Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Experiencing knee pains during squats is not a sign that you are getting a nice workout in, but rather the first sign of possible injury that may follow at some point.
In order to prevent knee pains you have to take a hard look at how you are performing squats, and see if there is a specific piece of the puzzle that is causing this pain to occur.
Other times it's not how you're performing the squats, but rather lack of strength, flexibility, or mobility in different areas.
I have a few tips to help you narrow down the issue - or issues. Let’s take a look and see how to prevent pain or even serious injuries during the squat.
Balance is Everything with Squats
Front squats, parallel squats, dumbbell squats, and even bodyweight squats all share a common thing with each other. That common thing is the necessity to have proper balance and stability.
Without proper balance and stability your body can distribute the weight either forward or backwards instead of vertically up and down.
This improper weight distribution is going to either place unwanted strain on your lower back due to your shoulders collapsing forward, or could cause knee pains during squats because of two primary reasons:
You are controlling your balance with the toes of your feet instead of your whole foot.
Your toes are not pointed out away from the shoulder width stance of your position.
That’s it. These two small issues are the primary reason people just don’t perform squats without causing some sort of pain to occur in the knees. You can wear knee braces or sleeves all you want and still get hurt if these two problems are not corrected.
Knee sleeves do help keep the pressure off your knees, but are still not going to prevent knee pains from occuring.
If this applies to you don’t get flustered about it. Many of athletes even experience the same issues and need an expert to come in and correct the situation.
The main reason these issues on form exist is because the person performing squats never took the time to properly get their own specific form down.
#1: Don’t Place Force Down on Your Toes
Stand up and get into the proper squat position. Perform the movement a few times as you would with a barbell and pay attention to how much weight is distributed to the toes of your feet.
Knee pains during the squat are most likely coming from this issue because when you squat down, you’re starting off by bending at the knees instead of simultaneously with your hips.
This is what causes excessive strain in your knee joints by placing the force down on the balls of your feet, and this could make you fall forward as well. Not a good situation either way you look at it.
When you start off with the squat execution, you want to activate a break in both your hip and knee joints together.
This is easier to accomplish when the weight is distributed from your entire foot from toes to the heels. Doing so is optimal for allowing proper movement and preventing knee pains.
#2: Toes Point Out During Squats
Your knee joints need to have the ability to open as you lower your hips down during squats, but not having your toes pointed out at around a 45 degree angle prevents this from happening.
People tend to think that having the toes pointed directly forward is the correct position for squats since it seems natural for some reason.
To me it’s not natural and I’ve yet to take a new, never trained client and see them stand with their feet pointed straight forward unless told to do-so.
While it does look correct for some, this concept is going to cause severe strain on your knee joints making it a very high risk for further injury beyond simple pains (plus not allow full depth squats).
Then it could also make you fall either forward or backwards, which again is not a good situation to be in. Try it for yourself and see.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and feet pointed directly forward. Now lower your hips down and see how far your lower body allows you to go comfortably without feeling strains on your knees.
Very few people are able to actually squat this way and there is a good reason why: the average person needs to squat with their knees aligned with their hips.
Some people even stand at a 22 degree angle. Either way their toes are pointed out. When you squat down notice there is not a painful strain against your knees.
The reason why is because your hips are aligned with your toes allowing your knees to naturally open at the joints without the femur bone trying to protrude past its origin.
Unless you are planning on performing half squats, which I don't personally believe is beneficial unless you're an athlete seeking vertical jump improvement. Anyways, it’s strongly recommended to not perform squats with your toes pointed forward bottom line.
Correct this problem by slightly adjusting your stance wider or narrower (this depends on personal body mechanics) with your toes 45 degrees outwards or maybe a little less angled depending on your body. Again, essentially your feet point out to some degree, but starting at 45 is a good start.
Remember also that everyone's body is different. Long femurs, short femurs, long torso, etc. along with having a high or low bar position affect much of stance.
For me, I have long femurs and stand 6 feet tall, but my stance is slightly narrow to allow my hips to open and simply it works well for MY specific body to maintain upright control utilizing the high bar placement.
You continue to adjust degrees until you notice not a lot of weight is being placed to the front of your feet. This can also be an ankle mobility issue if heels are coming up causing this to occur.
Definitely do not practice stance balance and adjustments with high or even moderate resistance. Keep it light or nothing at all. When making adjustments it is imperative you consider the word “slightly”.
Practice Makes Perfect
The issue these days is that everyone wants to look good performing squats with a lot of weight, and a term that is frequently used for this is “chasing the pump”. You definitely don’t want to do this especially during the beginning phase of physical training.
This kills your goals, hurts your back, and leaves your knees feeling like shit. Plus you may probably end up with an early injury.
Then as the reps progress you allow your body to drop lower and lower until at the proper position a squat should be performed at.
This is called your warm up set (surprise!), and is when you use little to no weight at all while getting ready to squat heavier loads. Those lifting heavy will progressively increase their amount until reaching their top set.
Another idea is simply getting a chair, bench, box, etc. and practicing reps by lowering your body down to where you touch the object with proper squat form.
Each and every time you perform the squat it should be in proper form even if you lift heavy loads, and that’ll be a pretty good way for preventing knee pains during squats.
Improper Footwear Could be the Cause of Knee Pains During Squats
Do you see those powerlifters and fitness enthusiasts in the gym wearing shoes like Chuck Taylor’s or Vans? Probably makes you wonder why they would wear shoes with little cushion to help keep their feet from hurting.
But their idea is well placed in the type of footwear to use during squats and deadlifts.
The flat bottom shoes with little to no cushion offer the best support for your body since your feet are closer to the ground as if you weren’t wearing any.
This wobble effect encourages your knees to possibly bow in during the ascension back up, which is bad for knee joints. The concept is based off of shear and compression force.
Shear means the two bones go opposite directions, and compression means they both go in towards the joint.
Shear is bad for squats because your joints work better under compression, which is why leg extensions are not better than performing squats for knees. But let’s save that for another article.