Why Your Knees Hurt Squatting And 3 Alternatives To Keep Your Knees Healthy

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Kevin Yates

This is a guest post from Kevin Yates, founder of Yates Performance Training, and new blogger over at Post Rehab Exercise.  Check out his new site, read the article below, and then watch the video to the right. Thanks Kevin!

Just because your knees hurt squatting doesn’t mean that squats are a bad exercise. In fact, squats and lunges have gotten such a bad reputation for causing knee, hip and lower back problems when this is absolutely not true.

In this post I will share 3 alternatives to eliminate knee pain squatting but before I get there you need to know why squats hurt your knees.

In nearly a decade of working with clients who have had issues such as back pain, lower back fusion surgery, knee pain, meniscus surgery, acl reconstruction, knee replacements, hip replacement surgery and other nagging injuries I have yet to see any indication where squats were directly responsible for knee pain or back injuries.

The truth is that knee pain during squats is almost always the result of doing the exercises incorrectly. Squats will not hurt your knees if you do them correctly. But, most people do not perform them correctly even if they think they do.

Mistakes That Make Your Knees Hurt

Below are the most common mistakes I have identified in individuals whose knees hurt squatting. Just one of these mistakes is enough to feel knee pain during squats:

  1. Weight on the toes: This happens a lot when using too much weight which tends to pull your body too far forward. Other times it’s simply a lack of awareness of how to distribute one’s body weight.
  2. Knees moving forward while squatting: This is another common example of using too much weight. It can also be the result of the quadriceps (thigh muscles) overcompensating for weak glutes.
  3. Thigh and lower back muscles doing most of the work: This happens when the glutes and hamstrings are weak. When you lack proper hip strength muscle imbalances often result in the quadriceps and lower back over working. This is one of the main reasons for knee pain during squatting.
  4. Glutes and hamstrings are weak: These muscles need to be properly strengthened in order to eliminate knee and lower back pain.
  5. Trunk collapsing too far forward: This is a sure-fire sign of weak core muscles and/or quadricep and lower back overcompensation. Typically, weakness in the abdominal and hip muscles are the problem.

Now that you know why your knees hurt squatting we can focus on 3 simple guidelines and alternatives you can use to get rid of painful knees and use squats to strengthen your core and hip muscles.

In the video below I share some unique tips to use so you’ll eliminate knee pain during squats. And at 3:38 I reveal a powerful tip to strengthen your hips almost nobody knows about.

3 Squat Alternatives

  1. Static squat: teaches the basic technique of squatting. To do this stay back on your heels and slowly descend into a half squat position and hold. The goal is to focus on using your glutes and hamstrings and not just your quadriceps (thighs). Once you master this it’s time to move on to some progressions listed below.
  2. db-deadlift-startDumbbell deadlifts: an easier option rather than using a barbell because barbell deadlifts pull you forward which can make it harder to stay back on your heels. The difference when using dumbbells is that the dumbbells stay at your sides and don’t have as much forward pull which makes it easier to maintain proper technique
  3. Dumbbell front squats:  these help you maintain a more upright trunk because the weight of the dumbbells has a slight forward pull to it which makes you counter balance by remaining upright. You’ll automatically pull yourself to a more upright position to even out the load.th_db-front-squat-finish

So, what do you think of this post? Anything you disagree with?  Any tips of your own that you think should be included?  Let us know in the comments below.



{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt S May 18, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Squat is by far my favourite exercise.

I have yet to see any other single movement which can produce such fantastic results!

I absolutely agree with your form recommendations. One must stay on their heels and learn to recruit the glutes and hamstrings.

How do you feel about heavy, squat-stance good mornings to improve the squat?

Personally, this movement got my glues/hams up to par while strengthening my core immensely!

Two weeks ago I enjoyed settings a pr in the 20 rep squat: 320 for 20 reps. It was pure brutality!!

Take care, thanks for the read. I’ll be referring people to this post for sure!

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Brad Goodrich May 31, 2013 at 6:23 pm

when I squat, I have problems not falling over backward, and when I go down my knees DO hurt and my lower back hurts, should I hold a wider stance? if not what should I do?

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Marlissa September 9, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Hi Kevin. I have 2 questions. First, in your video above you don’t seem to go all the way down to the floor. Is that necessary to get the max benefit of squatting. Secondly, I’m in the process of losing weight (75 lbs so far), but I’m 5’2 at 188 and my knees hurt before I bend down..once I get down I cannot get back up. Should i stop doing squats until I lose more wgt and strenghten my knees. I want to lift my butt!! Thank you for your advice.

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Kevin Yates September 9, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Hi Marlissa,

Once you go below 90 degrees of hip and knee flexion (below parallel) on the squat you place too much compression on the knee joints which can lead to injury.

There’s no reason you need to go further. Also, going further reduces the activation of the glutes and hamstrings which are the primary muscles that should be working.

As for your knee issues, and this is considering that your knees are apparently healthy other than feeling pain before you bend down.

Most of the time, the issue is that you’re probably initiating the descent into your squat without properly using your abdominal and hip muscles.

This almost always results in the quadriceps (and hip flexors) over compensating which creates compression to the knee joints.

An easy way to tell if this is happening is when you first begin your descent into the squat. Stand next to a mirror using a side view.

Watch as you dip down to see if your hips and knees move forward at all.

You don’t want this to happen. Instead, your first movement should be driving your hips back as if sticking your butt out a bit. Then stay back and descend down while remaining on your heels.

Focus on keeping your abs tight and glutes engaged the entire time. It’s not easy to do, but once you master it, don’t be surprised to see your knee issues subside.

I hope this helps.

Keep me posted to let me know how it works, ok?

Kevin

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Mariel December 3, 2009 at 5:49 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have always had knee pain when doing squats and after doing them, like the next day or so. All the videos I have used to work out stress not bringing your knee past the toes, but not one of them ever mentioned not to lean your torso forward too much. So I always made sure my knees never went past my toes, but I have just realized that I lean my torso forward all the time. When I started doing the squat like you said, I immediately felt my abs tightening and my hips engaging which I had NEVER felt before during a squat because I didn’t even know those muscles should be targeted. I always heard of the squat targeting the thigs, so whenever I felt the front of my thigh tightening, I always thought, great, this is working. Now I know from your post that I was just putting all the stress on the quadriceps and none on the glutes nor hips. This post has been like a revelation to me and now I have to relearn how to perform a proper squat. Thank you so much, this has really helped and I’m sure it will relieve my knee problems since I already performed some of these with no pain at all.

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Kevin Yates December 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

You’re very welcome. I’m glad my video helped you.

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Matthew April 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Hi Kevin,

Thank you so much for this video. I just performed squats today and set a new PR, but my right knee is now on fire. Nobody else, out of the 100+ videos i’ve seen, teaches the methods in such a precise manner like you do. I now know for a fact that my torso leans too far forward.

Thanks again. I’ll keep you posted.

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Kevin Yates April 24, 2010 at 7:17 am

Cool Matthew. I hope it helps you set those PR’s without pain or injury.
Kevin Yates´s last post ..Corrective Exercise Strategies Interview With Elliott Hulse

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Mike August 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Hi Kevin, when I’m doing squats or cleans I am leaning to the right side (loading most of the weight onto my right hip). I used to be a football player and did fairly heavy weights and never had this problem, but now I am doing relatively low weights and even when I focus on trying to keep my weight evenly distributed I am still leaning. What could be causing this and what can I do to fix it. Should I just forget about these exercises and move onto something that will not cause me to load one side of my hips?

Thanks

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Kevin August 2, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Hey Mike,

Without watching you squat it’s tough to say with certainty what’s going on but I can say you’re most likely compensating for left hip weakness.

Other factors that can be causing this are foot position, a rotated trunk, spinal curvature and a whole host of other things.

Hopefully, this points you in the direction you need.

Kevin

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squatterman June 24, 2010 at 1:42 am

Thanks! the feet straight thing fixed my knee pain

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Rob August 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Hi Kevin,

I have been doing squats for a couple of months now. When I walk or sit after doing a squat workout there is no knee pain at all even after a few days. However, if I touch my knees and press them a little with my hands they are sore there is a little bit of pain. Is this normal or is this an indication that my squat technique is incorrect?

Thanks

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Sydney January 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Thankyou so much I’m doing a report in health and you just saved my paper. I wrote some wrong things how to do a squat on there. When i saww the video i saw i was wrong i changed it thankyou lots

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Deyanira February 6, 2011 at 6:48 am

Hi! Thanks sooo much for this. I have been doing squats for only two weeks and yesterday I felt this strong pain on my knee while standing. I was worried it might be the squats and googled knee pain from squats and, thank God, your site was the first one to show up. I realized I was using every muscle but the right one. I felt my quadriceps working soooo hard, I thought I was doing it right! Now I tried to do it right and realized how weak my back, core and glute muscles are. I guess I will need to work on those first, before I can do a proper squat. Thanks for sharing your insight.

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Cyndi May 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Kevin,
Thank you so much for your video. I’ve been doing 60 squats daily (not all at once) for the past 6 months. All of a sudden my left knee has been killing me and I already have lower back issues. I’m trying the form you recommend, and hopefully that will do the trick. I think I’ve been leaning forward too much and also bending too far down. Thank you again for such a thorough explanation of the problem.

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Jeanette June 16, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Hi Kevin,
My favourite exercises are squats and lunges, but when I am lunging, my knee joints become sensitive. I do believe I have a good technique, rising, I press down from my heels to incorporate the hamstrings and glutes. I usually do alot of spinning. Could I have obtain an injury, or I might need to perfect my technique? Also your article is GOSPEL……. my trainer told me just that initially, since I have understood the technique, my legs and but are amazing!

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John July 8, 2011 at 8:12 am

Great article as I have Knee patella tendinitis that I have to keep under control.

My problem is…my quads are underdeveloped but my knees…gluts and hams are fine. I do squats and I do them just like you say…staying back on my heels and not leaning forward. I have no problems with my knees when I do them that way.

However….recently…in an attempt to strengthen my quads….I have added free standing squats where I lean forward.
This works my quads great but it hurts my knees.

So to support your article…..200 pound squats done the way you say = no knee pain.

squats leaning forward with no weight = knee pain.

I guess I need to find a way to work quads without doing the squat with the forward lean. Thanks for the article.

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Laura August 9, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Form-fitting clothes would show what you are doing better.

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Cecilia August 24, 2011 at 10:03 am

Great video and tips, thanks!

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Andrea September 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Question for you Kevin. first of all you need to move to Albuquerque, so that I can get some training from you. But I know for a fact my hamstrings and glutes are weak. What exercises are best for strengthening those before I go into squats? Also, how do you make sure you’re firing those muscles before the others?? That’s a toughie right there!

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Chris November 3, 2011 at 8:59 am

There is nothing wrong with squatting below parallel. To say there is no benefit from going below then parallel is just incorrect.

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Chris November 3, 2011 at 9:00 am

There is nothing wrong with squatting below parallel. There is plenty of benefit from it.

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Sid December 13, 2011 at 11:34 pm

The most important thing here:
Knees moving forward while squatting – also keeping the weight on your heels is a good idea. I speak from experience. I’ve hurt my knees over the years by letting my knees travel over my toes when I squat. I’d also raise my heels on a block of wood sometimes in order to keep my torso upright and work my quads more. My knees would hurt after this. I’d seen bodybuilders do this in magazines.

Your joints (elbows, knees) should not hurt while or after lifting weights.

Another piece of advice: just because someone has muscles doesn’t mean they will give you good advice for how to build your body.

I also have to run now in the barefoot style, while wearing shoes. Landing on my forefoot. I loved to jog and had to stop landing on my heels. I was having bad knee pain.

I now squat with dumbells. I can’t squat with a barbell on my back, my knees hurt. Also different body types are better suited to squatting. I’m tall, 6′-4″, and have to bend way over when I squat.
I am rambling but I hope you get my drift. This is a good article. Most people don’t know how to squat.

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glynn loeb March 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I’ve been “bone on bone” (RT knee ACL tear in 1975) for years and have managed quite well doing squats and lunges the way you have described. Over the years, I have had countless arguments with various professionals PT’s, MD’s and trainers regarding this topic…Thanks for re-enforcing what I know to be true. Weight in the heel; minimize forward lean; engage glutes, core and hamstrings; and a 90 degree hip hinge! THANKS!!!

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Teri July 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Hi Kevin,

I don’t exercise a lot but I do just squats and some sit ups almost everyday. I do 50 squats a day with 5 lbs dumbells on each side. I have been doing that for a long time. Last week, I don’t know what happened, but the one morning I woke up and my right knee hurt so much I couldn’t really walk. Its been over a week now. It is much better but I still feel pain, depending on the movement. I haven’t done any squats since. I am afraid to. When can I start again? I don’t want to risk furthering whatever the injury and make it permanent. I want it to be able to heel completely. Would love to hear your advice. Thanks.

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Krista August 7, 2012 at 9:40 am

Hi Kevin,
Thank you for posting this information on squats/knee pain. I’ve been doing smith squats recently and I used to have a trainer so I’m pretty sure that I was doing the squats correctly. However, I’ve had pain in my kneecaps (both knees) ever since I began squatting. I stopped all lower body weight lifting for 3 weeks…but the pain is still there. It’ only hurts when I flex the knee after long periods of rest (e.g. first thing in the morning). I’m 5’8” female, weight 130lbs, and I was squatting 85/90lbs. Also, I do 4 sets of 10/8 reps on the leg extension with 121 lbs so my quads are relatively strong. Any insight into what may be causing my pain and most importantly, do you think this is permanent?
Thanks so much, Krista

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Michelle December 2, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Excellent advice. This is so helpful. I have an extremely hard time doing squats correctly and because of that I have been experiencing pain in my knees. Your explanation on what is causing my pain was right on point. Thanks for breaking it down.

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Rosie January 8, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Hi, when I do my leg DVDs which I love. It’s a lot of squatting for thirty minutes,my knees hurt terrible and then for days after. I’ve tried pushing my bottom back and no knee over toe etc still hurts. But when I do my high aerobics DVDs which is a lot of hopping jumping around my knees have very little pain. What can you suggest because I do love to exercise but the clicks crunching sounds and pain my knees give me is horrid I’m only 34 but feel like an old lady!

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Kris January 8, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Thanks for a great video, but I must admit I am torn over the whole toes forward or toes out. I’ve heard straight, like you say, and I’ve heard anywhere from slightly out all the way to 45 degrees out. I don’t know who to believe!!! My knees have always been a little cranky even since I was a kid, so I don’t want to hurt them any more.

Anyways, good tips in the video….

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Janet May 14, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I am 18 years old.This is not really about squatting as an exercise but I would be glad if I could get a little advice from an expert. I have been squatting and having my bath since the last one year. So this means that I have been staying in this position for at least 3-4 minutes everyday. This has affected my right knee. There’s some sort of obstruction and I feel like the arrangement inside has changed. Could you please tell me whether something’s wrong with the muscles or the joint? I want to rectify this problem. Kindly help me.

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Sanket June 21, 2013 at 10:05 am

Hi, great video, thanks for focusing on connection between squats and knee pain. Before, when doing squats i experienced knee and back pain, but now will try the way you discussed. I have a question, i am a cyclists and as a part of strength training, i perform 1000 to 1200 squats once or twice a week, so doing the squats as suggested by you will save my knees, or i should decrease my reps?

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Kiera June 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Thank you so much for posting this! I was about ready to give up on my squats because my knees hurt too badly and were making popping noises. The squats were really difficult too. Now that I use the form you showed the squats don’t hurt in a bad way, but in the I know I am working out right, way. I do have one question though. I got through 11 days of doing the squats wrong with no knee soreness the next day (only pain during the exercise) After one day of doing your form my knees are sore the following day. Do your knees get sore just as your arms would from lifting weight or am I possible still doing something wrong? I think I may have gone a little too low.

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Steve December 2, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Wonderful article. Squatting was always a plan in my exercising schedule. was too lazy to add it. Time to start doing it.

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