How To Avoid Knee Pain With Squat Exercise


Published: February 23, 2016


Squats are one of the best exercise you can do. Not only do they work all of your major lower body muscles, they are also the key to a firm butt and healthy knees, and are a very functional movement too.

Every time you sit down and stand back up again, you are doing a squat. Climbing a flight of stairs is a series of one legged squats. Going to the loo? That’s a squat too! If you lose your ability to squat, many of the tasks that you perform on a daily basis will become very difficult, if not impossible. It’s safe to say that if you lose your squat, you could lose your ability to live a productive, independent, life.

Squats are also an excellent exercise for strengthening your hips and knees and the muscles that support and stabilise these essential joints. They can also help maintain mobility and flexibility in the lower body — something that can be lost if you spend a lot of time sitting in a chair or are otherwise sedentary.

As a weight-bearing exercise, squats are also important for preventing osteoporosis — a serious medical condition characterised by fragile bones prone to fracture.

Of course, if you are going to get the greatest potential benefit from doing squats, you need to do them properly…

Squatting for success

Even if you have been doing squats for a while, it’s worth revisiting your technique to make sure you are doing them right. Poor technique might not cause you problems today, this month, or even this year, but can accumulate over time and lead to problems eventually. Squat properly from the outset and you can avoid many problems before they start.

1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes facing the same way as your knees. This is generally slightly outward — the “five to one” position on a clock face. Shoulder-width feet give you space to descend safely and also ensure your inner thighs get worked too.

2. Make sure your feet are and remain flat. Your weight should be toward your heels so you can wiggle your toes in your shoes. Weight on the toes places stress on the knees.

3. Initiate your descent by pushing your hips back just before you bend your knees. This maximizes the involvement of your butt and hamstrings and also prevents your knees from travelling too far forward which doesn’t do them any good. Try to keep your knees behind your toes and your shins close to vertical.

4. Consciously push your knees outward to stop them dropping in as you squat. This provides your butt with a better workout and also keeps your knees tracking properly.

5. Descend smoothly until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. You can go a little deeper if your flexibility permits but avoid going too deep as it places more stress on the knees. Control your descent and do not just drop into a deep squat.

6. It’s okay to lean forward slightly but do your best to keep your chest up and your lower back arched rather than rounded. One way to do this is place your hands behind your head when you squat.

7. Stand up but do not lock your knees at the top. Keeping a slight bend in your knees will avoid hyperextension which could lead to soreness.

Following these guidelines should prevent most squatting-related injuries and provide you with many years of productive and pain-free workouts.

What to do if you have knee pain

If you perform your squats properly, you minimize your risk of suffering knee pain. Strong, mobile, stable knees are much more injury-resistant. However, even the most proficient squatter can have knee pain from time to time.

Knee pain can be caused by several things from simple overuse to severe wear and tear of the hyaline cartilage that covers the ends of the bone that makes up the knee joint. If pain is severe and affects your ability to walk, you should seek proper medical treatment. However, if you suffer from minor knee pain, follow this action plan:

  • Stop doing the activity that is causing you pain. This might require a process of elimination.
  • Rest for a few days for the discomfort to dissipate. During this time, heat pads, ice, and over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen may be useful. Be aware that you may only be relieving the symptoms and not addressing the cause of the problem so do not return to exercise just because the pain has gone.
  • Once the pain has subsided, slowly reintroduce the activity that caused you pain. Pay extra attention to proper technique. If you stay pain-free, continue to gradually do a little more of the activity. If the pain returns, back off to a level that does not cause discomfort. This may mean resting again. Doing too much too soon is to be avoided. Be prepared to take several weeks to build back up to your previous levels of performance.
  • Seek medical assistance if you are unable to exercise without pain, your knees make grinding or harsh clicking noises, the joint feels obstructed, there is obvious swelling, or your knees seem loose or unstable.

Some exercisers may need to modify squats to make the easier on the knees. For some people, this means not squatting past parallel while for others, static wall squats may be a better choice. And as good as squats are, if you do too many, you run the risk of suffering overuse injuries.

Listen to your body and don’t be a slave to your exercise program; if something causes you discomfort, even something as unquestionably beneficial as squats, look for the next best alternative.

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About Patrick Dale

Patrick Dale is an ex-Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for fitness qualifications company Solar Fitness Qualifications Ltd. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles and several internet fitness videos. Patrick practices what he preaches and has competed at a high level in several sports including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing, diving and trampolining and, most recently, powerlifting. He is also an active personal trainer with a wide number of clients ranging from athletes to average Joes and Janes. When not lecturing, training, researching or writing, Patrick is busy enjoying the sunny climate of Cyprus where he has lived for the last 10-years.

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