I’ve suffered two lower back injuries in the last year. The first was terrifying- I was squatting when all of a sudden I heard a loud crack and something shifted in my lower back.
I had tweaked my back a little bit deadlifting in the previous workout. I concluded that the deadlift had injured me first, with the squat then aggravating that injury.
I was terrified- for a few days I was sue I’d need disc surgery. I spent the next few weeks hobbling around, bent over, going to the gym just to do some foam rolling and later, carefully using upper body machine exercises to avoid engaging my lower back.
I did have a herniated disc. Thankfully, it turns out that minors disc injuries do clear up on their own. In my case, it took almost two months.
The second time was less than two weeks ago. Once again, I was squatting, and my back started to hurt. This time there was no loud crack- I just stopped squatting, moved to something else, and figured I was alright.
Then two days later, I was driving to meet some friends when my back started spasming. I had to awkwardly drive home, worrying that I was going to crash, take some painkillers, do some foam rolling, then call a Lyft to take me where I was planning to go.
This time, I’m recovering faster. I’m now able to do everything except heavy squats and deadlifts, and I’ll be doing those in another week or two.
Both times, the injury was caused by back squats. So back squats are the problem, right? Well not exactly.
You see, I wasn’t just doing regular back squats. In both cases, I was using a Smith machine. One of these beasties.
Smith machines take a barbell and put it on a slightly angled track, forcing it to move in a straight line. I thought that would make it safer- I can’t drop the weight, and having it on a track would enforce good form. Right?
Well, it turns out that’s as far from the truth as you can get. You can still compromise your form with a Smith machine- by planing your feet wrong, rounding your back, or placing the bar too high up on your neck. Butt wink at the bottom of the squat is still possible. But there’s a more fundamental issue here.
When you squat, the barbell isn’t supposed to move in a straight line.
If you squat with perfect form, the path of the barbell comes pretty close to being a straight line, sure. But not perfectly straight. It still moves forward and back a little bit throughout the motion. And that little bit makes a huge difference. Because by forcing the barbell to move in a straight line, the Smith machine exerts shear forces on your spine. And that causes disc injuries.
Now, there are some exercises that the Smith machine may be good for. It might be alright for front squatting, maybe. It’s probably alright for upper body stuff like bench presses and military presses, although you’ll miss out on working your stabilizer muscles.
Personally, I never plan to use a Smith machine again. Instead, I’ll use the power rack- this guy right here.
You might know these as squat racks, but they’re useful for other movements, particularly bench pressing without a spotter. The pins provide safety by enforcing a minimum depth you can go to- so you don’t get crushed under the weight.
If you want to squat safely, here’s exactly what to do to make sure you don’t mess yourself up the way I did.
Use a power rack instead of a Smith machine. Set the pins at the height a couple inches below where your thighs would break parallel to the floor.
Do front squats instead of back squats. They’re safer- they don’t push you to contort your spine as much, and a screwup will cause you to drop the weight in front of you instead of being squished under it. They also use less weight, put more of the focus on your legs, produce less global fatigue, and allow for faster recovery. Still use a power rack, even with front squats.
When you do back squat, use a lower weight. Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your muscles. Use a weight you can squat DEEP, for reps, without compromising form.
To heighten intensity and build explosive strength at the deepest part of the movement, superset barbell squats (front or back) with unweighted jump squats. This lets you get a more intense workout without pushing the weight too high, and also makes sure you don’t cheat by just not going as deep when you add weight.
Most importantly, remember that most unsafe gym behavior is motivated by an egotistical desire to lift as much weight as possible. The Smith machine let me lift more weight, but it wasn’t safe. The front squat won’t allow me to lift nearly as much as the back squat, but it’s safer, and I’ll be doing front squats only- in a rack- for the next few months.
As a side note- while my deadlift wasn’t the main issue- I was also compromising my safety there. More on deadlift safety at a later date.
Bottom line: pick safe exercises, use proper form, get a good workout, and fatigue yourself. Don’t set yourself up for injury by looking for workarounds that let you lift more weight than you should be able to.
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