Alternative Lower Back Squat Exercises to Try: Give the Low Back a Break

lower back squat exercises

Do you or your personal training clients love training heavy back squats for strength, but feel the need to give the low back a break? Do you know how to make exercise programming adjustments for the squat when navigating low back pain? Often making one or two adjustments to training can make a significant difference. In this article, we’ll explore why these lower back squat exercises and variable modifications can help your client train the squat while giving their lower back some relief. Try the lower back squat exercises below to keep your client on track and reduce injury likelihood!

  • Squat variations that position the load more in front of the body or onto the hips, such as goblet squats, landmine squats, safety bar squats, barbell front squats, and belt squats
  • Single-leg squat variations that inherently lower the training load placed on the lower back, such as Bulgarian split squats and other split squat variations

When it comes to low back pain or getting back into training after a low back injury, altering the following two training variables can minimize discomfort. 

  • Move the position of the training load to forward positions to reduce low back muscle activation
  • Reduce training load

Lower Back Squat Exercises that Reposition the Load

The first important variable to consider during leg day is the load position of the squat. Research suggests that as the load position moves further back (posterior), the lower back muscles (erector spinae) have to work harder, potentially contributing to pain.

Additionally, a more posterior load position can cause excessive arching of the lower back, leading to discomfort. It is important to note that it is not inherently bad for the lower back muscles to work hard. However, there are specific situations where giving these muscles a break by incorporating more protective lower back exercises is an important temporary goal. 

If you experience low back pain during posterior-loaded squat variations like the low bar or high bar back squat, it may be worth trying a different load position. Here are a few squat variations to consider:

The belt squat involves placing the load on the hips using a belt strap with the weight attached, allowing for a more upright torso and reducing the demand on the low back muscles (Layer et al, 2018). However, it’s important to note that there may be less glute activation with this exercise, while the emphasis is shifted to the quads (Joseph et al, 2020). To compensate, you can incorporate additional glute-focused exercises into your routine, such as the hip thrust

The safety bar squat and front squat are both known for promoting an upright torso and reducing the overall load lifted compared to back squat variations (Krzyszkowski and Kipp, 2020). This results in less lordosis, or arching of the back (anterior pelvic tilt), and less strain on the lower back muscles (erector spinae) compared to back squat variations (Park et al, 2022).

While the overall load lifted may be lower compared to back squats, studies have shown that these alternative lower back squat exercises provide comparable muscle activation (Gullet et al, 2009). This means you don’t have to worry about losing out on gains while training these squat variations.

Reduce Training Load

Load is another important exercise variable to consider when the temporary goal is to give the lower back a break. As mentioned above, more forward-positioned loads on the body tend to result in overall less load being able to lift. Another way to reduce the overall load through the lower back is to train single leg (unilateral) variations of the squat exercise (Eliassen et al, 2018).

Eliassen et al suggest using unilateral squat variations “rather than bilateral squats for people with low back pain” (2018). Here are some single-leg variations of the squat that reduce the overall load on the low back (Deforest et al, 2014):

The Bulgarian split squat has been shown in research to have clear differences in the kinetics and kinematics compared to the back squat which could be advantageous to reducing demands on the lower back (Mackey & Riemann, 2021), making it a great alternative lower back squat exercise. These findings include:

  • Higher glute activation
  • Higher ratio of hamstring to quadriceps activation
  • Higher hip dominance
  • Fewer knee forces
  • More upright trunk (Deforest et al, 2014)

When Alternative Lower Back Exercises Squats Are Best

To summarize, if your client is dealing with low back pain or soreness, or prone to straining their lower back while squatting, consider incorporating more protective lower back squat exercises like front-loaded squats or unilateral squats into their training routine. These squat variations will help reduce the low back muscle demands and lower the overall load lifted. Furthermore, they will allow your personal training clients to continue reaping the benefits of squatting while giving their lower back muscles the opportunity to recover.


References

  • DeFOREST BA, Cantrell GS, Schilling BK. Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats. Int J Exerc Sci. 2014 Oct 1;7(4):302-310. PMID: 27182408; PMCID: PMC4831851.
  • Eliassen W, Saeterbakken AH, van den Tillaar R. COMPARISON OF BILATERAL AND UNILATERAL SQUAT EXERCISES ON BARBELL KINEMATICS AND MUSCLE ACTIVATION. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2018 Aug;13(5):871-881. PMID: 30276019; PMCID: PMC6159498.
  • Gullett, Jonathan C; Tillman, Mark D; Gutierrez, Gregory M; Chow, John W. A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23(1):p 284-292, January 2009. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb 
  • Joseph L, Reilly J, Sweezey K, Waugh R, Carlson LA, Lawrence MA. Activity of Trunk and Lower Extremity Musculature: Comparison Between Parallel Back Squats and Belt Squats. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Mar 31;72:223-228. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2019-0126. PMID: 32269663; PMCID: PMC7126258.
  • Krzyszkowski J, Kipp K. Load-dependent mechanical demands of the lower extremity during the back and front squat. J Sports Sci. 2020 Sep;38(17):2005-2012. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2020.1766738. Epub 2020 Jun 16. PMID: 32544021.
  • Layer JS, Grenz C, Hinshaw TJ, Smith DT, Barrett SF, Dai B. Kinetic Analysis of Isometric Back Squats and Isometric Belt Squats. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Dec;32(12):3301-3309. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002854. PMID: 30273281.
  • Park JH, Lee SJ, Shin HJ, Cho HY. Influence of Loads and Loading Position on the Muscle Activity of the Trunk and Lower Extremity during Squat Exercise. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Oct 18;19(20):13480. doi: 10.3390/ijerph192013480. PMID: 36294056; PMCID: PMC9602963.
  • Mackey ER, Riemann BL. Biomechanical Differences Between the Bulgarian Split-Squat and Back Squat. Int J Exerc Sci. 2021 Apr 1;14(1):533-543. PMID: 34055144; PMCID: PMC8136570.

About

Brandon Hyatt, MS, CSCS, NFPT-CPT, NASM-CES, BRM, PPSC is an experienced leader, educator, and personal trainer with over 7 years of success in building high-performing fitness teams, facilities, and clients. He aspires to become a kinesiology professor while continuing to grow as a professional fitness writer and inspiring speaker, sharing his expertise and passion. He has a master's degree in kinesiology from Point Loma Nazarene University. His mission is to impact countless people by empowering and leading them in their fitness journey.