Why Do Squats Hurt My Knees?

Capable of putting the largest muscles of our body through their paces, squats have become one of the most popular no-equipment exercises.

Yep, if you’re looking to burn maximum calories in a short amount of time, squatting is the way to do it, but sadly, not everyone gets on with these dynamic, leggy moves.

Many report that although they’d love to incorporate some squat variations into their exercise regimes, the knee pain the motion causes prevents them from getting through the first set, let alone the rest of the workout.

So, why exactly is it that everyone's favorite exercise is hurting your knees? Let’s discuss a few common causes and try to identify the issue.

Why Do Squats Hurt My Knees

Improper Form

Hopefully, your knee troubles all come down to improper form. If the only issue is that you’re squatting incorrectly, you can amend your technique, and voilà — you’re good to go!

Although the knees are an essential part of a squat, the pressure should always fall on the muscles of your upper and lower legs, such as the quads, hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors, rather than the joints themselves.

To squat correctly…

  1. Begin standing straight up with your feet hip- or shoulder-width apart.
  1. Keeping your back straight, bend at both knees, with your weight in your heels.
  1. Exhale as you go.
  1. Extend your arms straight out in front of you as you squat to aid in balance and to help keep your back straight.
  1. Keep your glutes above knee level on your way down, and only go down as far as it feels like a healthy burn. If it feels uncomfortable or painful, you’ve gone too far.
  1. At the base of your squat, ensure your heels remain firmly planted on the floor.
  1. If you can reach low enough, your thighs should run parallel to the ground.
  1. Ensure your whole body is facing forward — we’re talking hips, feet, and toes.
  1. Keep your back still, straight, and stable.
  1. Push into the heels of your feet, inhale, and return to a standing position, squeezing your glutes as you reach the apex of your stance.
  1. Pace yourself. Squatting too fast can put unnecessary strain on your knees.

A Sprained Knee

You’ll normally know if you’ve got a sprained knee as it can make even small, everyday movements really quite painful, but here’s the thing… It's quite difficult to determine when a sprain is totally healed.

I myself am guilty of this. You’ll get most functionality back after an injury, and think… Hey, I must be good to get exercising again. But the truth of the matter is that you’re probably still healing, even if you’re walking around pain-free.

Give yourself a little more time to recover, and when you think you’re all better, before going full throttle with some squats, why not try building up to it with a week or two of mild daily knee-strengthening stretches.

Tendonitis

Connecting your muscles to your bones, tendons are the glue that holds you together and keeps you moving! Tendonitis is the swelling of these connective tissues due to overuse and repetitive movements.

If you play a lot of sport or have a physically demanding, repetitive job, there’s a good chance that tendonitis is the cause of the pain in your knee when you squat.

Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to ease the effects of tendonitis in the knee, including…

  • Resting up
  • Using compression supports. I’ve had a reasonable amount of luck with this IPOW Knee Pain Relief & Patella Stabilizer in the past, but if you’re looking for something a little more robust, I can’t speak highly enough of the TechWare Pro Knee Brace Support.
  • Icing after significant movement.
  • Taking a course of OTC anti-inflammatory meds.
  • Easing yourself back into exercise gently.
  • Keeping your knee elevated during resting periods.
  • Doing gentle knee strengthening exercises regularly.

Runner’s Knee (Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome)

Much like tendonitis, runner’s knee can be caused by overuse, but it almost always in part pertains to a structural defect or idiosyncratic way of moving as well.

This common condition is largely treated in exactly the same way as tendonitis, with lots of rest, icing, OTC anti-inflammatory meds, elevation, and easing back into dynamic movement.

Arthritic Knees

There are three main types of arthritis that can affect the knee:

  • Osteoarthritis attacks the cartilage of a joint. It can leave the knee feeling painful, stiff, and swollen. It can affect people of all ages, but is mostly diagnosed in people over the age of 65.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition, meaning the body does it to itself. Joints are affected all around the body, but you may well feel it first in your knees.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis is a degenerative condition that can affect injured joints.

Arthritis can be hard to live with, but the effects can be minimized in a number of ways, including…

  • Low impact exercise
  • Using compression braces
  • Anti-inflammatory meds
  • Physiotherapy
  • Surgery

Arthritis experts also suggest squatting with your back against the wall with your feet set 18 inches ahead, as it can take a lot of the pressure off your knees while still allowing you to work your large muscle groups.

Tears in Tendons or Cartilage

Both cartilage and tendons are fairly tough customers, but a severe injury can cause tearing of one or both. If this is indeed the case, I’d highly recommend wearing a maximum support knee brace such as this Shock Doctor Compression Sleeve.

Tears in tendons and cartilage will usually require surgery, but sometimes, physiotherapy is all the body needs to recover. Until then, squats are out of the question!

IT Band Syndrome

The iliotibial band is a long stretch of tissue that runs between the hip and the knee. Should this tissue become swollen due to injury, it can put strain on the front of the knee during dynamic exercise.

The good news here is that IT band syndrome typically clears up in around 4 to 8 weeks, as long as you rest up and take it easy.

Final Thoughts

If you’re suffering from knee pain when you squat, your first port of call should be to assess your technique, but if that’s not the issue, I’d recommend visiting your doctor as soon as possible.

Once you’ve recovered, remember to take things nice and slow. Work on strengthening your knees before you try squatting again, and always warm-up before a workout!

Kevin Harris
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