How to Hurt Your Back Squatting

Powerlifter collapsed under Olympic bar

The pain was immediate.

And intense.

I knew right away that something was wrong. And it was all my fault.

Yes, I had just joined the ranks of those who hurt their backs by squatting.

But it’s not because the exercise is bad. Indeed, squatting is one of the very best exercises for strength development and mobility.

I hurt my back last summer because I was stupid.

I didn’t even hurt it on a working set. I did it while warming up.

I focus on the minutiae of proper form, particularly by studying the writings of Mark Rippetoe (click here and here to view some great videos on proper squat form). I take my time adding weight to the bar. That’s all good.

The problem was that I wasn’t ready.

You see, I had spent the weekend loading the contents of a 1,900 square foot house into a 26 foot moving truck. That meant 12 hours of heavy lifting, moving, twisting, and shoving.

  • When I got to the gym Monday morning, my body was tired but I was committed to my routine.
  • Foam roll? Check.
  • Dynamic warm-up? Check.
  • Two sets of 10 reps with the bar? Check.
  • One set of 7 reps with 95 pounds?

Oops.

I was just a little sloppy when I moved back in to re-rack the weight. I returned the right-side just fine, but missed the left. That knee quickly collapsed to a 45 degree angle before I caught myself and re-racked.

I thought nothing of it and proceeded with one set of 5 reps with 135 pounds.

While it’s likely that the injury started on the 95 pound set, I sealed the deal with my last warm-up. I did one rep with 185 pounds, then stepped forward to re-rack. Instead of stepping forward and then squatting down slightly, I somehow rolled my shoulders and upper-back forward.

That’s when pain shot up my left side.

You know those times when you tweak something and you debate with yourself whether or not you should finish your workout?

This was not one of those times!

I actually ended up in the ER late that evening. My back spasmed every time I stood up and I couldn’t walk more than 50 yards without taking a break. I couldn’t play with my kids.

Fortunately, the doc told me it was either a bad muscle pull or a mild disc injury (!), and the treatment for both was the same: alternate 600 mg of Advil and Ibuprofen throughout the day, and take Flexeril and Oxycodone.

Thanks doc. I’ll send you the bills for (1) my DUI and (2) the stomach ulcers.

The Moral of the Story

Don’t be an idiot.

If you work hard physically over the weekend, take Monday off from training. Listen to your body. If its beat up, you’ve already worked it hard enough. It’s challenging enough to stay tight through your sets and follow perfect form on a good day. It’s easy to relax too soon or get too sloppy when you’re tired.

Get some rest or take a long, slow walk.

Pushing too hard and getting hurt is counterproductive for your health and your long-term goals. You’ll end up setting yourself further back than you would by skipping a day.

Building strength is a journey, not a destination. Don’t rush it.

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