Squat Technique

Squat Technique and Back Extensor Muscle Activity

A common concern while performing the squat exercise involves the strain on the lower back, especially when squat technique is poor or when dealing with low back pain.  It is often advantageous to alter the squat technique to reduce strain on the back so that a broad range of people can perform the exercise and it can be included in rehabilitation programs.

Frequent debates exists between the the front and back squat techniques, and there are certainly pros and cons for both.  But if you are worried about the health of the low back, realize that squat technique alters muscle activity of your back extensors and this may have implications on low back pain.

Squat Technique

Squat Technique Alters Back Extensor Muscle Activity

A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reports that there is a significant difference in the EMG activity of the erector spinae while performing the front and back squat.  The study actually was designed to compare the EMG activity during isometric and dynamic trunk exercises, not squat technique, but I couldn’t help but focus on this other finding from the study.  While the authors actually noted that the front squat may be the preferred squat technique due to the greater amount of erector spinae activity, I actually thought the opposite, at least for the novice lifter or person with history of low back pain.

The examiners compared erector spinae EMG activity between the front squat, back squat, military press, prone bridge, and prone superman exercise.  The front squat produced ~25% greater erector spinae EMG activity than the back squat.  What was even more interesting to me was that the front squat had no significant difference in erector spinae activity compared to the superman exercise.

Remember, the superman exercise has been shown by McGill to produce up to 6000 N (over 1300 lbs) of compressive force to the spine due to the activity of the back extensors!

Squat Technique and Low Back Pain

Erector spinae strength is needed to help prevent low back pain, several studies have been published that show that people with low back pain have issues with erector spinae strength and nueromuscular control.  However, this is an area that I have frequently seen overworked and often times leads to greater issues with low back pain.  I feel that we often times try to hard to advance or back extension exercises.  McGill has shown that exercises like the previously mentioned superman exercise and the classic Roman chair back extension exercise produce excessive amounts of compressive loads on the lumbar spine.

I am a believer that most people don’t need to progress their extension exercises to this advanced of a technique.  Basic exercises such quadruped hip extension and bird dog produce an adequate amount of EMG activity while saving the spine from excessive compressive loads.  I’ve published examples of basic back extension exercises in the past.

Furthermore, we can’t neglect that many people suffer from low back pain due to chronic postural adaptations and a subsequently low ratio of erector spinae to rectus abdominis strength.  Overloading these people with aggressive extension exercises are only going to fatigue the extensors more and cause more low back pain.

Just Another Factor to Consider When Choosing Squat Technique

To that extent, I would consider the back squat to be the preferred squat technique over the front squat for people with low back issues until the person demonstrates excellent back extensor strength and core stability.  Realistically, many everyday people may never get to this point, and there may be other reasons why you may need to perform the front squat (i.e. shoulder pain, knee pain, etc.), but at least take the results of this study into consideration when designing your programs.  If you prefer to perform the front squat, at least make sure that the person has a solid base of back extensor strength and core stability before progressing to the squat.

What Are Your Thoughts on Squat Technique?

Where do you stand in the front verses back squat technique debate?  What do you take into consideration when selecting which squat technique to use in your programs?

54 replies
  1. Marc
    Marc says:

    Hi, I’m curious what you think in the case where back erectors are stronger and more active than rectus abdominus (i.e. lower-cross). My guess is the back squat would still be the preferred option, to minimize already overactive erector spinae?

  2. Robby
    Robby says:

    The only leg exercise I do is pistol squats. A pistol squat with good form should require similar amounts of strength from the pressing leg as a back squat of your bodyweight, ass to grass. However, it requires more balance and flexibility, and does not require you to load a lot of weight on top of your spinal column. Since a pistol squat is done on one leg, to get an approximation of the strength necessary to perform it in relation to a back squat, you would have to multiply the resistance by 2 (since you are using only half as many legs). That is why, clearly, squatting your own weight with 1 leg is like squatting your own weight plus an equal amount of weight with 2 legs. So, for every pound you add to a pistol squat, it is like adding 2 pounds to a back squat. Adding weight to pistols is very easy with one or two dumbbells or kettlebells. Simply hold the weight on your shoulder as you would during halfway through a clean and press. A pistol squat with merely 20 pounds is like a back squat of your bodyweight plus 40 pounds, only without having to load that much weight onto your spine. Plus, it still requires notable core strength to maintain proper stability throughout the exercise.

  3. michaelthebaker
    michaelthebaker says:

    hi mike
    i am 50, after years of physical work my lower back has given up, it is not weak but tires very very quickly. back extensors go into spasm all the time. the right side is much stronger/pronounced. shall i do squats, where can you recommend a video of technique.
    i am also looking at somatics. what do you think. I desparately need to do something
    thanks

  4. Richard Bell
    Richard Bell says:

    Mike, what are your thoughs on Gray Cooks FMS system? Also, your book “The Athletes Shoulder” is this something only for strength coaches dealing with thorwing athletes.

  5. ChrisNunz
    ChrisNunz says:

    Hey Mike, how would things change with the back squat if you assumed a wider stance? Because I have LBP and recently started reading McGill’s work (likely bulging/inflamed L5 disc acc. to a couple doctors).

    Doing BW Squats with a wider stance feels a lot better to me than standard back Squats.

    Thanks!

  6. Matt Carrington
    Matt Carrington says:

    Great post. Fantastic to hear various opinions. I have a question. I am rehabbing an elite athelete back from a pars defect. He know is ready to start a progressive running program and his conditioning coach wants him to start lower limb strengthening. My question is do you think it would be better loading this athlete with unilateral exercises such as the step up rather than squatting variations?. The step up exercise will have less lumbar spine extension moment. If he were to squat, would it not be better to use the front squat as it has increased lumbar extensor muscle activation without the increase in lumbar extension movement when compared to the back squat? Thnaks

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Yes, I would avoid compressive forces, so he isnt a squat candidate, at least not right now… You can get a good quad workout w/o squats, in my opinion.

  7. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    Nice post, Mike,

    Did this study look at multifidus as well, or should we extrapolate that the findings are likely to be consistent?

  8. Dru Smith
    Dru Smith says:

    Mike, first off, thanks for the idea about using the TRx staps to help teach a squat. It helped significantly with a 13yo athlete I was working with. He’s finally starting to feel it.

    Second, I wanted get your perspective on something I’ve not seen mentioned and rarely do. I’ve recently had two patients/athletes complaining of LBP with squats and it made me think of this discussion. In assessing both of them, I’ve found both to have significantly limited thoracic mobility (won’t extend). As you can immagine, both are over extending at the lumbar spine in order to reach a full squat. My thought is that when they load up the bar, it won’t make a bit of difference between front or back squat until this mobility issue is addressed and they can get the LS in neutral. Do you have any thoughts on this? Is this frequently overlooked?

  9. Craig Liebenson
    Craig Liebenson says:

    Mike,
    Reminds me of Pr Janda’s original tenet. Coordination is more important than strength. A faulty movement pattern will perpetuate pain, cause recurrences or predispose to future problems.

    Quality trumps quantity. The only question is where to draw the line?

  10. Goi
    Goi says:

    I’ve found the opposite. I have a lower back and glute/piriformis injury, and back squats really cause a lot more pain in the hip area than front squats for me.

    Also, I was about to mention that Michael Boyle has mentioned before that front squats are less strenuous on the back than back squats, but I see that he has commented here.

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      “less strenuous” has a lot of meanings. I don’t want people to take this post too far, all it simply says is that if you are worried about too much extensor activity, which you should be in certain low back pain people, than front squats may not be your best choice.

      The big take home message from here is that 1) everyone is different and has different needs, and 2) think, don’t assume.

  11. Michael Boyle
    Michael Boyle says:

    Mike- I think you present an overly simplified view here that could confuse many young coaches who respect your rehab knowledge.
    1- The empirical evidence clearly is contrary to your statement.
    2- Although back extensor loads are different it is important to note that athletes will back squat with significantly more weight than they will front squat. This could be 25-33% more load and resulting in more compression.
    3- EMG only tells part of the story. The enemies of the back are not just the muscular forces. We must account for rotary torques, compression and shear. The forward lean of the back squat might result in less EMG but the shearing forces may be much higher. In addition, the higher loads might cause technique errors that could produce rotary torque. As mentioned above the compressive forces will be greater.
    4- I think this is a classic case of overstating the conclusions of a research study. I’m not sure if you could find one reputable strength coach who would agree that back squats are easier on the back than front squats

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Michael, always appreciate your insight and you make some excellent points, specifically in regard to load. That is something that I should have been more clear about – these results are assuming the same load!

      I agree 100% that EMG is part of the equation, but realize that many of the forces that you reference are impacted by EMG activity, so higher EMG does relate to higher forces. That is why the superman exercise is so bad for your back.

      Trust me, I agree that these results are not what I expected, which is why I wanted to share.

      One thing that I have noticed with young strength coaches is that they often times over emphasize the squat and utilize in many people that are not ready to be performing this movement. I think injuries during squat come from a combination of 1) too much load and 2) faulty mechanics.

      What this study shows us is that the assumption that front squats are easier on the back may not be accurate in each individual, unless of course you reduce the load of the movement. I am not saying that back or front squats are the way to go in every person, but someone with low back pain may want to avoid front squats if activity of the erector muscles is of interest, which often is when dealing with the person with pain.

      People with low back pain tend to have deficiencies in erector strength and performing the front squat would only worsen those symptoms as they would not be able to perform the activity without deleterious compensations. I would rather see a back squat with appropriate (that is the key) load and pristine mechanics.

      I think you said it best when you said that people tend to not load the front squat as much as the back squat and that technique errors are probably more important.

      What I wouldn’t want to see, is a young strength coach assume that front squats are easier on the back design a program poorly on an assumption.

      Bottom line is that squat form needs to be pristine to minimize injury, if they are not, you really should be taking a step back and focusing on that before loading the movement, either front or back. Just don’t assume the the front squat takes away stress on the back, it just causes different stress, which may be better, or worse, for certain people.

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Dru – I wouldn’t say I use TRX to “teach” the squat, but use it when someone is new to the squat. For me, it allows me to have someone perform the squat with training wheels, so to say. the TRX helps the body balance and take away some instability. Check out this link on Youtube:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iolSREMh8Lg

      Let me first say that I dont think this video is that good, but at least you see some examples, some good, some OK, but I think the concept that it assists the squat technique can be taken from this.

  12. Buh
    Buh says:

    In most cases, trainees should not even begin adding weight to squats until they can manage 30-50 slow repetitions with bodyweight. This gently builds spinal erector endurance and lower back stability while giving a safe opportunity to learn proper form. If a person has back trouble, the question shouldn’t be whether to squat front or back. It should be whether the person can properly squat at all. Stacking weight on dysfunction can only lead to further injury.

  13. Pete Thomas
    Pete Thomas says:

    Advancing the tibia during the squatting movement is crucial for proper form, and the ability to do a good front squat and poor back squat can sometimes tell me about a person’s center of gravity. When a substantial dorsiflexion restriction is present, a back or bodyweight squat will look terrible, but if a 25lb weight held out in front of the body instantly corrects the form, I’m thinking the hips might be flexible, the upper tspine might not be restricted, and they might just be compensating to keep the person from falling backwards during the squat. This would be along the lines of the knee to chest movement with SFMA, can they do it in open kinetic chain, but fall apart with closed kinetic chain.

    Also, shifting the barbell forward during the front squat will allow the person to sit further back into the hips, resulting in more of a pure hip hinge, taking stress off the knee for those with a predisposition to patellar pain. We can then at least start loading the movement, and decrease the amount of weight to counterbalance as they improve. I use a 25lb plate held at arms length to start warming up, as my ankles start to accept more motion and I can bring the plate to my chest, I then feel more ready to start some work set back or front squats

    pete

  14. Chris
    Chris says:

    MIke,
    Will you please clarify what you are calling the “superman” exercise that this article refers to?
    I have pretty much seen both in daily practice, therapist notes, and multiple articles and other publications that this term “superman” gets used as a “catch all” term for many different exercises.
    I am not sure why this is, but I wanted to be clear once and for all.
    Thanks
    Chris

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      @chris, good question. Superman is basically laying prone and extending all four limbs. A variation is just extending both arms and keeping legs on table. Lots of load on the spine and forced hyperextension. Probably better options out there.

  15. jbh
    jbh says:

    The quintessential squat. Best core activating exercise out there. But I do have to disagree with limiting squats until painfree if we are to improve ‘strength’ as a goal. Basic integrity of soft tissues and joint surfaces need to be known (along with the accurate source of their pain) so load can adequately be applied in a graduated, safe manner.

    The caution of research findings to avoid ‘superman’ or ‘front squats’ due to excessive spine stress needs to step into the real world of function and see those with spine injuries perform work related (overhead ceiling installation) or child care related activities (picking up an infant or a toddler from the floor to console him/her).

    If we continue to keep these clients at quadruped level, then we are doing them an injustice and a major diservice with physical therapy interventions. Don’t we purport to “get people back to life.”

    So remember everything in moderation, and modifications to age old techniques, like the squat, work wonderfully to restore function.

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      @ JBH – Good points, would agree that we can’t avoid squats in real life situations. I guess the important component is that we scale back from squats if the person can’t do them with good form due to pain or poor form (which goes back to weakness, imbalances, core control etc). I don’t think we want to work through bad form just to do the exercise. Scale it back until the exercise can be performed efficiently and then re-introduce. Just my thoughts.

  16. Brian Bettendorf
    Brian Bettendorf says:

    In agreement with earlier post I like the deadlift for the mechanical effect through the lats/TLF. Additionally, unless someone has trained regularly in the deadlift the grip strength will fail before the legs or back. Variations of the conventional deadlift to include sumo style, trap bar, and rack pulls to limit range of motion are all useful alternatives.

    The higher EMG activity of the front squat needs to be balanced with the lower relative shear forces observed with the more upright posture compared to the back squat. With the weight being held anterior to the body’s center of gravity the upper back/thoracic spine is also stressed more to resist thoracic flexion.

    The mechanical benefits of the deadlift can also be realized during the back squat if the lats are actively tightened during the exercise. This reminds me of the super stiffness concept described by McGill. Much like the deadlift, variations in stance, position of the bar, and range of motion are all variations to that can be incorporated to alter joint loading and shear forces.

    To your point, any exercise can be a good exercise depending on who it’s for and the goal of the exercise.

  17. Christopher Johnson
    Christopher Johnson says:

    Great topic and nice post Mike! Not sure if you all had a chance to read the article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning by McKean et al in 2010 entitled, “The lumbar and sacrum movement pattern during the back squat exercise.” Thought it should be brought to the table based on this conversation.

    The authors concluded the following…

    “The lumbar spine became kyphotic as soon as a load was placed on the shoulders, and any teaching cues to maintain a curved lumbar spine when squatting must be questioned.”

    Keep in mind that this movement occurred with just 50% body weight

    Makes me really wonder about proper mechanics and how we should be cueing people.

    I have actually stopped prescribing the squat all together for my athletes and use the deadlift and step up as a nice, safe alternative. If we look back in time, the Russians olympic lifters used to rely to a great extent on the squat and were notorious for low back pain.

    It has just never settled well with me to place a heavy load at a higher region of the spine near a transitional point. Obviously people need to be addressed on a case by case basis.

    I like your point too Mike about the potential ramifications and dangers of the front squat technique in terms of eliciting great muscle activity of the erector spinae. That may be the complete opposite of what we should be striving to accomplish with many of the recreational athletes and more sedentary people who are looking to start a training regimen.

    Keep up the great work!!!

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Thanks Chris, great info. I would agree with the deadlift comment too. There are pros and cons to squat technique, I guess it just makes us realize that we should be choosing technique based on the person, not our own preference!

  18. Marcello
    Marcello says:

    Great Post Mike!!!

    I often times see clients with tight soleus muscles and thus reduction in anterior translation of tibia and less knee flexion (clearance)..by raising the heels just alittle you see a dramatic difference in weight distrubution through the spine as the client goes down. It doesn’t make a big difference at that point whether it is front or back squat.

    How about using the TRx strap to squat?

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      @marcello, actually, that is a great way to introduce the squat and incorporate TRX, I feel like the TRX really helps to perform the squat during early stages when core stability and mechanics aren’t perfect. Sort of like training wheels to start the squat.

  19. Andy
    Andy says:

    The link to the article in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research doesn’t seem to work, is it fine for anyone else? I’m really interested in what the article title is!

  20. Ahmed Rashwan
    Ahmed Rashwan says:

    Thanks for pointing out that research Mike. Very interesting, as we have thought that the “weakest link” to the back squat was the low back musculature.  But now we know that you get more EMG activity with the front squat. 

    What about the thought process that most of the patients with LBP present with tight hip flexors and anterior pelvic tilt which causes increased lumbar lordosis. Thus, a back squat (with external load) would increase compresive forces on lumbar spine and possibly pain level. I feel that the front squat or the body weight squat as mentioned by Nick would be safer exercises, as they are easier to perform correctly with less risk of injury.

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      @Ahmed, another thought would be that someone with low back pain probably shouldn’t be squatting until 1) they are pain free, and 2) they have perfect mechanics. There are other exercises that can be performed, fight the urge to perform the squat until the person demonstrates that they are ready for it!

      • Craig Liebenson
        Craig Liebenson says:

        Mike,
        Great post!

        I think we must teach people w/ LBP to squat since just getting in/out of bed, up/down from a chair is a squat. A spine sparing hip hinge version of the squat that maintains a natural lumbar curve as described by Pr McGill is a “go to” move for LBP pts. Sparing the spine is probably more important than stabilizing it even.
        Craig

  21. Mark
    Mark says:

    I have found using goblet squats (or goblet box squat) has been an excellent way to help groove a proper squat pattern with minimal discomfort in a low back patient.

  22. Shon Grosse
    Shon Grosse says:

    I have always thought that you achieve more latissimus isometric activity with a back squat vs. a front squat, even with modifications such as a cambered bar. As such, I feel you get additional stability through tension in the thoracolumbar fascia through contraction at the latissimus and gluteals.

  23. Peter Roach, RMT
    Peter Roach, RMT says:

    Great info. I agree with the above comments. What are your thoughts to doing dead lifts instead of squats. Would a deadlift accomplish the same workout for legs, gluts, back, but be less of a strain of cervical spine area? And would this not be a better way for the average patient.

    In Health,

    Peter Roach, RMT
    Bayswater.ca

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      @Peter, I do like dead lifts, especially with a trap bar for this example, but they have pros and cons too. Many people dislike to traction on the upper traps and neck.

  24. Hersh
    Hersh says:

    Good content, Mike. In my experience, I feel that neither of the two techniques is very functional. I find that box lifts not only accomplish the same goals as far as strength, lumbar stability and functional training, but also train the body as it is going through a movement that more closely resembles normal functional activity.

    • Dave
      Dave says:

      Big fan of your website Mike. Thanks for putting it out there and creating discussion. I would say the best squat to perform is the one that will be used most in ADL’s for the patient. Teaching body mechanic technique and added weight over time to increase strength to adapt them to their greatest loads.

  25. Nick
    Nick says:

    Great thinking, Mike. I think that something else we need to keep in mind is that patients should not even be attempting squats like this until they can perform a bodyweight squat with proper technique. I find that when people correctly perform these, they are challenging enough and can be effectively progressed without adding too much weight. This should be especially true of your patients with LBP.

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