Building stronger legs and a posterior chain is beneficial for most sports and overall fitness.
Movements like squats, deadlifts, and lunges are common staples of a sound leg training program. Some individuals, however, find that these compound movements can create lower back pain, stiffness, and soreness; leaving them at a loss for how to train their legs effectively and safely.
So what are the best lower-back friendly leg training exercises? The best lower back friendly leg exercises are movements that limit the amount of forward torso lean; like front squats, lunges, high bar back squats, and single-leg exercise.
Now, that is not to say Romanian deadlifts and squats are harmful to the lower back, but it is important to note that these exercises tend to create some issues with individuals who are not performing them correctly. Therefore, the key to decreasing lower back pain in most leg exercises is to perform the movements correctly and to not use too much weight.
In this article, we will discuss potential reasons why your lower back hurts when training legs and offer strength and muscle building exercises you can do to stay on track with our goals and minimize back pain.
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5 Reasons Your Lower Back Hurts After / During Leg Day?
Below are five common reasons why the lower back can get fatigued and/or create pain during leg day.
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EXCESSIVE SPINAL FLEXION
Rounding of the spine occurs often in movements like deadlifts, in which many novice and intermediate lifters end up stressing the lower back muscles (erectors) and lumbar spine. This is often created by poor hamstring flexibility, poor body awareness, and often too heavy of loads.
POOR GLUTE ACTIVITY
Poor glute strength can result in the erectors (lower back) having to extend the spine to bring the torso into a vertical position. The glutes are responsible for hip extension, and when they perform their job correctly the lifter can maintain a braced core and neutral spine and minimize lower back stress.
TOO MUCH ANTERIOR PELVIC TILT
This is a common issue for many individuals, and is something that needs to be fixed even before the movement begins. Excessive lumbar extension can be a chronic issue, which sometimes is caused by poor pelvic control, mainly excessive anterior pelvic tilt.
To fix this, think about pulling the front of your pelvis upwards with your lower abdominals. This can also be helpful when performing on the floor so that the lower back is being pressed to the ground, assuming a more neutral position.
LEANING FORWARD TOO MUCH
Excessive forward lean during most leg training movements will result in more loading being placed on the lower back. While this is often the purpose of a movement, such as with good mornings and Romanian deadlifts, many individuals may find that they ONLY feel it there, which means they are not correctly loading the hamstrings, glutes, and back.
This can often be remedied by performing movements with less weights, slowing the speed of the reps down, or regressing the movement to a more basic variation to master technique.
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LOWER BACK FATIGUE
It is important to remember that the lower back is a muscle group, and over time the erectors (lower back muscles) can get fatigued during leg day. If you are still trying to train the quads, glutes, or hamstrings using larger, lower-back dependent movements (like deadlifts and back squats), it would be beneficial to just swap to more unilateral and/or machine based work to maximize local muscle fatigue. This is often done using the hypertrophy movements in the lower sections.
Stuck at home? Try these at-home lower body workouts…NO weights needed!
What Should You Do If Your Lower Back Hurts During Squats?
If your lower back is hurting in squats, it is a pretty good sign you are performing that squat incorrectly.
The purpose of squatting is to develop leg strength and muscle. Therefore, if your back begins to be a limiting factor, it suggests that your legs are no longer getting the stimulus they need to be growing.
Instead, stop, address any technical issues, lighten the load, or switch over to more unilateral based movements (see sections below) to maximize leg muscle stress and minimize strain on the lower back.
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How Can You Train Legs Without Loading Your Back?
Adding in front loaded movements like front squats and goblet squats are free weight options you can do to load the legs and minimize strain on the lower back.
Additionally, performing more unilateral exercises lowers external loading capacities on the body while increasing the muscular demands of the movement. It is important to note that simply switching to machines may not be the best option, but rather integrating compound movements as well as machines could be a better option for optimal fitness, strength, and health.
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Back Friendly Leg Training Exercises for Strength Development
Below are four lower back friendly exercises to develop leg strength. Note that some of these may be less demanding on the back than others (high bar back squat is more demanding than a goblet squat, for example).
HIGH BAR BACK SQUAT
The high bar back squat is a squat variation that delivers less stress to the lower back than the low bar squat (often seen in powerlifting). Due to the higher barbell positioning on the upper back/traps, the individual is able to maintain a more vertical back angle and minimize strain on the back.
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FRONT AND/OR GOBLET SQUAT
Whether you do this with a barbell (front squat), kettlebells (double kettlebell squat), with one weight (goblet squat), or a combination of all of them within your program, the stress on the lower back will be lessened due to the torso being in a more upright position (as compared to a back squat for example).
These variations are great exercises to strengthen the quadriceps, glutes, core, and posterior muscles as well.
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UNILATERAL SQUAT OPTIONS
Unilateral movements are great ways to build muscle mass and hypertrophy (see below), however with more advanced individuals they can also be meant for producing strength without having to use as much loading.
Movements like split squats, for example, can be done in a safety rack with loading on the upper back or in the front rack and used to attack leg strength on an individual basis. It is recommended that when training “strength” during unilateral exercises, repetitions should be no lower than 3 per side to reduce the risk of injury.
Hip thrusts are a great way to develop strong glutes. This movement can be done as it limits loading on the lower back, and has very similar movement patterning to a deadlift (however it does’t target the hamstrings and back as much). Performing this on a Smith machine, barbell, or even with dumbbells are all effective means to build stronger glutes while limiting loading on the lower back.
Looking to take the guesswork out of programming altogether, then try using the Fitbod app, which will design your body weight and strength training program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt to your levels of recovery and rate of progress and help you maintain strength and muscle while cutting. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results
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Why Not Low Bar Squats and Deadlifts?
If you experience pain in these movements, there is a high probability your technique is poor and the weight is too heavy. In this case, I suggest you review your technique, lighten the load, and seek guidance from a trained individual who knows what they are doing.
If you have lower back injuries and more chronic issues, I suggest NOT performing these movements, as they will most likely cause pain and injury if you slip up one time. The risk-reward is just not there.
That said, you can certainly perform them, but realize if you are looking to build muscles and strength, and don’t care about how much you can deadlift (and are more concerned with building the hamstrings and glutes that are often a by product of a deadlift), the exercise swaps below can dramatically increase muscle growth and strength and minimize lower back pain/injury.
Back Friendly Leg Training Exercises for Hypertrophy Development
Below are six exercises that can be done to train the legs for hypertrophy and basic strength. These movements are often not done for lower reps, as these are the best function for muscle growth using repetitions of at least 3-5 reps for single leg movements and 8 or more reps for machine based movements.
1. LEG PRESS
The leg press is a good movement for some individuals who may be wanting to add more stress and leg muscle to the quadriceps without having to place extra strain on the lower back. For best results, lower the sled into the deepest position you can achieve.
2. HACK SQUAT
The hack squat is a leg machine that targets the quadriceps and glutes. Similar to the leg press, the movement is often done with a sled on tracks, and should be done to the fullest range of motion. The positioning of this sled in this exercise leads itself to target primarily the quadriceps.
3. LUNGES, STEP UPS, AND BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUATS
All three of these movements are unilateral leg exercises, and can be done with a wide variety of equipment (barbell, kettlebells, dumbbells, bodyweight, etc). These are great ways to increase unilateral leg strength, muscle hypertrophy, and increase joint stability necessary for more complex strength movements. These tend to be performed with less weight than bilateral movements like squats, deadlifting, and Romanian deadlifts; however deliver just as much (if not more) muscular stress.
4. MACHINE HAMSTRING CURLS
Machine hamstring curls are a great way to add higher volume direct work sets to the hamstrings, without loading the lower back. Typically, these are done in higher repetitions ranges to accumulate metabolic fatigue in the muscle. You can do these single-legged as well to address any unilateral asymmetries.
The key to any effective leg workout is that it stresses the muscles of the legs. If you are not feeling your quads during a leg press, or your hamstrings in a stiff leg deadlift, chances are you are:
(1) doing the movement incorrectly,
(2) not performing the movement in the full range of motion,
(3) not establishing enough control and coordination of the movement,
(4) going too heavy,
(5) going too light,
(6) or not actively thinking about the muscle working.
I challenge everyone to press pause before their next set and really FOCUS on the movement, the muscle, and feeling the connection between the two of them as you perform each rep.
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About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.