you can do)
  • Start light to test the waters when you feel confident enough about resuming

Other things you can do

I do recommend working with someone who knows barbell movements to see if they can find anything wrong with your technique. We all have things we can work on. In my case, my coach diagnosed some anterior pelvic tilt and gave me some stretching exercises to help correct that problem. I was able to squat better after applying the advice. He also suggested some tweaks to my squat form that made it work with my leverages better.

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It is not a sharp pain. Back pump eh? I've not heard of that but it makes sense. –  VictorySaber Mar 2 at 18:06
    
I'll try the 6-12 reps idea, and get somebody to watch me. In addition, I'll look at the links and take in the other advice. Thank you all. –  VictorySaber Mar 3 at 8:09

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