What is the best type of squat for people with back injuries?

March 30, 2013

Q: I read an article that said there were certain exercises like squats and shoulder presses I must do if I want to get results, but I have some injuries that prevent me doing these exercises without extreme pain. Do you think I should push through the pain and do the exercises, or are there other options that will still lead to success with my program?

A: When I was young, I believed there were certain exercises that had to be done even if I was in terrible pain, or I might as well stay home on the couch. As I’ve have grown older, I've realized this philosophy was nonsense. If you want to consistently get results, the most important thing is to take care of yourself and make smart choices that keep you in the game and off the injured reserve list. Here are five ways to work around common injuries without losing time in the gym.

Dumbbell squats for back problems

Everybody knows that barbell squats are one of the greatest exercises for building strength, muscle and great legs, but if you have a back or spinal disc injury, you might be a lot better doing a dumbbell squat variation. Exercises such as goblet squats, plié squats or dumbbell squats are great alternatives, because they effectively work your legs with the weight closer to your center of gravity giving you a great burn in the targeted muscles without compressing your spin by putting heavy loads squarely on your back.

Face pulls for shoulder issues

Most shoulder injuries are due to overbearing front shoulder strength, and weak side and rear deltoids. If you have this problem, exercises like overhead dumbbell presses and military presses will only make the problem worse, causing more pain and injury.

However, switching to face pulls in most cases will allow you to work the shoulders pain free and will fix the imbalance while maintaining shoulder strength. To try this exercise, attach a flat bar to the seated cable row, and instead of pulling to your stomach, pull the bar toward your throat with your hands shoulders' width apart and your elbows away from your body.

Hammer curls for elbow pain

Many people experience tendonitis in their elbows from traditional curling movements, but in most cases a simple change of hand grip can make all the difference in avoiding pain and injury. To give this a try, hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing toward each other and curl from your sides with your elbows tight to your body until the dumbbells are about 4-5 inches from your body but parallel to your shoulders. Squeeze your biceps tightly and repeat the process. If pain persists, eliminate all bicep exercises until the pain goes away.

Towel crunches for neck soreness

Some women are discouraged from doing crunches and other abdominal movements because their necks cramp up before their abdominals feel the burn. With one minor adjustment, they can fix this problem, get a great abdominal workout and slowly strengthen their necks so this won’t be a problem in the future. Try lying on your back with your feet elevated at 90 degrees, hold an end of a small workout towel in each hand and loop it tightly behind your head so your head is resting on the towel.

Crunch forward with your head facing the ceiling, lifting your upper body with your abs, pausing at the top and repeating for the desired amount of reps. This technique will place the tension on the abs and off the neck, allowing for a great workout until the neck strength catches up with the core.

Foam rolling for muscle tightness

Anyone who works out and lifts weight will eventually experience muscle tightness in the form of trigger points. These are nagging sore spots caused by a hard workout, sleeping the wrong way or life in general. The best way to prevent and treat trigger points - muscle knots - is to use an inexpensive device called a foam roller. A foam roller is a 6-inch piece of tubular foam that allows you to roll or massage the affected areas on the roller, flattening and lengthening the muscles and causing the trigger points to release and return to their regular shape.

You can start by resting a portion of your body weight on the foam roller and progress to resting all of your body weight on the roller for optimum results.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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