Squats are one of the best exercises for strengthening your quadriceps muscles, but they also give your hamstrings and glutes a workout. The best thing about squats is that they work so many muscles so efficiently. You can even do them without any special equipment. You don’t need anything but a little space and added resistance in the form of a barbell or dumbbells.
You can change the focus of squats by the type you do. For example, front squats emphasize your quads while back squats are glute and hamstring burners. Plus, squats improve mobility, and if you do single-leg squats, your sense of balance improves too. Despite the phenomenal benefits of this multi-joint movement, it is a movement that causes knee pain for some people and that can make getting an effective lower body workout done harder.
Are Squats Harmful to Your Knees?
The squat is not an exercise that is inherently “bad for your knees,” contrary to popular belief. Strengthening your quadriceps muscles through resistance training helps better stabilize and support your knee joint. Rock hard quad muscles keep your knees stable when you walk or climb stairs. This reduces shearing forces on your knees. Doing squats with poor form is what gives squats a bad reputation for triggering knee pain.
If you bone up on your form, squats are a safe exercise that will strengthen the muscles that protect your knees. But what if you experience knee discomfort when you squat? Here are ways you can vary or modify the way you squat to make the exercise easier on your knees.
Adjust Your Alignment When You Squat
If you use poor posture or alignment when you squat, you force your knees to take on the work your hips should be doing. The only way to correct this is to ask your hips to do more of the work. To do this, sit back into a squat like you are sitting down in a chair. Your hips should shift backwards rather than straight down when you squat. This directs the work of squatting away from your knees, so they don’t bear the brunt of the movement. Keep the weight on your heels, rather than letting it shift forward onto your forefoot and toes.
If squats cause your knees to hurt, consider the sumo squat. It’s a squat variation that works the same muscle groups but also may hit your glutes a little harder than standard squats. So, they’ll give you more booty action and go easier on your knees. Plus, sumo squats work your inner thighs, which don’t get much focus with standard squats.
The biggest difference between a standard squat and a sumo squat is the stance. With a traditional squat, you space your feet shoulder-width apart, and your toes face forward. When you do a sumo squat, your toes are spaced wider, and your toes turn outward. It is a more knee-friendly movement, and you might discover it’s more comfortable overall for you while still offering fitness benefits.
Box squats limit your range of motion, so you place less stress on your knees. The box squat also helps you maintain proper form and keep your torso in line with your thighs, so most of the weight when you squat is on your hips, which is where it should be.
When you start from a position where your butt touches a box, your weight is balanced over your feet, and it’s easier to get your form right and sit back into the squat without added pressure on your knees. Your knees also travel less far forward during box squats, and this decreases the force on the patellofemoral joint and the tendons that surround it.
Work on Ankle Mobility
If you have poor ankle mobility, it can affect how your knees track when you squat. A simple test to determine if you have limited ankle mobility is the wall test. Stand five inches from a wall with your face pointing toward the wall. Then, drive your knees forward toward the wall. If your knees cannot touch the wall, you have limited ankle mobility, and it can affect your squat form.
How to change that? There are various ankle mobility exercises you can do to improve how mobile your ankles are, with the goal of making your knees comfier when you squat. Add ankle mobility exercises to your routine before stopping for the day. Over time, it will help your squat form and make the movement friendlier to your knees.
Lighten Up on the Weight
If you have knee discomfort when you squat, lighten up on the resistance for a few weeks and see if it helps your pain. Heavier weights place more stress on your knees and can also compromise your form. When you use a lighter weight, you can more easily work on your alignment and practice sitting back into a squat properly. If even lighter weights cause discomfort, revert to bodyweight squats for a while or even wall squats. You can also shorten the range of motion of your squats based on how your knees feel. If you experience knee pain at a certain depth, stay within the range your knees feel comfortable.
The Bottom Line
If you still experience knee discomfort after making modifications, consult your healthcare provider. Also, stop squatting and book an appointment with your doctor if you have knee swelling or redness, or your knee locks or gives way. Squats are the best exercise for the lower body, but it’s important to emphasize the quality of your squats over quantity. Work on getting your form right with light weights or no weight first. It could save you knee pain later!
- “Knee Pain When Squatting: Causes, Treatment, Prevention ….” 12 Jan. 2018, .healthline.com/health/knee-pain-when-squatting.
- “Is it Safe for Knees to Pass Toes During a Squat | Physio ….” .physio-network.com/blog/knees-shouldn’t-pass-toes-during-the-squat-myth-or-truth/.
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