I don't do Squats anymore. They hurt my knees.
That gym phrase is almost as common as, "How much do you bench?"
It's unfortunate, because Squats have such a strong carryover to athletic performance—and often, much of the knee pain is easily preventable.
Although you may have a legitimate knee issue that requires professional care, I can guarantee that with the following three strategies, most of you will no longer have knee pain when squatting.
How to Prevent Knee Pain When Squatting
1. Use a Box
Most athletes and clients I see are quadriceps-dominant. They have lots of muscle on the fronts of their legs, but a relative lack of muscle in their glutes and hamstrings. This imbalance places a lot of stress on the knees, leading to those "toe-heavy" Squats that make it seem like your kneecaps are going to bust out at any moment.
To address this imbalance without abandoning Squats altogether, use a box around 12 to 14 inches high. Place the box behind you in the rack so that when you Squat, you can reach for the box and touch it with your butt at the bottom. This instantly makes the Squat more hip-dominant and places more of the stress on your backside.
The first few repetitions will make you feel like you are hitting a brick wall when you come up. That's your glutes complaining, trying to figure out what in the world is happening. But don't worry, that's a good thing.
WATCH: How to Perform the Box Squat
2. Own Your Breath
A proper breath cycle is easy to overlook, but it can significantly reduce knee pain from Squats. Solid breathing can give you more awareness of your core and allow you to maintain proper form. To set yourself up for a pain-free Squat:
- Un-rack the bar and set your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes turned out slightly.
- Exhale sharply. This will compress your ribs, and you will instantly feel your abdominals.
- Inhale deeply through your nose and take the air into your belly. At the end of the inhale, descend into the squat.
You will be better able to stay back on your heels, because your core won't crumble and force your knees to take all the stress. Perform this exhale-inhale routine before each repetition until it becomes a habit. A good Squat is all about getting tension in the right places.
If you're having difficultly breathing, try this breathing exercise.
3. Mobilize Your Quadriceps and Calves
Excessive tension in the quads and calves can put the knees in a vulnerable (i.e., painful) position during squatting. Thus, it's important to devote a few specific mobility drills to these muscles. Besides dedicated foam rolling, incorporate the following two drills into your warm-up prior to squatting.
- Reverse Lunge with Overhead Reach - 1x6-8 each side
- Toes-Up Hip Hinge - 1x10
These drills not only target the quads and calves, they also force you to get back into your hips, strengthening the glutes and hamstrings, which, as discussed above, will further reduce knee pain from Squats. You can also use these drills between sets of Squats as active rest.
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