Squats shouldn't cause long-term pain in your knees.

Image: U.S. Army

Squats are a highly beneficial exercise that works out most of the muscle groups in the lower body and builds a solid base for cardio and other workouts. But some people are turned off from them because they’ve had pain doing them or were pretty sure they would. And not in the good, “feel the burn” way, but in the way that tells your brain “if you don’t stop this soon you won’t be able to walk.”

If you experience that kind of pain during an activity, the smart thing to do is stop right away. But that doesn’t mean you should never do it again. For ordinary exercises like squats, the reason is probably not that you simply can’t do them but that there is some problem with how you’re doing them. Today we will look at some problems that might give you pain during squats, and how you can fix them.

Poor ankle mobility

Every joint has its job to do, and insufficient mobility in one joint usually makes your body and brain automatically compensate with more motion from another joint, often straining it. This can be especially true of the ankles since they are the closest to the floor, and we might overlook them since they’re the smallest of the three main joints we squat with. But the ankles control the angle of the lower leg throughout the exercise, affects the amount of leverage necessary for the knees to raise up.

If your ankles have too limited a range of motion, you may be able to fix it yourself just by stretching a bit more before each set. But if that doesn’t work, a physical therapist can try manual therapy on your ankle to locate the problem spot and give you specific, targeted range-of-motion exercises.

Weak glutes

The gluteal muscles are, um, the ones in your butt. They stabilize your upper legs and keep them pointed in the right direction. If they’re out of training, then your knees might bow inward or have some other problem. So even though squats work the gluteal muscles, you need them to be at some baseline level before you get heavily into squats. Fortunately, there are other exercises you can do to strengthen them that won’t put the knees in danger. One of them is the hip thrust, which can be done with or without weights, and against-the-wall heel slides from the side-lying position.

Any other form problems

You’re supposed to keep your heels on the floor, not squat on the balls of your feet, and keep your spine roughly straight and your shoulders over your knees. But some people forget these rules and it puts extra strain on their knees. If you’re worried you might be squatting wrong, it might be helpful to try box squats for a while, in which you stand in front of a box or bench that is about sitting-height from the floor, sitting down on it at the bottom of each squat and then standing up from there.

If you still have form problems after all that, a sports medicine professional/physical therapist may be able to find out what’s causing the problem. Properly executed, squats strengthen the knees and reduce the likelihood of long-term pain, so if it hurts you there is probably an answer.

Haymarket Physical Therapy is a top physical therapy and sports medicine clinic in the Loudon, Fauquier, and Prince William County area. If recurring pain is getting in the way of your fitness goals we, let’s make an appointment for a consultation and we will find out what is needed to get you back on track. Call us at one of our Northern Virginia branches.

Haymarket, Va.: (703) 372-9695

Bristow, Va.: (571) 549-3677

Bealeton, Va.: (571) 281-4293

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