Knee pain during squats may feel like a common problem among older adults, however, there are 5 key (and avoidable) reasons people experience knee pain with squats.
Written by: Coach Todd
“Oh no, I can’t do that with my knee…”
“I always have knee pain when I squat, so I just avoid it…”
How many times have you thought this to yourself or even said it out loud to a friend? Many people think they can’t squat because of “bad knees” but, in reality, they can!
However, there’s more that goes into a squat than just a bend in your knees. The key is to look at the ankles, hips, and core before jumping back into squats (or avoiding them altogether).
See, the knee is a consequential joint – meaning it’s stuck between two other joints that have more mobility (the hip and the ankle). If one or both of these joints can’t control their full mobility correctly then guess who pays? The knees! OUCH…
So if you have knee pain during squats, it’s important to first be able to control your fullest range of motion within the ankles and hips.
Why are Squats Important in the First Place? Because We Squat Constantly.
This is no exaggeration — think back throughout the day and count how many times you needed to squat.
To sit down in front of this computer screen or even the TV, getting in and out of the car, picking up items off the floor, playing with children and grandchildren, and even when taking a trip to the lieu.
Squatting is a movement we use in real-life activities every day, and when we squat well, we live well.
When performed properly, squats help to strengthen your entire legs — from the front of the thigh all the way around to your butt muscles (or glutes)! Squats keep your bones and joints healthy as well as improving your lower body mobility (because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it).
However, when performed improperly, “bad” squats won’t activate the right muscles and the intensity needed for strength gains, as well as increasing your risk of injury. Incomplete or improper squatting is actually one of the causes of knee pain — putting additional stress on ligaments and joints with every movement.
So, how can we correct this movement to avoid knee pain during squats? It starts by avoiding these 5 mistakes!
5 Mistakes Causing Your Knee Pain During Squats
Letting Your Weight Shift Forward
Stand up tall, then shift your weight to the right… the left… forward… now backward. Any shift too far to any of these sides causes imbalance and dysfunction. When weight is shifted too far forward, pressure builds in the knee causing pain from squatting.
The Fix: Sit Back
Drive your weight throughout the entirety of your foot and sit back to ensure your weight does not travel forward. You should be able to comfortably wiggle your toes without losing balance.
Now, you may struggle with ankle stiffness that restricts your ability to “sit back.” You can experiment with a wider squat stance and/or pointing your toes out at a 45-degree angle.
Not Using the Hip Flexors
It’s easy to let gravity win, especially when dropping closer to the earth. However, this lets our hip flexors — the muscles connecting our upper body to our lower body in the front of our legs — to relax… putting more pressure on the knees.
The Fix: Actively Control The Movement
Fight gravity by controlling your descent into the squat and engaging your hip flexors to take the pressure off your knees.
If your hip flexors are weak, use this exercise to strengthen them further:
Sit on the edge of a chair. Focus on slowly bringing your leg up towards your chest with control all while maintaining an upright posture. Hold for 5 seconds before lowering down.
Repeat 10 times per leg.
Looking for more hip-strengthening exercises? Click here.
Knees Not in Line with Toes
Oftentimes, the knees try to find the path of least resistance to get from point A to point B. If that point is from the bottom of a squat to a standing position, the knees often cave in under the load. This causes excess stress on the inside of our knees as the ligaments and tendons begin to do all the work instead of the muscles.
The Fix: Drive Knees Directly Over Ankles
This is also termed, “trank knees over toes.” Not in the sense that your knees will move past your toes, but in that everything is pointing in the same direction. If your toes are pointed out, your knees should face the same way, stacking over your ankles.
Exercise that will help strengthen this movement pattern:
Sidelying Leg LiftLay on your side with your hips stacked on top of each other. Keep your bottom leg bent and upper arm placed on the floor for support.
Slowly lift your top leg and hold for 3 seconds before slowly lowering it down.
Repeat 10 times before performing on the other side.
Doing Too Much Too Soon
Just because you’re not lifting super-human weight or squatting to complete depth just yet, doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. So, don’t force yourself to do more than your body is comfortable with.
The Fix: Start with Partial Range
Wall squats are a great place to start.
Begin by standing up against a wall and walking your feet out a few steps. Slowly lower yourself into a squat that feels challenging but not painful. Stand up and repeat 10 times.
If you have a foam roller or ball, put that between your lower back and the wall to help guide you down smoothly!
You can also start with some of the knee exercises taught here.
Ignoring for Your Abs
Abs are comprised of more than just the six-pack in the front. When properly braced, our core expands 360-degrees to help support our spine and maintain proper movement. The same proper movement that helps mitigate the risk of knee pain.
The Fix: Draw Your Belly Button Into Your Spine
Similar to when you want to stand tall or maintain good posture, drawing your belly button into your spine helps to “brace” or set your core for movements.
The more you do core exercises, the deeper you’ll be able to hold your squat without risking dysfunction. Keep braced throughout the entire movement.
Knee Pain During Squats No More: How to Squat Properly
First, assume the squat stance practiced when correcting mistake #1. Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart and feet slightly turned out. If your ankle mobility is limited, taking a wider stance may help.
Next, screw your feet into the floor, driving your feet into the ground to engage the right muscles.
Keep your chest up, take a deep breath in to brace your core, and initiate the movement by “unlocking” the hips back then bending the knees and lowering the hips at the same pace. Keep your knees above your ankles, weight spread throughout the entirety of your foot (not shifting forward).
Descend as low as is challenging but not painful. Once in the bottom of the squat, drive through your heels to stand. Viola! You are now squatting without knee pain.