There are two types of people in the world: The ones who love squats (ahem: J. Lo), and the ones who would rather be forced to spend three days at Fyre Festival than suffer through a set of them. Regardless of which category you fall into (ICYWW, I am very much in the second), we can all agree that they are effective at blasting booties and building muscles, and will almost definitely pop up in your schedule no matter which type of workout you’re doing. Which raises the oh-so-important question: How can you avoid knee pain when squatting?
To understand how to avoid it, it’s important to figure out why exactly it happens to begin with, which is actually pretty simple. “Knee pain stems from improper form,” says Karl Smith, Director of Residential Well Living at Cortland, DHEd, noting that doing the move properly is the number one way to ensure you don’t hurt yourself in pursuit of a more perfect umm peach. “When looking at form, make sure your feet are flat on the ground. Then, when you start the move, engage your glutes immediately by pushing them back and hinging from your hips allowing your body to go down in a smooth motion.”
The problem is compounded, however, by certain muscle groups not being strong enough to carry out the motion. “A lot of the times it’s not that people don’t know how to squat. They understand the concept of it, but they they just don’t have the neuromuscular strength, explains Aaptiv trainer Michael Septh. “They don’t know how to access the muscles that should be doing the work to make the squat happen.”
If that happens to you, as with pretty much any post-workout injury, the good old “ice, rest, compress, and elevate” prescription holds true for knee pain when squatting, too. “Rest, of course, is going to be your primary source of recovery,” says Smith. “After that, you want to make sure you’re icing the area. If it comes to the point that compression is necessary, compress and then elevate if the joint is swollen or the musculature around the joint is swollen. You definitely want to elevate to relieve the pressure and allow some of the blood to escape from that area.” Septh also recommends soft tissue work, through either foam rolling, myofascial release, or work with a massage or physical therapist.
Both trainers note that post-squat pain should diminish if you’re working with the correct form (it all comes back to form, fam!), and if things are still feeling tweaky you may want to start back at square one and reevaluate the way you’re doing the move. For more on how to figure out what’s sabotaging your squat, keep on scrolling.
Identify what is wrong with your form
To figure out what might be causing your knee pain, you have to work backwards. “Ask yourself: Why am I feeling tension at my knee? What’s generating tension at my knee? How can I fix it?” explains Septh. Look at the area from the joint up in order to understand what could be causing the discomfort. “If the knee hurts, it’s usually something above the knee is forcing and generating all that tension in the knee,” he explains. Consider the following when figuring out whether or not something is going on with your knees.
1. You have lack of connection to your glutes: “Most people are way too quad dominant or thigh dominant, so they don’t even really know how to access their glutes and do everything in their quads or the front part of their thighs,” explains Septh. “But after awhile your thighs can only do so much and the joint below, which is your knees, tends to get the brunt of the load.”
2. You have tight calves and ankles: If your ankles and calves are tight, it may prevent the muscles from flexing all the way. “Sometimes you’ll see people sort of lean forward and they’ll get on their toes, which will then make their knee actually point forward and go over their toes, and that’s the first sign that their form is incorrect,” says Smith. Stretching the calves can help to balance things out, so regularly foam roll and stretch your lower legs ahead of heavy squats.
3. You have tight quads, abductors, adductors or IT bands: Just like with your calves and ankles, if other muscles involved in the move are tight, you won’t be able to get the full range of motion.
Work your way up to the perfect squat
Whether you’re learning to squat for the first time or re-learning how to do it properly after an injury, it’s important to go back to the basics in order to build up your strength to do the move properly. “I start everybody on the floor—it’s the safest place to start,” says Septh. “If you’re not feeling right on the floor, 9 times out of 10, the same will hold true on your feet.” Here, he lays out how to work your way up to perfect form.
1. Basic glute bridges: “I would use this as a test for anyone who wants to figure out if they’re doing hip work the right way,” he says. “If you’re doing glute bridges and you still feel your quads, that should be a red flag for you right away because that’s not where hip extensions or gluteal bridges should happen—they should be happening from your glutes, your hamstrings, your core, and everything around your trunk and your pelvis.” He notes that you can use these to strengthen different parts of your body, and get feedback on what’s going on with your muscles.
2. Single-leg or weighted glute bridges: Once you’ve gotten regular glute bridges down pat, it’s time to spice things up by adding weights or a single-leg element. “Anything that reinforces that connection to your glutes is definitely a good place to start, whether you’re coming back from an injury or you just want to learn how to find your hips,” says Septh.
3. Bench-sit bodyweight squats: “If you’ve become pretty sufficient at glute bridges and you’ve added load, you’ve added resistance, you’ve worked both legs, and you’re confident the work is coming from the right place, that would more than likely be your cue to start up with your squats again,” says Septh, with one caveat. Don’t just squat into the oblivion though. Use a bench or a chair (some point of reference) to help ease the transition between going down and coming back up. “Having that box or bench to sit down to gives you a second to kind of reset yourself, figure out what’s going on at the bottom of your squat, fix it, and get yourself back up.”
Perfect your squat position
As we’ve already established many, many times, form really is everything. It’s important to understand that you’re not actually initiating the move by bending your knees—doing it the right way requires more muscular understanding than that. “The idea is that you’re pushing your entire hips back. You’re pushing your belly back into your spine, you’re sitting back into your hips as best you can to initiate the movement,” says Septh. “And then, from there, your knees will start to bend naturally—you’re not generating the movement by bending at your knees to initiate it.”
The majority of the move, he explains, should come from you loading and pushing tension and weight back into your hips and heels, and then the bending at the knees should follow. It should be a secondary portion of the movement, not the primary one. Here, he breaks down how to master the art of the squat once and for all:
1. Start with feet hips-width apart Separate your feet about hips width distance apart, or wherever you feel the strongest connection with the floor and are at your most stable.
2. Tuck your pelvis: Tuck your pelvis into a sort of anterior tilt. “It’s almost like a zipper: You’re pulling your bellybutton back into your spine,” explains Septh.
3. Sit back into the outer-edges of the feet: Once you’ve tuned into that connection with your pelvis, push the weight back away from your knees and toes, sitting back into the heel and outer part of your feet.
4. Push your legs apart: As you’re pushing the weight into your heels and hips, your knees will start to follow. “As you’re working yourself toward the bottom of the squat, you want to actively rip the floor apart, meaning that you don’t want your knees to travel toward one another, you almost want then to rip slightly apart from one another as you hit the bottom of the squat,” explains Septh.
5. Stand back up: Take a big inhale on the way down, then exhale and drive through your hips and your heels on the way back up.
Once you’ve got the regular squat perfected, mix things up with Meghan Markle’s favorite move (or at least, what we like to imagine is Meghan Markle’s favorite move), the “curtsy squat.” And if your knees are still hurting, try one of these supplements for joint pain.
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