Feeling a twinge of knee pain while working out can be alarming. One moment you’re feeling great, and the next thing you know, there’s a sharp pain every time you bend to squat. Many people are so afraid of injuring their knees while doing squats that they avoid them completely. The good news: this avoidance may not be necessary. Sure, squatting with poor form can lead to injury, but many fitness experts say that squats are actually perfectly healthy—if they’re performed correctly.
So what’s the deal—are squats actually bad for your knees? Ahead, fitness experts help us settle the debate.
Squats bring serious benefits.
Targeting your quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, adductors, glutes, and hip flexors, squats are an amazing way to strengthen your lower body. In terms of athletic performance, squatting can make you stronger in activities like biking and running. If you're looking to improve your speed and strength, Selena Samuela, a Peloton Tread instructor, suggests adding an explosive element like a jump squat to the mix.
Not only can squatting add power and stability to boost your athletic performance, but you'll notice the difference in your everyday life, too. Simple, routine tasks like getting out of bed, picking up a heavy bag of groceries, and walking up a steep set of stairs may not seem very challenging, but they might all be made easier and safer by regularly doing squats.
Autumn Calabrese, a BeachBody trainer and certified personal trainer, explains this benefit further. "We sit down and stand up constantly, a lot of times we do this with some form of weight in our hands," Calabrese says. "Strengthening these muscles makes daily life easier." You'll be less likely to get injured, too.
But that's not all. Squats are also helpful for burning fat, strengthening your knee, hip, and ankle joints, and boosting your core strength, which can help ease lower back pain and make twisting and bending easier.
"As we get older, we physiologically need to strengthen our muscles, tendons, and ligaments so we can continue to move with fluidity and without pain," explains Mary Johnson, a Strava strength training coach, USATF-certified running coach, and the founder of Lift, Run, Perform. "Squats are a great bang-for-your-buck exercise that will target the key muscle areas that will keep us moving better, longer."
Are squats bad for your knees?
Physical therapist and founder of LYT Yoga, Lara Heimann, offers clarity about the safety of squats. “Squats are not inherently bad for the knees at all and are one of the most functional moves we humans perform,” Heimann says. “From the time we are toddlers throughout our lifetime, we will squat for a variety of reasons and purposes.”
Our other experts agree that squats are perfectly safe to add into your workouts, especially when you focus on keeping your spine neutral and executing the move from your hips. The trouble comes in when you have issues with hip or ankle mobility, or if the movement comes more from your spine rather than from your hips.
“When hips flex well, the knees will follow suit with flexion and the squat should be performed with ease,” Heimann says. “If the hips don’t flex well and/or the movement happens more at the spine, the knees can take excessive loads that can create compression and discomfort and potential injury down the road.”
How to properly do a squat:
Calabrese shared these tips to help you squat like a pro:
- Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and parallel, with your toes forward.
- Lower into the squat position by driving your hips back and bending at the knees and ankles. Don’t let your knees collapse in or shoot out over your toes.
- Keep your heels and toes on the ground, your chest up, your shoulders back, and your abdominals and core engaged. Keep a neutral spine and don’t arch or round your back when performing a squat.
- The goal is to get your hamstrings—the back of your thighs—parallel to the ground, meaning your knees are bent to a 90-degree angle.
- Press into your heels as you return to a standing position.
Here are a couple more pointers from Samuela that you may find helpful as you start adding squats to your workout mix.
- Look forward as you squat—choose a point in front of you and focus on that spot as you lower and rise up again.
- Only lower yourself as far as is comfortable. If you feel pain anywhere, it’s time to stop.
Foot positioning won't look the same for everyone.
Your exact foot placement and positioning may look a bit different depending on your body mechanics, Johnson explains. Rather than starting with your toes pointed straight ahead, some trainers recommend starting with your feet pointed slightly outwards, about 45 degrees, or slightly less.
You don't necessarily need to use weights while squatting.
If you've been working out at home over the past few months and don't have any equipment, we have good news—you don't need any weights or fancy equipment to do squats from home.
"Doing bodyweight squats is a great way to get started," Calabrese says. "You can perform a basic squat, a sumo squat, a basic squat jump, and a sumo squat jump without any equipment at all."
But when it comes to building muscle, you'll want to add equipment, she says. Keep in mind that dumbbells or a barbell aren't your only options—you can also use resistance bands or kettlebells. "You don’t have to get crazy with the movement for it to be effective," she points out. "So start slow and build up."
Why are squats hurting my knees?
So now that we've sung the praises of squats and explained how to perform them, you might find that your knees are still hurting after trying them out. Christa Shelton, a certified personal trainer and owner of Coaching With Christa, shares the following information about the most common reasons why squats may be hurting your knees and how to correct the issues. In general, these issues cause the knee joints and the surrounding ligaments and tendons to absorb greater loads than necessary, causing pain and possible damage, according to our experts.
You’re shifting your weight forward.
“Many people fail to push their hips back in order to keep the knees from traveling over the toes,” says Shelton. To correct this issue, imagine reaching your hips and butt back as if you’re going to sit in a chair as you lower down, and on the way up, push through your heels to stand back up. ”I will often have clients use the stability ball against the wall to perform squats,” says Shelton. “This, of course, is slightly different from how a traditional squat is performed; however, this helps to take pressure off the knees, while still being able to work and increase the strength in the quads.”
Many people unknowingly have very tight ankles and calves. This will make it difficult to get deep enough in a squat while keeping your heels down. To compensate for the tightness, you can put a weight plate or book (two inches high or so) under your heels when you squat.
Your knees and toes aren’t aligned.
When someone performs a squat, it's common to see their knees collapsing inward towards one another during a squat (think “knock knees”). This instability might be due to weakness in an important little muscle on the outside of the hip called the gluteus medius. To strengthen the gluteus medius, you can perform side lying leg raises either with an ankle weight or resistance band looped around both ankles.
You’re not engaging all of your muscles.
You’ve probably noticed sore quads the day or two after lots of squats, but if your glutes and hip flexors aren’t a little sore too, you might not be engaging them enough. If you’re letting gravity do too much of the work in pulling you down into a squat, your muscles might be getting a bit of a free ride. Particularly as you lower down into the squat, think about contracting your glutes, legs, and even core musculature. This is meant to help stabilize the body and takes strain off the knee joints.
Your training program needs tweaking.
Even with proper form, you might feel your knees grumbling in protest if you’re overdoing it with your workouts or doing too much too soon. Remember to give your legs rest days, especially when you are just getting back into exercise or trying new, unaccustomed workouts.
You have a knee condition or injury.
“Another issue could be some type of knee damage,” explains Shelton. “If you are, in fact, performing the squat with proper form and still feeling discomfort, it may be worth it to do some further investigation, so you aren't exacerbating any underlying issue you might not be aware that you have.” If you have certain knee conditions like osteoarthritis, tendinitis, or a ligament sprain, you should always consult your doctor, who may recommend physical therapy or an alternative treatment or exercise.
How many times can I squat each week?
If you love squats, and you're corrected any form issues, muscle imbalances, or injuries that had been causing knee pain, there's no reason you can't safely add them to your workout routine multiple times each week. "Squats are one of the main movement patterns that you should be incorporating into just about every strength workout," Johnson says.
Samuela adds that you can safely add squats to your everyday workout routine, whether they're part of the warmup or the central focus of the workout. But if this is your first rodeo with squats, remember to take it easy and work your way up as you begin to feel stronger; staying injury-free is key. Start conservatively (around 10 per workout) and work your way up, depending on how your body tolerates it.
Squats are a great exercise to add to your workouts and can be perfectly safe and healthy. Fitness experts agree that there's no reason to avoid squats if you're performing them correctly, but proper alignment and execution are key. If you're not doing squats correctly, you could easily feel knee pain or get injured, so make sure to perfect your form and technique.
van den Tillaar R, Saeterbakken AH. Comparison of Core Muscle Activation Between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. J Hum Kinet. 2018;62:43-53. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0176