Do you have knee pain when you squat?

For some clients, that question is akin to:

Does a bear.....?

Is the pope....?

And I get it. Somewhere along the way, our knees become cranky from years of abuse; playing football, field hockey, or running away from cops at keg parties in the corn field.

Not you? Um...well, there's not a lot to do in Western PA. 

We try squats as part of a workout routine, discover they hurt our knees, and so we quit squatting. 


It’s like the old joke.

Do jumping jacks make you pee your pants?


Then you can be sure they'll be in your next program.

I kid, I kid. Kind of. 

Here's the thing: you can avoid jumping jacks, but you can't avoid squatting. 

Sure you can avoid doing squats with your training, but you can’t avoid them in your day-to-day life. You squat to get into a chair, out of a chair, into your car, into bed etc. etc. etc. 

Squatting is your independence, especially as you age. Incorporating squats into your training helps build strength in the legs and hips, and stronger muscles mean more stable joints. (For those of you reading this who work out with my parents, please tell Rita to start doing them.) 

If squatting is this important to your daily life, why on earth would you not make it a priority in the gym? Well, probably because the movement caused too much pain, you felt like you’d never get back up again if you tried it, or, and I’ve heard this one several times, you’re afraid that actively squatting will make your thighs hyooooge.*(Hint - It won't.)

My dad is 70 years old, golfs every day, and has cranky, arthritic knees. He’s spent the last two weeks doing three sets of 15 bodyweight squats every day, and reported Sunday during our weekly FaceTime chat that, shocker of all shockers, his knees feel better.  

I'm not suggesting that you go all willy nilly with the squatting game here and load 200 pounds on your back, but below are some tips to get your squatting game on and, hopefully, avoid any discomfort in the process.  

1. Limit your range of motion

There is no need to squat ass to grass the way my nephew does when he's looking intently at a bug in the yard. He can do it because he's four years old. For the rest of us, poor ankle mobility, core strength and glute strength make it really difficult to get that low. The good news is unless your competing in a powerlifting competition, there's no need to go below parallel. 

So in the beginning, limit your range of motion and stop before you feel the pain.   


Begin by squatting to a high box. In the video above, I'm using a dumbbell held vertically to load the movement and squatting to an 18 inch box. Start with a 10 or 12 lb weight held tight to your chest, and tap the box, don't sit on it, before standing back up.

If squatting to this level still causes pain, raise the box a little higher with the addition of a plate or a few mats. 

The use of the box helps ensure that you can get to the desired depth, and can also help with technique. Speaking of which...

2. Concentrate on technique

One reason squatting may cause discomfort is that you end up too far over your toes. For a dumbbell goblet squat, think of touching your elbows to the inside of your knees and sitting straight down into your heels. You can also use a kettlebell or, if you have one, a sandbag. Keep your eyes straight forward and imagine putting your shoulder blades into your back pockets. Once you tap the box, push up through your heels to stand up. 

Pay attention to the movement of your knees - if your gym has a mirror, do the squats in front of it and make sure your knees aren't caving in. Think of pushing your knees out throughout the movement. You don't want it to look like this:



Make sure your heels are not coming off of the ground during the movement. For some people with poor ankle mobility, sitting back into the heels can make them feel like they're going to lose their balance and fall, as one client said yesterday, 'ass over teakettle'. If that's the case, try placing the box against a wall, or use a TRX:


Not sure what kind of ankle mobility you have?

Try this trick. Put your arms up over your head, and perform a deep squat. Then, raise your heels up on an inch-high plate or board and perform the same movement. Is it easier to squat with your heels raised? If so, you may have poor mobility in your ankles. 

3. Build the muscles around your knees. 

Strengthening your quadriceps (front of your thigh) and hamstrings (back of your thigh) can help decrease pain and help you better tolerate arthritis. Perform other exercises that will help strengthen these muscles as well.

Some of the exercises that can help with that are split squat, the bowler squat, the step up, or the TRX with knee drive. 

A suspension trainer like the TRX can be a great tool for those who are working on leg strength and balance. In this exercise, use the TRX as little as possible to steady yourself until you can do the movement without any assistance at all.

I could, and probably will, do an entire series on suspension training systems like the one seen in the video above (also called a TRX, which is a brand). These rings are incredibly useful for strengthening a movement - in the video above, I'm lightly holding onto the rings. Use the handles as little as necessary, until you work your way up to performing the exercise without requiring any assistance at all. 

If that movement feels too easy, graduate to using a box step up with a knee drive. (I like to call these Jane Fonda's, because it looks to me like something she would have done in one of her videos.)


In summary:

Squat. It's important. Limit your range of motion, work on your technique, and incorporate other exercises to strengthen those muscles around the legs. 

If you're not sure about your technique, film yourself from the front and the side and send the video to I'd be happy to take a look. 

* Some women are concerned especially that squatting will give them thunder thighs and for the most part, that's not the case. 

**Everyone’s hips sit in the joints differently, so while one person may squat comfortable with a wider stance, others may be more comfortable with a narrower stance. 


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