Why Your Knees Hurt When You Squat
Do your knees hurt when squatting? There are five form errors you might be making.
Squats are arguably the most remarkable exercise in your workout routine. Not only are they the best way to strengthen and build your legs, but they’re also a functional movement that most people do many times a day.
Sitting down and standing up? Squats!
Are you getting in and out of your car? Squats!
Going to the bathroom? Squats!
It’s hard to get through a day without doing at least a few squats. If you lose your ability to squat, you could lose your ability to live independently. Squats are THAT important!
But there is a dark side to the squats; they can be hard on your body, and some lifters experience knee pain when squatting. While underlying joint problems and injuries may be responsible for squat knee pain, there are other reasons your knees can hurt during squats, and they’re all fixable.
Here are the five most common mistakes you are making that can make your knees hurt when squatting.
1. You’re squatting too deep
When it comes to squatting, gym-lore says you should go deep or go home. If you aren’t squatting “ass to grass” or “hamstrings to calves,” you are guilty of being a half-repper, in other words, not using a full range of motion. While this sort of sentiment might make for a good meme or T-shirt, it could also be why your knees hurt when squatting.
While some people are built to squat deep, others are not. Things like femur and shin-length, height, flexibility, and knee joint health all dictate your safe squat depth. Forcing yourself to squat deeper than your anatomy allows is a recipe for knee pain.
Instead of worrying too much about getting your butt to the floor, squat as deeply as you can while maintaining good form and avoiding knee pain because the only people who REALLY need to worry about hitting a specific squat depth are competitive powerlifters, and they’ve only got to reach parallel!
2. Too much forward knee travel
Watch your knees when you squat. Do they travel forward beyond your toes? If they do, you could have identified the cause of your knee pain. While some forward knee travel is often unavoidable, especially if you squat below parallel, it forces your knees into a more acute angle, increasing joint stress.
Forward knee travel is often an indication that you are trying to keep your torso too upright and are not pushing your hips back enough when you squat. Not only does this increase knee strain, but it also robs you of some of your posterior chain power.
Try to keep your shins more vertical, keep your knees behind your toes, and start your descent by pushing your hips back a split-second before you bend your knees, which may be all it takes to eliminate your knee pain.
3. Your knees are dropping in or falling out
Most people know that squats work their quads and hamstrings, but did you know that they also involve your abductors and adductors? These are the muscles on the outside and inside of your thighs and hips.
These muscles don’t have much to do with lowering and lifting the weight. Instead, they keep your hips and knees stable, preventing them from dropping in or falling out. Needless to say, if you pile a whole lot of weight on an unstable joint, pain is a very likely outcome.
The next time you squat, watch your knees and make sure they do not move in toward or away from the midline of your body.
If they fall in, you may have weak abductors, which are the muscles on the outside of your hips. You can solve this problem by using a resistance band around your knees when you squat, which increases hip abductor activation and teaches you to push your knees out as you squat.
If your knees fall outward, you may have weak inner thighs or adductors. Fix this by doing squats with a medicine ball between your knees. Push your knees inward to hold the ball in place to strengthen these muscles.
Fixing your knee and hip stability can go a long way toward eliminating the cause of squatting knee pain. Wearing hard-soled squat shoes can also help, as doing so will provide you with a much more stable platform from which to lift.
4. Your heels are lifting off the floor
If you watch a good squatter, and you’ll see that their heels appear to be glued to the floor. They do not lift their heels, even a millimeter. A less proficient squatter’s heels are more likely to move and may lift noticeably off the floor. That’s a problem.
If your heels aren’t firmly grounded, you’ll put more weight on your forefoot, which, in turn, puts more stress on your knees. More joint stress can cause joint pain. A heel lift can be caused by:
- a lack of kinesthetic awareness – you can’t feel your heels lifting,
- poor lifting habits,
- wearing the wrong shoes,
- or tight calves.
To test your calf flexibility and ankle mobility, kneel in front of a wall and place your toes five inches from the bottom. If you can’t touch your knee to the wall without lifting your heel, you need to stretch your calves.
5. Doing too much too soon
Squats are a fantastic exercise, but they also take a lot out of your body. If you squat too hard, too heavy, or too often, it’s bound to take a toll on your joints.
Start by squatting once per week with light to moderate weights to dial in your technique and establish your tolerance for this exercise. Gradually increase squat frequency and intensity as your body becomes accustomed to the demands of squatting.
How often should you squat? That’s up for debate. Some powerlifters only squat once every 7-10 days, while Olympic lifters may squat 14 times a week! Experiment to find your optimal training frequency, where you get the best results for the least amount of pain. Decrease training frequency if your knees hurt when squatting.
Squat knee pain fixes
Even if you stop making the mistakes outlined above, your knee pain may linger. Here are a few knee pain solutions that can allow you to continue doing squats while breaking your bad habits!
Warm-up for longer –
A substance called synovial fluid lubricates your joints. This oil-like substance also nourishes your hyaline cartilage to keep your joints healthy. Synovial fluid is produced on demand, so a good warm-up will ensure your joints are well-lubricated for less wear and tear. In other words, if you don’t have time to warm-up your tendons, ligaments, and joints, you don’t have time to train!
5-10 minutes of stationary cycling is an excellent way to make sure your knees are warm and supple before you hit the squat rack.
Wear knee sleeves –
Neoprene knee sleeves will help keep your knees warm, which increases blood flow and synovial fluid production. Your knees will feel less stiff if they’re warm.
Knee sleeves are not the same as knee wraps, which are elasticated bandages designed to help you lift more weight. Knee wraps are worn so tight that you’ll need to take them off between sets, so they won’t keep your knees warm. In contrast, knee sleeves are flexible and comfortable, so that you can wear them for the duration of your squat workout.
Take EFAs –
EFAs (essential fatty acids) are oils that have an anti-inflammatory effect. They’re good for your heart, skin, eyes, and hair and are especially useful for reducing joint pain. Sources of EFAs include:
- Fish and seafood
- Nut and seeds
- Plant oils
- Fortified foods
- EFA supplements
While you COULD take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for knee pain, such as ibuprofen, it’s better not to unless your doctor recommends them. EFAs have no unwanted side effects and, unlike NSAIDs, are good for all aspects of your health.
Try a different squat stance –
If your knees hurt when squatting, try moving your feet to see if it provides you with any pain relief. Don’t make big changes in stance-width. Instead, move your feet in or out an inch and see how you feel. Also, experiment with the angle of your feet. You may find that just a small adjustment is all you need for pain-free squatting.
Try different types of squats –
A lot of exercisers automatically gravitate toward back squats. After all, this is the version that tends to allow you to lift the heaviest weights. But it could be that a different type of squat would be better for your knees. Squat options to explore include:
- Front squats
- Overhead squats
- Zercher squats
- Goblet squats
- Hip belt squats
- Box squats
- Safety bar squats
Here are a few items of gear that may be useful if your knees hurt when squatting.
1. Rehband Neoprene Knee Sleeves
- Feel more confident and secure in any activity, from weekend warrior...
- The Rehband knee support pattern construction is built on an...
- The Rehband knee sleeve provides reinforcement all the way around the...
Rehband knee sleeves are popular with powerlifters, weightlifters, and other sports, where knee stress and strain can be an issue. Made from flexible, insulating neoprene, these top of the line knee sleeves also provide plenty of support.
2. RIMSports Hip Resistance Band
- PREMIUM NON SLIP GRIP: Our resistance bands for legs and butt can be...
- IDEAL RESISTANCE LEVEL: Our heavy resistance bands for legs and butt...
- HIGH QUALITY MATERIAL: These RIMSports fabric booty bands for women...
A hip band is one of the best ways for you to increase knee stability for pain-free squats. Wear the RIMSports Hip Resistance Band during your warm-up to increase abductor activation or for longer to strengthen those all-important outer hip and thigh muscles.
3. Omega-3 Wild Alaskan Fish Oil Capsules
- Just one softgel contains at least 1037mg of Omega-3 fatty acids from...
- Provides Essential Fatty Acids EPA + DHA that may help to support your...
- Non-GMO Verified, Pescatarian Friendly and IFOS 5-Star Certified Fish...
Fish oils are a concentrated source of anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids. Take 1000-2000mg of Omega-3 Wild Alaskan Fish Oil per day to take the heat out of painful knees. As always, consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian regarding your nutrition and supplement plan.
4. Wooden Plyo Box
- AVAILABLE IN 4 SIZES – 16x14x12”, 20x18x16", 24x20x16", 30x24x20"....
- PRO-DUTY WOOD CONSTRUCTION: Goes with internal bracing (on 3 larger...
- IDEAL FOR PLYOMETRIC EXERCISE, CROSSFIT, MMA: Plyometric moves are the...
Box squats are one of the best ways to squat with less knee pain. They teach you to lead with your hips, keep your shins more vertical, and put your weight on your heels. Squatting to a box also stops you from descending too far. Of course, you’ll need a sturdy box to squat down to. This Wooden Plyo Box is also suitable for plyometric jumping exercises.
Knees Hurt When Squatting – Final Thoughts
Don’t ignore it if your knees hurt when squatting. If you don’t address the cause of the problem, it’s only going to get worse. Your knees could become so painful that you have to take an extended break from squats, if not give them up for good, and no-one wants that!
Avoid these five common squatting mistakes to prevent knee pain. That may mean making changes to how you squat, but your efforts will be rewarded with decades of pain-free workouts.
However, if your knee pain is persistent or severe, make sure you get it checked out by a medical professional. There could be an underlying injury or condition that requires attention.
Learn How to Do Squats Properly With Or Without Weights to help you perfect your squat form at the beginning of your fitness journey. If you still struggle with squat form, do an Overhead Squat Assessment to help you identify muscle imbalances and the exercises that can address them.
Are squats worth all this trouble?
Unless you have a medical professional who tells you that you cannot squat, the answer is yes. For example, all you have to do is take a quick look at the 20 Greatest Benefits of Squats to understand why the squat is considered by many to be the king of free-weight strength training.
Also, I can give you some anecdotal evidence about the remarkable power of squats – many years ago, I tore my medial meniscus and could not walk properly for months. While I knew that arthroscopy was an option, I also learned that squats could help develop my leg muscles around the injured area.
As a result, I began focusing on squats, what little I could do a couple of days a week, and between losing 75 pounds in 6 months, my legs did get stronger, and I never went in for arthroscopy.
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