“My Knees Hurt When I Squat”

“My knees hurt when I squat.” This is a common complaint, and one I have heard many times as a personal trainer. Because their knees hurt, people end up not doing squats at all, when in fact, squats can help you get stronger and actually decrease knee pain!

Today we are going to talk about why your knees hurt when you squat, and what you can do to fix it. 

How To Squat Without Knee Pain

Okay, if you’ve had a knee injury in the past, then yeah, that might be contributing to your knee pain (and you should see your PT or doctor to discuss whether you should or should not do certain exercises). However, most people have muscle imbalances and weaknesses that are causing this knee pain.

One of the main culprits is not engaging the core (or simply not having core strength) during the squatting motion. As you squat, you should be hinging at the hips and moving backwards as if sitting into a chair. If you don’t, your torso will lean forward, and your knees will be at an awkward angle, causing most of the load to be on your quads…which leads to the knee pain.

Here’s great info from trainer Kevin Yates:

When you lack proper core and 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.

Movements like squatting and lunging are not bad for your knees and they don’t cause injuries.

Muscle imbalances are the real problem.

One of my favorite trainers, Tony Gentilcore, has a great post about fixing your squat and avoiding knee pain. His tip, box squats, was something I practiced regularly with my clients.

Basically, you set up a box or bench behind you in the squat rack. Your goal is to squat back and touch the box with your butt before coming back up (do not actually sit on the box and then come up, you are just tapping the box).

Tapping a box or bench helps you with that movement of sitting backwards. Your weight should be on your heels and not your toes during a squat. I’ve talked about squat tips in the past, and how you can improve your form. I’ve mentioned putting a plate under your heels. Why? Because if you have a muscle imbalance or tightness, your heels might be coming up during the squat movement. Elevating your heels a bit helps you get deeper and keep the weight in your heels.

From Tony Gentilcore:

If squatting hurts your knees—and you’re not suffering from an injury—it’s because you’re making your knees do more of the work than the hips. Learning how to utilize the hips during a squat is important if you want to make them more joint-friendly. Box squats can do that.

Squats and lunges are not bad for your knees! That’s a myth similar to that of running being bad for your knees and cracking your knuckles leading to arthritis. Squats and lunges, if anything, help improve your knee health. Start working on your core strength to take the pressure off your quads and knees.

One more thing before I move on to talking about your quads…if you’re having trouble sitting back into your squat, try doing front squats and goblet squats. Since the weight is in front of your body as opposed to on your back, it will make it a bit easier for you to sit back into the squat. I talked about that in this post about squatting tips.

Moving on…another thing that might be causing your knee pain is quad weakness. If your knees hurt during walking lunges or after running, this might be why. In order to fix this, you just need to work your quad muscles a bit. Focus on exercises like the split squat, and progress to a reverse lunge. Avoid doing any forward movements like (duh) forward lunges or walking lunges…just until you build up your strength.

Here’s one of my first YouTube videos showing the split squat.

Similar with the squat, you should be going straight down NOT forward. If you are moving forward as you’re performing this you will probably feel that knee pain. Cues to repeat to yourself are: chest up, shoulders back. Your front heel should stay planted on the floor – if you come up on your toes, step your back leg further back/away from your front leg. 

My dad had knee pain during running and leg exercises, but once he started doing more split squats, his knee pain disappeared. He now runs 3 miles most days! Progression ideas for this exercise (once you master the split squat) would be: reverse lunge, front foot elevated split squat, rear foot elevated split squat, step-ups, and walking lunges.

***Remember though, please talk to your PT or doctor if knee pain is something you have regularly dealt with. Of course there could be some underlying issue that is not as simple as a muscle imbalance or lack of strength.***

Do you squat regularly? Have you ever felt knee pain?

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Comments

  1. Love squats! They are my favorite! They never hurt my knees and I always focus on form! It’s pretty easy to focus on form in a squat, if just FEELS better when you do!
    Rebecca @ Strength and Sunshine recently posted…Baby Purple Brussels SproutsMy Profile

  2. Yes! I have been learning so much about the importance of form in exercises with my strength coach. I realized just how many things I was doing wrong, because I was using bad posture, and I was not engaging my core in the right way. i did not have knee pain, but I am surprised I didnt. Great tutorial Patty :)
    Tina Muir recently posted…Redefining “Do The Best You Can”My Profile

  3. I do a lot of squats and my biggest issue is that I tend to rock forward onto my toes. I have too much flexibility, which is apparently less normal, and I squat too deep. Working on fixing it!
    Colorado Gal recently posted…Breast Augmentation: A #MustDo in Your 20s?My Profile

  4. I completely feel you there… I also hear the same from a friend and he thinks he’s going to regret it if he continues with squats.
    Lily Lau recently posted…World’s Most Expensive GuitarsMy Profile

  5. Form is SO important! When I first started working out, I had all kinds of pains- including knee pain. It was NOT from an injury though, and it went away after I continued to workout for a while, and knew how to use proper form. It is difficult for those just staring out working out because you really can’t tell the difference between an injury, improper form, or just the aches and pains from working out after never have doing so before!
    AJ @ NutriFitMama recently posted…Ab-Friendly Sweet Potato with Edamame, Roasted Veggies & Thai Peanut-SrirachaMy Profile

  6. Great post!! The squat is the best exercise to figure out muscle imbalances, but also one of the best exercises to help fix them :)
    Nicole @ Fitful Focus recently posted…Dr. Jordan Metzl’s Running Strong Review + April Race PlanMy Profile

  7. Sadly, I don’t squat regularly and I really need to. I’ve never been bothered by knee pain, so I’ve never experienced it when I do do squats.
    Sue @ This Mama Runs for Cupcakes recently posted…Fabulous Fit Gear SwapMy Profile

  8. This totally applies to me. When I started learning how to do squats properly and focused on my knee alignment, I noticed that my knee pain started to lessen. Funny how that happens ;) Thanks for sharing!
    Alyssa @ Simply Quinoa recently posted…Toasted Coconut Quinoa Breakfast CookiesMy Profile

  9. Great info! Interesting to hear what your clients tell you. I love squats and do them regularly with no knee or quad pain. They’re so beneficial but you already know that!
    Marcia recently posted…March Recap and a GiveawayMy Profile

  10. Another great post! I do a lot of squats and I don’t have knee pain. But my coach watches me like a hawk, to make sure my form is perfect.
    Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home recently posted…#RunthisYear 2015 March SummaryMy Profile

  11. I adore any and all parts of leg day. Squats are so humbling. You normally know when you are doing them wrong if you have ever done them right. I think people don’t focus on the down motion of the squat either they just kind of sit back and hope for the best. I’ve watched SO MANY bad squats in the gym. From the half squat to the going to fall forward and I want to fix them all lol. This was a great guide, pinned!
    Sam @ PancakeWarriors recently posted…Stuffed Portobello MushroomsMy Profile

  12. I love squats. No knee pain.
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  13. I feel like as I get older, I can’t get away with doing my exercises with improper form anymore because I’ll definitely pay for it the next day. So many great tips here, Patty!
    Lisa @ Healthy Nibbles & Bits recently posted…How Food Blogging Changed My WaysMy Profile

  14. Squats are one of my favorite leg exercises. I’m careful so I don’t have knee pain but it pains me when I see someone with bad form because I’m sure they feel it in their knees. That said, I can’t wrap my brain around how squats are done in crossfit. It seems to go against everything I know about squats.
    jill conyers recently posted…#RockYourCore Challenge KickoffMy Profile

  15. I used to have a hard time with squats and avoided them for years. Not because of knee pain, but because I was always afraid of falling backward. But once I figured out the proper technique, I started doing them all the time!
    GiselleR @ Diary of an ExSloth recently posted…18 Dairy-Free Chocolate Filled RecipesMy Profile

  16. This is a great article. When I first began working out I used to have pain due to old injuries and lack of activity. After gaining some strength and learning the proper technique all the pain has disappeared.
    GinaB @ Mirror Watching recently posted…Not The Pretty BraMy Profile

  17. Great tips! Note to self: do more squats.
    Janice @ Fitness Cheerleader recently posted…New Breton Bean Crackers and Breton Popped! Beans Cracker Chips Review + Gluten Free Italian Asparagus RecipeMy Profile

  18. Such a helpful post! There should never be pain if you are doing an exercise correctly. Great tips as no one wants to deal with knee pain!
    Sandra Laflamme recently posted…Fresh Five. Feeling Inspired! Five Good Things.My Profile

  19. My knees totally do this popping thing. Good form helps a lot…but I still have issues. However, I have past knee injuries from volleyball…
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  20. Luckily I’ve never had knee pain while squatting. My joints are a little worn from sports over the years, but from careful progression and good form I’ve avoided it! You make some solid points for preventive measures.
    Nick recently posted…2013 Pendlay Do-Win Crossfit Weightlifting ReviewMy Profile

  21. I like the tip to tap a box or bench to help with the sitting backwards movement. My husband and I both have bad knees, so this is something we struggle with a lot. I’ll have to send him this article as well! Thanks!

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