When you're exercising, you should be feeling better - but what happens when you end up feeling worse? Should you just give up if your routine is causing you joint or muscle pain? While specific movements really should be avoided for some people, many times injury or pain is caused by improper form. Let's take a look at what to correct if squats are causing knee pain.
The squat is the one of the best exercises out there. It's rarely used outside the realm of organized athletics, but it shouldn't be. Many people associate squats with knee pain, either from experience or what they've heard. Squatting is as natural of a movement as running and should be incorporated into all workout regimes (barring any structural limitations i.e. knee replacement, etc.). The squat is predominantly a hip exercise, beginning with hip flexion (lowering portion) and ending with full hip extension (standing).
The primary muscle used when a squat is done correctly is also the largest one (cross-sectionally) in the human body: the gluteus maximus. Yes, there are many other muscles that are required in the squat, but having a sore butt lets you know you're doing something right. However, if you're experiencing knee pain when you squat, something is probably wrong.
A common movement fault when squatting (and the most common cause of knee pain) is initiating the descent by bending the knees. This creates a mechanical disadvantage, putting too much tension on the quads and thus the patella tendon (right below the kneecap). Instead, the squat descent should be properly initiated with the hips flexing and moving back, as if your were sitting in a chair. This loads tension on the hamstrings and glutes and allows the knee (a hinge joint) to move more freely. The hips keep pushing back as your weight shifts toward your heels (but not so much that your toes lift off the ground) as the torso descends. A knee angle of 90 degrees is the standard indication of when to reverse the move and begin to stand. The ascent is where most power is derived as the glutes engage to open up the hips. The knees should stay over the ankles, the ankles should not move or wobble and the spine remains neutral throughout the movement (neutral, not vertical).
Once you squat correctly, you will notice an immediate difference. But where you think your body is in space or what you move first may not actually be right, so having a professional evaluate your squat to identify faults and help you correct them will truly get you on the right track. Ask a trainer to help you improve this basic but difficult movement to strengthen your core and legs...and eliminate the knee pain!
Adam Truitt is a Fitness Trainer at Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Dayton, Ohio.