04-01-2015

“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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01-29-2015

How To Squat Deeper

I’ve written about proper squat and deadlift form, but today we’ll talk about how to work your way into a deeper squat. (I’ve also written about how it’s not necessary to squat all the way down – in fact, it can lead to injury if you’re not ready for that).

However, it’s important to work on mobility if you want to perfect your squat form and get a bit deeper each time. When I first started lifting, I’d have a bench under me and I couldn’t even squat to the bench! Usually, not being able to get low enough has to do with lack of flexibility – probably in your ankles or hips. PS – if you want to work on ankle flexibility and dorsiflexion, try this exercise. My PT had me do this for my shin splints during half marathon training and it really helped. For me, a tight Achilles and lack of dorsiflexion is/was causing tight calves which leads to shin pain.

Anyway, let’s get into a few things you can do to work on your squats. Let’s start with the warm-up:

How To Squat Deeper

Warm up your hips and glutes.

This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen people show up to the gym and just start squatting. Yikes. Take 10 minutes to warm up before you hit the squat rack. First do some cardio to get your heart rate up, then start doing dynamic stretches for your hips, like lunges (where your knee is on the floor and you move forward to stretch the hip, but then come back up, then go back into it, etc. so it’s dynamic, not just you holding a stretch). Do side lunges as well to hit it from a different angle. Do a few static standing lunges to warm up your quads and glutes –  nice and slow.

Roll out your calves.

In order to get your calves ready, do the drill above, and foam roll your calves. If you have a partner, take a wooden stick/pole (some gyms have them some don’t, if not just use the foam roller) and ask them to roll it over your lower calf, closer to your Achilles. They’ll be able to apply pressure in different areas you may not be able to if you foam roll yourself. You want to get the blood flowing in these areas and get them loose, especially if dorsiflexion is what is causing you issues with squatting.

Okay let’s move to the actual squatting:

Set a bench or box behind you.

You won’t be doing box squats (which is a specific technique different than regular squats), but you’ll just be squatting down and trying to tap the bench with your butt. If you can’t get down that low, then you know you’ve got some work to do. This also gives you a starting point. Once you ARE able to tap the bench, you know that you’ve been improving and are getting better at squatting.

Put plates under your heels.

I had clients who would start with 25 lb. plates (thicker) and work their way down to just a 5 lb plate (very thin). Putting plates under your heels helps with the dorsiflexion issue, since now your heels are elevated and will give you a bit more range of motion. As I was reading a forum about this, I saw some opinions about this being impractical because “you’re supposed to be squatting with heels planted and driving through the heels.” Yes, that is true, but if you don’t have the range of motion how will you do this? As with anything else, this tip is a way to help you to progress to that level, similar to how using an assisted pull-up machine helps you progress to a pull-up.

Anyway, got side tracked, use a certain plate for 2 weeks, then try to use one that’s thinner, and work your way down. Obviously, you need to be working on mobility during this time as well. Simply using plates won’t improve your dorisflexion. Make sure you’re actively foam rolling your calves and Achilles and doing drills like the one I linked to above. Here are more drills from trainer Tony Gentilcore (scroll down a bit). My PT had recommended doing that drill whenever possible throughout the day, but a minimum of 2-3 times a day.

Do front squats.

Front squats require you to have the barbell on the front/meaty part of your shoulders. If you don’t have access to a barbell, you can do goblet squats instead. You’ll find that with front squats you will probably be able to get a bit deeper than with back squats. This is because of the angle of your hips and back during the squatting. 

squat-torso-positionPhoto Source

Throw these into your routine and focus on your depth. As always, make sure you’re keeping your core tight and “chest up, shoulders back.”

Start light.

Don’t be embarrassed if you’re only squatting the barbell to start. I started there too. It’s better to use light weights as you fix your mobility than try to do 100 lbs. and have awful form that will lead to injury. Use light weight and really focus on the exercise. Feel yourself bracing your core and going through the motions. Go nice and slow to determine how low you can get and get a tiny bit lower each week. Throughout the weeks, you’ll not only gain flexibility but you’ll also be able to start increasing your weight load bit by bit.

Are you able to do squats no problem or did you have to work your way up to them? They’re a great exercise when done properly!

How do you warm up before a lifting session?

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11-18-2014

How To Perfect Your Squat and Deadlift

Squats and deadlifts are two big exercises and are almost always featured in any good training plan. They work big muscle groups and recruit smaller muscle groups (like your core) as well. Today I wanted to talk about training cues for both of these exercises.

Training cues are what I used as a personal trainer to get my clients to do an exercise correctly. Sometimes you just need to hear someone say “chest up” to straighten out a bit. I use my own cues in my head while I’m lifting weights, just as a reminder to maintain correct form.

Correct form is so important with these two exercises. Which is why I’m going to give you a few cues for each one that you will hopefully repeat to yourself the next time you’re are the gym!

How To Squat And Deadlift With Correct Form

SQUATS

So we’re mainly going to discuss barbell squats here but some of these are applicable to any sort of squat (I’ll use an * for those that are). 

Here are the steps and cues from the moment you step up to the squat rack:

  1. Step under the barbell. Make sure it’s not too high or too low. You shouldn’t be getting onto your toes to unrack the bar.
  2. Get strong as soon as you step under the bar. Flex your core and legs, and really grip the bar hard. A cue I like from trainer Tony Gentilcore is “melt the bar with your hands.”
  3. Unrack, step back and get set. Stay flexed.
  4. Pop your hips back as if you’re sitting back into a chair*, this is the first move. You do not want to just squat down. First, move your hips back and hinge forward a bit.
  5. As you squat down, keep your shoulder blades tucked (think down and back).
  6. Also, think chest up, shoulders back*. This will help you maintain good posture and not have a rounded lower back. Really focus on keeping your lower back straight. If you feel it rounding, you have gone too low.
  7. From the bottom, think of exploding up. Chest up, shoulders back! Come up and focus on keeping your knees out*. Do not let them sag inwards. If they do, you need to decrease the weight.
  8. Pop your hips forward at the top*. Just a little bit. Almost like a hip thrust. 
  9. Repeat.

Another key thing to keep in mind is to try to keep a neutral spine throughout. You already know to keep a flat back, but don’t look up when you’re coming up from a squat. This puts a lot of strain on your neck. Try to keep your gaze forwards at all time.

If you feel like you can’t get your legs parallel to the floor, try putting small plates under your heels to elevate them. You should be able to get lower this way, and work your way up to removing the plates.

DEADLIFTS

If you’ve never done deadlifts, I highly suggest you ask a trainer at your gym to go over proper form. They’ll gladly help.

Let’s go over some cues for deadlifts. I’m going to be talking about Romanian deadlifts, but most of these work for other variations as well.

  1. Set the bar up right in front of your feet. Your feet should actually be under the bar, with the bar grazing your shins.
  2. Same as the squat, as you grab the bar, get strong! Before you even lift the bar, flex your back and squeeze your shoulder blades.
  3. Keep a neutral spine. Do not look up as you pull the bar up. Look down and keep your neck neutral throughout.
  4. Pull up with force. Remember to keep a flat back the entire time. Sometimes I’d tell clients to imagine almost arching their back (like a U shape), which would get them to flatten it. Obviously you don’t want a U shape, but thinking of that arch helps some people get their back to be flat as opposed to rounded. You should not have a rounded back.
  5. Once you get to the top, pop your hips forward and squeeze your glutes. Then slowly lower the bar, grazing your shins, and keeping your shoulders and back tight the whole time. The bar should be very close to your shins because if you have it out in front of you, that’s a lot of stress on your lower back.
  6. Lower the bar fully and repeat.

This is as much a back exercise as it is a hamstring and glute exercise. The pulling motion engages your lats, which is why it’s important to squeeze your shoulder blades and keep your back muscles tight throughout, as opposed to just letting your arms hang. This same cue actually goes for dumbbell or barbell rows too. Next time you do them, flex your back/shoulder blades first and keep them flexed throughout, as opposed to just letting your arms hang and then rowing. You’ll notice a difference.

And as always, as with any exercise, use your core! Both of these will work your core. I’ve had sore abs before from squats and deadlifts. Make sure to brace your core as you go through each exercise.

I feel like I’m forgetting some stuff but hopefully this is a good starting point. If you only remember one cue make it this one: chest up shoulders back! This pretty much goes for any exercise and will help you use your core, keep a straight back, and flex your shoulders.

Do you like doing squats and deadlifts? Do you prefer barbells or dumbbells?

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04-15-2014

Squat Variations

We all know squats are a great lower body exercise, but did you know there are a ton of variations you can do? You can switch it up so you don’t get bored, but also so you target different muscle groups. Knowing variations also helps if you are lacking certain equipment.

Types Of SquatsPhoto Credit: Malingering via Compfight cc

Barbell Back Squat

barbell-squat

This is the most known. I love barbell back squats. It does take some practice though, so make sure if it’s your first time trying it you ask a personal trainer at your gym for help. You also don’t need to squat all the way down. Go as low as you can while keeping good form. If you can’t get down to 90 degrees, work on mobility and flexibility (usually in the hips). You can also place weight plates underneath your heels to help you squat down a bit lower.

Dumbbell Squat

Dumbbell Squats

This is a great alternative to the barbell squat if you don’t have a barbell or if you don’t feel comfortable trying it yet. Where you want to place the dumbbells depends on you. You can have them like this photo does, or you can rest them on your shoulders. I actually prefer the latter.

Sumo Squat

sumoYou can do this with a dumbbell or with a barbell. This type of squat will target a few different muscles as well, such as the adductors (inner thighs), and place a bit more emphasis on your glutes.

Barbell Front Squat

Front-Squats

You may have seen another variation of this, where elbows are out in front and the bar is in your hands, but I think this one is a bit easier for most people. With the other pose, you need a good amount of wrist flexibility. For this one, just make sure to place the bar on the meaty part of your front shoulders. The first few times you may get a bruise there – I have before!

Also, if you have a tough time getting low with back squats, try front squats! The way the bar is placed in the front allows you to have a bit more hip/lower back mobility, and have the ability to squat a bit lower. Again, if it’s your first time doing this, have a trainer assist you.

Overhead Squat

overhead-squat

I would only suggest this variation if you have good shoulder mobility. This exercise will challenge your whole body, as a lot of core strength is involved to balance the barbell over your head! This lift is a bit trickier, so please have a trainer with you the first time to give you the proper cues! One thing to remember always is to keep your core tight.

Goblet Squat

goblet-squat

You can do this with either a dumbbell or a kettlebell. Make sure to keep the dumbbell or kettlebell tucked right into your chest. As always, don’t lower yourself past where you’re able to. Your back should never be rounded with any of these squats. I like doing these when I’m going to do some higher reps of squats, and I love doing low reps of barbell back squats to work on my strength.

Bulgarian Split Squats

Split-Squat

These don’t look traditional squats, but they are still an amazing lower body workout. These will really target your glutes and quads. If these are too challenging for you, do traditional split squats (both feet on the floor). Don’t worry about adding weight at first. Try them bodyweight and go from there (since it can be tricky to balance at first).

General Tips

  • Keep your core tight during the whole exercise.
  • Think chest up, shoulders back. This will help you have good form and not round your back.
  • Grip the bar or dumbbells hard, and as one of my favorite trainers, Tony Gentilcore says, “melt the bar in your hands.”
  • Don’t force it. Don’t go lower than you’re comfortable.
  • Sit back into your heels when squatting. Go down slow, then drive it up with power.

Which of these squat variations do you do on a regular basis? Which ones haven’t you tried?

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10-01-2012

The beginning of my “How To” series

After uploading a workout routine last week, I decided that, along with making longer workout videos, I would make short clips to show correct form on basic exercises. I know that exercising at the gym can be daunting, especially if you feel like you don’t know what to do. I want to help!

So, I made a “How To: Split Squat” and “How To: Plank” video.

Split squats are GREAT lower body exercises that really work the quads and glutes. Trust me, you’ll feel it. It’s also a really good exercise for beginners and those with knee problems. It’s stationary, as opposed to a moving lunge, therefore there isn’t a lot of stress on the knee. Remember, just go down as low as YOU can go, do not force yourself. Over time, you will be able to get close to the ground.

Also, planks are one of my favorite core exercises. The key here is to keep your body in a straight line. I like to balance a foam roller on myself before I start, just to make sure my head, back and hips are all inline. Flex your core to make sure you are holding yourself up with your core and not your hip flexors.

Let me know if you try the routine I posted previously, or either of these exercises! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Good luck and have fun!