Do you have pain in your knees every time you squat to parallel? How about during lunges or jumps? Ideally, your knees should be able to flex and extend pain free throughout a full range of motion when you squat, lunge, or jump. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many people, and as a result, a lot of athletes eliminate movements from their program unnecessarily. Fortunately, there are many ways to address knee pain and restore function. In this article we are going to take a step by step approach to fix your achy knees.
Step 1: Look at Your Exercise Programming
In order to master a movement like the squat, you need to squat often. Ideally you should be doing some variation of the squat 2-3 times per week. This could be in the form of a back squat, front squat, split squat, goblet squat, or any other variation you can think of. Constantly varying your squatting movements will keep you from overtraining one particular version of the squat.
To give an example of this, let’s take a look at the back squat vs. the front squat. Both are great ways to squat, but the emphasis of the movement is different for each squat. Your hips are more active in the back squat in comparison to the front squat. Your quads on the other hand will be more dominant in the front squat in comparison to the back squat.
It is important to note that a squat is considered a knee dominant movement. In order to balance out your squat, you will need to perform hip dominant (hip hinge) movements as well. You should be doing hip hinge variations 2-3 times per week. The hip hinge can take the form of a deadlift, trap bar deadlift, kettlebell swing, good morning, or any variation you can think of. Hip hinge movements are a great way to strengthen the glutes. Having strong glutes will keep your knees from caving (preventing injury) and will help you sit back in your heels as you squat.
Another aspect you need to look at is the amount of plyometrics you are performing. When we jump, gravity is pulling us down with a force that is 1.5 – 3x greater than our body weight. The impact from landing takes a great toll on our joints, especially if proper landing mechanics are not applied.
Although we would never say that you shouldn’t include jumps into your training program, knowing when to apply them will be of great value in order to increase your strength and prevent injury. Do NOT perform endless repetitions of plyometrics as a conditioning tool at the end of your workout. You will be tired at the end of your workout, and your landing form is going to pay the price.
DO use plyometrics as tool to activate your nervous system before you strength train. Performing a whole body movement such as a jump that requires the muscles to contract quickly is a great way to prepare your nervous system to lift heavy weights.
Step 2: Revisit your technique
Once you’ve gotten your exercise programming together, it’s time to take a look at your technique. When a squat is performed correctly, there should be no knee pain (baring a pre-existing condition). When you squat, be sure to do the following as you perform the eccentric (muscle lengthening) portion of the lift: 1) Stand with your feet at shoulder width with your toes slightly pointed out, 2) Push your hips back, 3) Drive your knees out, 4) Keep your heels flat, and 5) Make sure your back is strong and flat.
On the concentric (muscle shortening) portion of the squat, 1) Drive your hips up and forward, 2) Extend your knees pushing them outward, 3) Drive through the three points of your foot (heel, great toe, and pinky toe), and 4) Keep your chest up.
Improper form: Knees Cave in
It is also important to understand what “good” or “proper” depth is. There are many arguments of what good depth is. Different body types will squat differently, but for the purposes of this article, we are going to say “proper” depth is achieved when the hips are either parallel with, or below the knees.
There is a limit to how low you should go however. Do not force your body into a depth that it is not ready for or you will get the dreaded “butt wink” and could do some serious damage to your lower back. Butt wink is when your lower back rounds and your pelvis rotates back which will lead to an injured back.
If you fail to have your hips reach knee level when you are squatting, you are performing a “partial” which will primarily work the quad. Although there is nothing wrong with a partial squat (they can be great for developing the quads, or stimulating your central nervous system with heavy weight,) if your goal is to engage as much musculature as possible, you should not be performing partials. Your glutes and hamstrings engage the most when you squat to “proper” depth. If you are squatting parallel, or below parallel you can be sure that your glutes are firing. When your glutes are firing properly you diminish the amount of stress placed upon your knees.
Now that we’ve cleaned up your squat, let’s take a look at your landing mechanics if you are performing any kind of plyometric jumps as part of your program. When you land, check for the following; 1) your shoulders are in line with your knees, 2) you are landing on the balls of your feet 3) your knees track outward when you land, and 4) your back is strong and flat. Landing with sound mechanics will help ensure you don’t get sidelined with a knee injury.
Improper Landing Position
Proper Landing Position
Step 3: Address Your Lack of Mobility
When dealing with your squat, and pain in your knees, ankle mobility is the number one culprit. If your ankle cannot dorsiflex properly, a lot of stress is placed on your patellar tendon. In order to help your ankle dorsiflex when you hit your squat, we recommend doing some soft tissue work before you train.
Calves (Foam Roller)
Once you roll the calves, it’s time to loosen up your hips and thighs. If you do not have adequate hip mobility, you will either have a butt wink when you try to squat to parallel, (which will wreak havoc on your lower back), or you won’t be able to squat to parallel. When preparing the hips and thighs, we recommend using a foam roller or lacrosse ball for the hips, a barbell for the quads, and a lacrosse ball for the hamstrings.
Hips (Foam Roller)
Hips (Lacrosse Ball)
Hamstrings (Lacrosse Ball)
Step 4: Perform muscle activation before you train
Once you’ve finished your soft tissue work, it’s time to fire up the glutes. Hitting some muscle activation for the glutes is a must if you want to squat without aggravating your knees. Although there are many exercises you can do, we have listed a few below that are easy to implement and do not require a lot of set up time.
Outside Leg Raises
Step 5: Stretch Post Workout
Technically, stretching could be classified in step 3 as mobility (there are plenty of stretches you can do before you lift,) but we decided to give stretching its own header at the end of the article. DO NOT neglect stretching post workout! Stretching post workout is an ideal time to hold stretches for a longer period of time since your muscles are already warm. Below are a couple stretches we recommend to increase you hip mobility post workout.
Standing Pigeon Stretch (hips)
Lizard Lunge with External Rotation (hips and hip flexors)
Squat Hold with Reach Back (hips and thoracic spine)
Ankle Stretch Using Resistance Band (calves)
Although the journey won’t be easy, understanding the 5 steps above will give you a roadmap to fixing your knees. Remember, every solution to pain when training begins with sound programming followed by proper technique. Once you understand programming and proper technique, you will know why your pain exists.
Performing some soft tissue work before you train will greatly alleviate how much stress is being placed on your knees. Making sure your glutes are firing properly by doing some muscle activation before you train will ensure you are targeting the muscles the exercise is supposed to engage. Stretching once you’re done will help you stay mobile and is the final step in bulletproofing your knees.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. We would like to invite you to try out one of our strength sessions to see how we can help you get in the best shape of your life while staying safe doing it.