Squats are a must-have in your exercise program. It is a basic human movement that we should all (health-willing) be able to do. If you would like to argue that they are inherently bad for your knees, I would like you to entertain the question of “How did our ancestors go to the bathroom without indoor plumbing and a comfortable toilet seat?”
Yea, that’s right. They had to pop a squat. It was, and still is in some cultures, a comfortable resting or working position that people used to use in place of – can you guess it? – chairs.
In my years of training clients, 9/10 times when a person says that squats hurt her knees, we change her form and that pain or discomfort is instantly gone. The other 10% have an underlying injury that needs to be further assessed by a clinical professional and we modify or change the exercises all together because you should NEVER WORK THROUGH PAIN.
Assuming you are pain and injury free and you’re still with me, here are some common issues with the squat and how to fix them.
Before you start playing with any of these drills, do a test squat. Try to watch this squat in a mirror or have a friend video you for a few reps. You want to make sure you check your angles from the front and from the side. You’ll want to note how deep your test squat is, how it feels, and how your form looks. As you play with some of these drills, see if it improves.
The Problem: Hip Hinge
In my experience, this is the motion that’s missing in most people who have pain or tension in their knees. If your hips don’t “hinge” in a squat, you’re likely putting unneeded stress on your knees. You need to adjust this position so that your hip and thigh muscles do their part and give the knees a break.
Box Squats are my favorite drill to help introduce a hip-hinge motion because it’s easy to replicate on your own. You will want to start with a box or a bench that is about knee-height or higher (eventually, you can move to lower). To set up, you want to sit first to set your feet to make sure that you are not too close to the bench. The common cheat is being RIGHT next to the bench to avoid the hip-hinge completely. Don’t be that guy.
You want your knees to be over your heels or over your laces when you are sitting but NOT forward beyond your toes. You can start with just standing and sitting to get familiar with shifting the weight back into your heels but as you improve, you’ll want to work on just lightly touching the bench and coming right back up. You’re not meant to relax on the bench!
The Problem: Wonky knees
This is obviously a super technical term. If you’re knees are knocking inward as you’re squatting you have a decent amount of hip work in your future. This is a stability issue where your hip muscles (think glutes) aren’t doing their job to stabilize the knee.
Two of my favorite drills for this problem are the banded squat and band walks. You’ll need a mini-band or a resistance band tied into a loop for these exercises.
You need the perfect resistance for this exercise. If the band is too easy, your brain doesn’t have that stimulus to encourage the right muscles to turn on. If the band is too hard, your brain/hips don’t have an opportunity to learn. So, a harder band is not always better. Find the resistance that helps you feel this more in your glutes and helps you keep your knees in better alignment.
For Banded Squats, you’ll want the band just above your knees. As you squat, you’ll feel the band fight to pull your knees in and you’re going to resist it to keep your knees neutral.
Band walks can be done with the band above the knees or around the ankles. Around the ankles is technically harder but I always caution against it because it can become easier to cheat with the band at the ankles. You can play with with both, but stick to whichever one makes you feel this in your butt more!
When you’re doing your band walks, take BABY STEPS and don’t step all the way in to relax the band. You want to focus on consistent tension keeping the knees apart regardless of what direction you’re walking in.
The Problem: Gumby Spine
Another super technical term. You’ve likely heard that you’re supposed to keep a “straight back” while you do a squat or other exercises. This often gets misinterpreted as keeping your chest up at an extreme angle and actually extending your low back. In reality, you’re meant to keep a “neutral spine”. This means you try to maintain the natural alignment of your spine as you move through the squat.
Not maintaining alignment becomes a problem under load because it means you are not stabilizing through your core as well as you should. This is usually bad news for your back. This problem can take a while to correct, so be patient!
Essentially, you want to work on your core stability. This does not just mean go do a bunch of sit-ups and planks. This means you need to teach your core to stabilize throughout a movement. There are a lot of different drills and strength training exercises you can do to help this particular problem but this one is one of my favorites because of how easily it can translate to a squat.
Let’s just call this one “Awkward Quadruped.” In this exercise, you are holding a q-ped (hands and knees position) while pushing a ball into the wall. You want to be close to the ball and wall so that you really have to work to try to push the ball against the wall.
This one looks deceptively easy, but trust me, if you’re doing it right, it’s killer. The feedback of the ball fighting you will help you brace your core in this position. You can just hold this position and focus on deep breathing or you can start to add some arm lifts for more of a challenge.
**If your body moves when you lift an arm your arm lift doesn’t count!!!** Remember, the goal is stability. Moving your arms around doesn’t do you any good in this exercise if you can’t maintain that ab-brace against the ball.
The Problem: Ankles
Lack of ankle mobility is an issue I’ve only recently started looking into. I’ve seen some pretty amazing and rapid results with some clients with this one. To be clear, we are talking about ankle MOBILITY not FLEXIBILITY meaning we are looking at how well the joint moves, not the muscles about the joint. If you don’t have adequate joint mobility here, you physically can’t get into a good squat position.
Do a test squat then try this ankle mobility drill. Stand with your front foot 3 or 4 inches from the wall. While keeping your front heel down, more your knee forward over your toes 5-8 times. Then do the same trying to get your knee over your pinky toe and then for your big toe. The focus is on that front foot, so your back foot can do whatever makes you comfortable. Then re-test your squat. If you’re squat looks or feels like it improved, keep this drill up!
Some of these drills may have an instant effect on your squat and some can take time. Don’t forget to track and compare to your original test squat to see if these help you improve.
I hope you find these helpful and am looking forward to hearing about your results!