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, four fitness experts help us settle the debate.
Meet the Expert
Are squats bad for your knees?
“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 workout mix, especially when you focus on keeping your spine neutral and execute 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.
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 on speed and explosive strength, Samuela suggests adding an explosive element like a jump squat to the mix.
Not only can squatting add power and stability that boosts 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 can all be made easier and safer by regularly doing squats.
"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," Johnson says. "Squats are a great bang-for-your-buck exercise that will target the key muscle areas that will keep us moving better longer."
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."
How many times can I squat each week?
If you love squats, there's no reason you can't 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 at a low interval (around 10 per workout) and work your way up depending on how your body tolerates it.
Squats are a great form of movement 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 technique are key. If you're not doing squats correctly, you could easily feel knee pain or get injured.