Squatting should be a fundamental part of anyone’s exercise program. Aside from the obvious benefits of building strong legs, the squat is a full-body exercise, as almost every muscle acts to stabilize the resistance. Sadly, many miss out on these benefits because of the knee pain they feel from performing the exercise.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no genetic reason for knee pain during squats. Human beings are naturally designed to squat low from an early age for thousands of years (think of when nature calls while in the woods). Unfortunately, tightness and muscular dysfunction, due to the sedentary lifestyle of Western society, has made this primal movement much more difficult.
This does not mean that all hope is lost, as there are many ways to prevent knee pain from squatting. However, these solutions cannot be given without understanding the underlying issues.
A myriad of dysfunctions can be present within the individual’s kinetic chain to cause knee pain. Tightness in the upper hamstrings is the most common and obvious, as this can cause a posterior pelvic tilt in the lifter. This is significant because this type of postural alignment will make the natural tendency to bend at the knee before bending at the hip and forcing the pressure onto the front of the foot. Consequently, knee pain occurs because far greater pressure is being exerted onto the knee joint, in relation to the hip joint.
To combat this, the upper hamstrings must be stretched and foam rolled. A helpful exercise to guide the squatter to ‘sit back,’ by breaking at the hip, is the box squat. Additionally, when performing any form of the squat, point the feet at a 45-degree angle while slightly past shoulder-width to allow room for the hips to sink.
Another tendency is for the lifter’s knees to cave-in during the movement. The direct cause for this is weakness and tightness in the glutes. If the knees are not in line with the feet, the ligaments in the patella are placed in a precarious position, increasing the risk of injury and pain in the joint.
Stretching and foam rolling the glutes is an excellent idea to prevent knee pain. It is also important to target the glutes with the glute-ham-raise and pulling apart a large rubber band around the knees in a parallel squat position. Always remember to ‘spread the floor’ when squatting to force the knees out and keep the pressure on the outside of your feet.
The last problem is not ‘hitting parallel’ on your squat. The reason for this is because the posterior (rear) muscles of the leg (glutes and hamstrings) are more activated when the hip joint is lower than the knee joint. Going above parallel will cause your quadriceps to become overdeveloped in relation to your hamstrings, causing an imbalance that will affect the knees over time.
Reasons for why many squat too high include misinformation, a lack of flexibility, and even ego. Having the maturity and understanding to not lift ‘heavy’ with poor form is just as valuable. While lowering the weight, practicing proper form, and using corrective stretches might not be sexy solutions, they are vital.
Many times the above issues are not isolated, so it may be necessary to combine these methods. Avoiding these common problems in the first place should be the priority before adding resistance. However, after grasping the technique, the full benefits of the squat will come about.