The squat is hands down the best exercise one can do to build strong legs. When done properly, it works the entire body, especially the hamstrings, glutes, quads, back, and core. However, many men and women complain that they get knee pain when they perform squats. There are a number of reasons as to why knee pain might occur, which are covered below. In most cases, the knee pain arises from months of doing squats with improper technique. Squats, when done properly, can actually help alleviate knee pain, as they strengthen the joints and muscles around the knee.
The first reason that some people experience knee pain is that they don’t use proper technique when squatting. Contrary to what you may have been told, it is important to at least hit, or break, 90 degrees when you squat. This means that your hips should at least be parallel to your knees. When a person squats but doesn’t go low enough (break 90 degrees), the quad muscles are forced to take on a heavier load, as the hamstrings and glutes aren’t being activated fully. This causes muscle imbalances, as well as unnecessary pressure on the knees, which results in knee pain. One the other hand, when a person breaks 90 degrees, the glutes and hamstrings are forced to work as well, reducing the burden on the quads and knees. For example, watch how deep power lifters squat.
Some gyms have certain machines that mimic the squat. The problem with these machines is that they force you into a fixed, linear motion, which may not necessarily be the most natural one. When doing squats, it is recommended that you use a barbell, since it will allow you to squat the most weight and help you build your back muscles. Even the Smith Machine should be avoided, as it constricts your range of motion to a linear sequence.
Not Warming Up or Stretching
Before doing squats, it is important to warm up your muscles and to stretch them. Some dynamic movements are recommended, mixed with static stretching. Going in cold and attempting to squat a heavy weight is a recipe for disaster, not only for your knees, but also your back, legs, and neck. In addition, always perform one or two warm up sets with a lighter weights before going to the regular weight that you would squat. For example, someone who squats 205 lbs for three sets would want to perform one set with just the barbell, another set with 135 lbs, and possibly a third warm up set with a weight in-between 135lbs and 205 lbs.
Starting too Heavy
A common mistake, especially for beginners, is starting off with too much weight, which compromises proper form. The heavy weight places too much stress on the knees, which may cause knee pain. Start with a weight that you can handle and work on your technique first. For example, practice with a weight with which you can perform 10 reps (meaning going below 90 degrees) for three sets. Once you have mastered the proper technique, then you can start adding weight and handling heavier loads.