Probably the most common problem I see in the gym is lower back pain. From occasional minor aches to chronic pain, this is an issue that affects a huge number of athletes. Not only is the pain itself an issue, but one of the biggest drawbacks of lower back issues is that it causes many of you to avoid some of the most beneficial lifts.
“I can’t squat, it hurts my back” . . . that’s something I’ve heard this so many times, and I’m not just pointing fingers. I myself have three bulging discs from an injury over 20 years ago. I have a bad back and for years I let it limit what I could do on leg day. Any type of barbell squat — front or back — has a tendency to fire up the muscles around my low back and leave me limping for a few days. What finally saved me from a life of curling in the squat rack was switching my focus from bilateral to unilateral movements.
Now, before I get into the difference between bilateral and unilateral exercises, let’s first discuss what is at the root of the problem for myself and many athletes out there. Having grown up boxing and wrestling, my body adjusted to standing in a staggered stance with one foot in front of the other. In just about any other sport you move with a natural gait — one foot in front of the other. As a boxer, you always stand, move, and fight with the same foot in front of the other no matter which direction you are going. To further complicate things, you consistently twist and rotate your hips to the same side as you throw punches.
So where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with back pain? Well, all of that activity spent in a staggered stance — like in wrestling — can lead to some strength imbalances as your hips get used to rotating in one direction. Then, when an athlete loads their spine in a square stance, the hips may torque in one direction if they have a strength imbalance, leading to low back pain and injury.
In my case, it’s a relationship with my psoas on the left (front) and my QL on my right side lower back that gives me problems. As the strength coach for the Ohio Regional Training Center at OSU, I see similar problems in many of my athletes, from their decades spent competing on the mat in a split stance. The solution is to stop loading the spine and focus on unilateral leg exercises, particularly during the season.
The term “bilateral” is used when referring to an exercise where both sides of the body are loaded evenly, such as a barbell back squat, deadlift, or bench press. Each side of the body is symmetrical in position and in weight distribution. Unilateral exercises, such as split squats or pistol squats, refer to when only one side of the body is doing the “work.” Unilateral exercises allow the legs to work independently of one another and since most are done with dumbbells, you can really tax each leg without loading the spine.
Is this the answer for everyone who experiences lower back pain while squatting? Of course not. But I have found these exercises to be beneficial and tolerable for many lifters with back issues, particularly wrestlers and fighters who train in a staggered stance.
Add in the increased emphasis on lateral stability and single leg balance, and you can see why this is the perfect squat variation for wrestlers.
In the video, I show you the basic split squat form and how to load the movement based on age and experience.
This is where everyone starts. I have my youth athletes (as young as 5 years old) begin to perform the split squat with their own bodyweight. Pay special attention to the position of their knee (over the front toe) and make sure their back stays straight and core braced.
Rx: 3 x 10 per leg
Once a youth athlete demonstrates movement proficiency, the next step is to add some load with a light med ball. This will force them to demonstrate good core strength and proper posture.
Adding in a 3-5 second negative on the descent of each rep will help them master the movement pattern.
Rx - 3 x 6-8 per side
This is the main variation that I use for my high school and college athletes. Advanced athletes should aim to work up to their equivalent bodyweight or greater in dumbbells.
Rx - 5 x 3 reps per side
Adding a 3-second pause to the bottom will increase difficulty and help you overcome a plateau and move up to that next weight.
Holding a single DB under your chin is a great way to put more of an emphasis on the shoulders and upper back. I’ll typically use this variation with my advanced guys when we need to de-load the legs a little but still make the exercise challenging. Rather than using a pair of 100lb DBs, a single 100lber is 1/2 the load on your legs but still difficult and demanding of the core and trunk stabilizers.
Rx - 3 x 5-8 per leg.
I started using a foam roller under the ankle with Bo Jordan who had some nagging foot/ankle injuries throughout his college career. This is a great option for any of the above variations when dealing with foot/ankle mobility or injury issues.
Coach Myers is the strength coach for the Ohio Regional Training Center at The Ohio State University. With the Ohio RTC since 2012, he served as Ohio State Wrestling’s primary strength coach from 2014-18, helping the Buckeyes win three Big Ten titles, their first-ever team NCAA championship, and two runner-up finishes.
A certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), Coach Myers owns the Old School Gym in Pataskala, OH, and is a founding partner of top supplement company Max Effort Muscle. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook, and learn more about his strength and conditioning programs for wrestlers of all ages here.