How to troubleshoot knee pain in squats

You might not always loooo-oooove doing them (I know I don’t lolz), but squats are pretty fucking great.

They give us the strength to get up and down off the couch and the floor. They give our booty a little pick me up in jeans. They may reduce joint pain in some and can allow for all of us to be more independent as we get older when balance and strength is known to decline.

What’s not so great? Knee pain in squats.

While I can’t tell you *exactly* why your knees might hurt in squats, today I wanted to offer some ideas and modifications to help you squat with less knee pain.

First, let’s talk about why your knees may hurt in a squat.

For a lot of us it comes down to the following factors:

Body position: There’s no such thing as one right way to squat, BUT for some of us certain positions may make our knees uncomfortable AND that position will depend on the individual! Knowing this means you can adjust your position to squat with less pain.

Some strategies to try for adjusting body position!

  • Send your butt back and allow your chest to come forward, so your squat looks more like a deadlift. This can be more comfortable for some people’s knees and may allow you to develop lower body strength and do squats during class without the aforementioned ouchy knees.
  • Try squatting with the legs more narrow or wide. Try squatting with the legs more parallel or turned out. Does a combination of one of those positions feel better on your knees? Awesome! You just found your squat stance.
  • Check your feet. Are your big toes leaving the floor as you bend your knees? See what happens if you keep your big toes on the ground, but you also press your knees out when you bend your knees. For some people, this can help your knees feel better AND it increases glute activation. Yeah!

Strength: If you don’t have the strength to move through an exercise fluidly, then forces can land in a joint and make it feel ouchy. This doesn’t mean that you are damaging your joints, BUT it does mean that if you pick a modification for the squat or slow it does, then you might have less pain when you do this. Over time as you get stronger, you will probably find that you can do harder versions of squats with less knee pain!

Control: This builds on the aforementioned strength piece. Without strength, there isn’t control. There can be great value in going faster or doing harder versions of squats, but if you can’t control the movement or the range in which you are moving, you joints may let you know.

Again, this doesn’t mean you need to fear that you’ve damaged something, BUT you may want to try adjusting how you do the exercise, so you can develop the control to move more quickly or with heavier weights and not have your knees hurt.

Some strategies to try to build strength and control!

  • Hold onto a pole. As you lower down, see if you can use the pole to slow down your movement and adjust the position of your chest or hips if your knee gets a little weird.
  • Build strength by holding the “hard” part of the squat. Is there a part of the squat where your legs sort of burn? Try holding it! Sometimes for my clients who experience pain moving through high repetitions of squats, I’ll have them hold each “phase” of the squat for a count of 10. This means that they can still build strength during squatting without having to move through the knee joint as many times. What’s also cool is this will STILL help you get stronger and build muscle. However, it may result in less pain if your knees are sensitive.
  • Add a prop. For some people, putting a mini band around the knees and pressing the knees out, while keeping the big toes on the floor will make knees feel better. For others, putting a block or ball between the thighs OR ankles may reduce knee pain. Again, no single right way. The key to this is to try it out and see how it goes.

Flexibility/mobility in the hips and ankles: If you’ve got stiff hips or ankles, then your knees may need to do something a little interesting to make up for it.

Some strategies for adjusting flexibility or mobility issues!

Move and warm up your hips and ankles before your squat. Yep, something as simple as working through those joints may result in less knee pain during your workout.

Here’s a video with some exercise ideas that you can use for a warm-up!

Also, while you will want to work on your mobility in these areas over time, in the short term, you can put a rolled-up towel or weight plates under your heels, so your heels are elevated. This may allow you to move deeper into a squat with less pain. Then on the side, you can work on your hip and ankle mobility and flexibility.

What I really want you to know is that while pain is complex, your knees are not bad and everyone can do some version of a squat. The trick is to find the variation that works for your individual alignment, level of strength, and mobility.

And if you are a total body nerd or movement teacher who wants to learn more about these nuances, then a friendly head’s up enrollment closes TODAY for my webinar Demystifying the Hip, Knee and Lower Leg that I am teaching with my friend and brilliant movement teacher Misty Lynne Cauthen.

This webinar will discuss how to work with individual variations in lower body alignment in different body positions (e.g. standing, kneeling, or lying on your back) and will go into some strategies to address mobility issues or discomfort in the great toes/feet and knees.

We will also discuss specific exercises for addressing these things, how to use props, and other practical things that go beyond esoteric alignment talk. 😉

The webinar will take place tomorrow November 21 from 9 am to 11:30 am, but if you can’t make the live, no worries. There is a replay and it is yours to keep forever.

I don’t know if Misty and I will offer this webinar again, so if you want in, now is the time join.

Click here to get all of the details and sign up for the webinar!

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