The squat is the king of weight training exercises. Yet, it’s also the cause of more knee pain than every other weight training movement combined. In fact, many people steer away from the squat rack for fear of ending up with knee replacement surgery. What most people don’t realize is that knee destruction is not an inherent part of squatting. The reason your knees hurt is that you’re using bad form and you’re not using the proper training aids.
In this article, we’ll show you how to gain maximum benefit from the squat without crippling your knees.
The Proper Training Aid
Knee sleeves are an essential piece of squatting knee protection under the following circumstances:
- You are squatting with more than 80% of your one rep max
- If you have pre-existing knee problems
Using a knee sleeve under 80% of your max weight will take the load off your knee tissue, and you will never get stronger. Sleeves keep the knees warm, increase blood flow and allows you to lift more weight.
If you’d like to buy some knee sleeves, check out this article where Gains Bible does a complete breakdown.
Perfecting Your Technique
Preparation & Bar Placement
Position the bar at a level so that it only has to raised a slightly to perform the exercise. Now face the rack and take a symmetrical grip on the bar. Bend forward and step under the bar, positioning the bar against the trapezius and shoulders. Now stand erect and take a couple of steps back, so that the bar clears the squat rack. The knees should be straight, but not locked.
Stand with the feet slightly wider than shoulder width. The toes should be pointed slightly outward to an angle of 45-50 degrees. This will keep the femur and pelvis in alignment for a more powerful contraction as you push out of the bottom of the squat. The movement pattern is similar to sitting on a low chair.
Begin the descent by moving your hips back (flexing the hip joints) before bending at the knee. Maintain a neutral, upright spinal position.
As you go down, your weight should remain over the middle of your foot. By doing so, you’ll avoid the common tendency to lean too far forward. Another weight balance problem is having an excessive amount of your weight balanced on your toes. This will force your hips to lift too quickly.
Maintain a neutral spine with a natural back arch and your head looking directly in front of you. This places the center of gravity over your lower body, allowing for maximum power as you push up.
When you are in ‘hole’ of the squat, the knees and hips should be at about the same angle. Keep your muscles contracted with your knees tracking over your toes (no caving inward). Do not relax in the ‘hole’ position.
Conventional wisdom states that squatting below parallel is terrible on the knees. Yet, there is no validity to this belief. Squatting all the way down is a perfectly natural body position. It is the preferred sitting position for many Asian peoples, with no knee problems whatsoever.
If you are doing your squats as described here, the knees are not heavily involved. Of course, they have to bend, but that’s about all. The vast majority of the work is being done by the hips.
In fact, not only is the full squat not bad for your knees, it is one of the best things you can do to protect them. The muscles around the joint will become much stronger. This takes the load off your knees whenever you are doing a bending movement.
When you perform a full squat, you are transforming the movement from a thigh exercise to a thigh, hip and glute exercise. This provides for balanced development of the leg muscles, which is vital for knee safety. When you do partial – or even parallel – squats, you are not engaging the hamstrings or the glutes.
The bottom line here is that squatting all the way down is actually a blessing for your knees.
Your ascent should follow the same line as the descending motion. The chest and spine should stay erect and the hips should stay in line with the bar at all times. On the upward motion, you should extend the knees and the hips at the same time. The hinge should be at the hip but not the spine. Pushing up too fast with the knees puts too much stress on the lower back.
Think of yourself exploding back up to the start position. This will ensure a smooth and fluid action. Rise up to an unlocked knee position, which reduces stress on your knees and spine.
When squatting, you should descend slowly and ascend quickly. A good tempo is to take two seconds to descend. If you go down too fast, you’ll place too much stress on the knees because they, along with hip extensors, will have to work harder to buffer the movement. Going down slowly helps to keep your technique on point and places more eccentric tension on the muscles.
Once you’ve completed your reps, you’re ready to return the bar to the rack. Take small steps towards the rack. When the bar makes contact with the rear lip, you know that it is directly over the supporting portion of the rack. Now you simply have to bend your knees to lower the barbell safely into the rack.
Rather than damaging your knees, squats are the best thing you can do in the gym to strengthen them and keep them healthy. By following the optimized form outlined above and making use of a quality set of knee sleeves when you’re going heavy, you’ll be able to squat pain free and knee friendly.