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Safe Squatting

Within the past week, I have been reminded three times that the misconception that squatting is bad for your knees still exists. What is truly amazing is that the three people whom I have heard say this all come from vastly different backgrounds. One is an active person in their 20’s who works out 4 to 5 times per week, another is a generally active 50 year old who enjoys yoga and other forms of activity such as walking and bike riding, and the final one is actually, incredibly, a doctor. After hearing this from such a wide array of people, I thought this week’s post should address why people sometimes feel discomfort in their knees from squatting, and how we can fix this problem.

First, let me first say this loud and clear. SQUATTING DOES NOT HURT YOUR KNEES. For those who say you should never squat, let me ask, how do you get out of a chair? Out of bed in the morning? Stand up off the ground after playing with your dog or kid? All of these movements involve a squat. Rather, what typically happens is that someone is squatting incorrectly (more on that below) and this causes their knees to hurt. As they certainly are not attempting to squat using improper technique, they chalk this up to squatting being an unsafe exercise and decide to scratch it entirely from their workouts. I would venture a guess that they are committing one of the following errors:

Common Squatting Mistakes:

 

  • Lack of Depth: One surefire way to make your knees hurt when squatting is to not squat past parallel. This means that your hip crease travels past your knees at the bottom of the squat. By doing this, you ensure proper hip activation and drive, thereby taking the stress off of your knees (where it shouldn’t be) and onto your hips. When you squat above parallel, the opposite happens and your knees take the brunt of the force.
  • Fix It: The best exercise to increase depth I have seen is the goblet squat. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest and squat as you usually would. Most people have no problem getting to correct depth while goblet squatting. Another option is to place a medicine ball behind you, and then squat until your butt just touches the ball.
  • Knees Going Valgus: Valgus is a fancy way to say “turning in” and typically happens as you start to raise out of the bottom. This is an unnatural movement and places a good deal of stress on your ligaments. In fact, if you look at someone tearing their ACL or other cruciate ligament, often times you will see the knee going valgus as the injury happens. If it happens during injury, why would we want to ever see it in the gym?
  • Fix It: First, use a lighter weight. This is often a technical breakdown seen when someone is putting too much weight on the bar. Second, think about screwing your feet into the ground and consciously push your knees out as you stand up.
  • Heel Lift: Another common error I see is an athlete losing contact between their heels and the ground. This will create instability in the lift, often causing one’s knees to go valgus, and also put unnecessary stress on the front of the knee.
  • Fix It: While the typical coaching cue here is to say “sit back into your heels” I actually prefer an active approach such as “grip the ground.” By focusing on grabbing hold of the ground with the toes, you ensure that your entire foot is in contact with the floor, and you are driving through the middle of the foot. We don’t want heels to come off the floor, but we don’t want your toes to come off, either. Another option is to put a small plate or piece of wood under your heels. Sometimes, an athlete lacks ankle mobility to achieve a proper squat, and this makes it slightly easier. However, this should be supplemented with ankle mobility drills so the plate can be removed as quickly as possible.
  • Leading with the Knees: This is the trickiest mistake to catch, and the least dangerous, but it is nevertheless extremely important. Remember that when squatting, the hips are the dominant force and therefore should be the drivers of the lift. When an athlete leads with the knees, their knees bend first on the descent, causing instability in the bottom and lack of hip activation and drive. This can lead to some discomfort, and also will limit the amount of weight you can move (power generated) while lifting.
  • Fix It: Consciously think about moving your hips first on the descent and ascent of the lift. Think about sitting back into a chair, and then explosively standing up at the bottom. You should feel slightly more powerful than usual if you are doing this correctly.

 

There you have it, some of the most common errors I see on the squat. If you correct these, your squatting will be safe, and your knees will be happy. So get out there and squat, people.

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