I came across an article the other day that listed all sorts of reasons why squats should “never” be done — most of them revolved around them being “dangerous” and “causing pain and injury”.
After reading that article, I did a Google search and found a bunch of other posts saying the same thing.
For the record, vehemently disagree!
I think that the so-called “fitness experts” pushing this false information probably need to reevaluate their career choice.
A note to squat-hating fit-pros: If you can’t teach the majority of your clients to squat pain free or to help them develop the requisite mobility and strength to do so, then the issue is your coaching, not squatting.
Squats are essential — regardless of whether you do them weighted or not.
Think about it… It’s a movement that you have to perform everyday, multiple times a day. How often to you sit down and get up from a chair? Or from the toilet?
Not only that, squats are highly effective for strength gain, muscle building, and fat loss.
They’re also one of the seven primary movement patterns — along with the hinge, push, pull, lunge, weighted carry and rotation — that make up the foundation of a well-designed, balanced training program.
So… If your training program doesn’t include some sort of squat variation, then it’s flawed.
In most cases, squats are completely safe — as long as you use proper technique and assuming you don’t have some sort of preexisting injury that affects your ability to do them safely.
If it “hurts” when you squat or if you “feel” them in all the wrong places (like your knees or lower back for example), then you probably need to tweak your technique, improve your mobility, and/or fix some muscle imbalances.
There isn’t one simple fix because what causes issues with one person’s squat might not be the cause of another’s. This is one of the reasons why individualization is a vital part of exercise programming.
Before you can make the necessary adjustments to your squat (or to your training program), you have to identify the cause of your specific problem.
Here are the 8 most common causes of “painful” squats and how to fix them…
1) Going Too Big Too Soon
If it hurts when you squat or if you can’t get below parallel, then the simplest and most obvious explanation is that you’re trying to move too much weight.
If you load up the bar before your body is ready for it, then you’ll sacrifice technique. More often than not, this will involve cutting range of motion — so doing partial squats — or pitching your body forward. Either way, you’re putting added stress on your knees and lower back and increasing your risk of pain and injury.
How to fix it: Check your ego at the gym door. Piling weight on the bar and then doing a shallow squat isn’t going to impress anyone. The only thing it’s going to do is reinforce poor technique and set you up for pain and injury. Understand that full squats are often safer than shallow squats because the deeper you go, the more muscles you recruit. Focus on technique first by using a weight that you can control throughout a full range of motion.
2) Lack of Mobility
This is one of the most common causes of squat pain or technique issues that I see when starting with new clients.
A proper squat requires quite a bit of ankle, hip and thoracic spine (upper back) mobility. A lack of mobility in one or all of these areas can cause poor movement mechanics, technique compensations, or pain when squatting.
Lack of ankle mobility will cause you to shift your weight into your toes or lift your heels off off the ground as you descend, putting extra stress on your knees.
Immobile hips most often cause to too much forward lean during the squat which will prevent you from reaching full depth and will also put added stress on your lower back.
A stiff, immobile thoracic spine will cause you to compensate by overextending (or overarching) your lower back, which results in pain and stress on that part of the spine. It also causes your shoulders to round forward which reduces your ability to produce enough tension to support the bar, especially in the back squat. Overall, a lack of thoracic spine mobility will prevent you from squatting to full depth and will also often result in lower back and/or shoulder pain.
How to fix it: Incorporate ankle, hip, and upper back mobility exercises into your warm-up. Doing this will help you have a better squat workout but will also improve your overall mobility and reduce joint pain and stiffness over time.
3) Not Creating Enough Tension
When you set up for a squat (or any other lift) it’s important to create tension and eliminate slack from your body. If you miss this key step, you’ll lack control and stability and increase your risk of pain and injury.
How to fix it: Use a proper setup. Establish your stance (width will vary from person to person) with your feet straight or just slightly turned out (5-10 degrees). Then go through the bracing sequence:
- Screw your feet into the floor to create an external (outward) rotation torque.
- Squeeze your glutes to set your pelvis.
- Align your rib cage over your pelvis and then tighten your abs to hold it there.
- Stabilize your shoulders by pulling them back slightly and rotating your hands out a bit.
- Look forward and keep your bodyweight distributed over the front of your ankles.
Maintain the tension that you create during your setup as you squat.
4) Incorrect Breathing
Breathing is often overlooked, but it can have a huge impact if you learn to do it correctly.
If you’re inhaling as you descend into your squat and exhaling as you drive up, then you’re not creating enough intra-abdominal pressure. This, along with the bracing sequence described above creates stability in your torso.
How to fix it: Take a deep breath at the top of each rep, brace your torso, and hold your breath as you descend. As you come up, exhale forcefully through pursed lips at the most challenging part of your lift. This breathing method makes your squat stronger and more stable, while reducing your risk of injury.
5) Initiating The Movement From Your Knees Instead Of Your Hips
This issue is more common amongst novice lifters. Sometimes they’re so focused on keeping their torso upright that they drive their knees forward to initiate the squat. It’s a simple technique fault, but it makes it nearly impossible to squat to depth and puts added stress on the knees and lower back.
How to fix it: Focus on reprogramming the first six inches of your squat. After you perform the proper setup and bracing sequence, initiate the squat by reaching your hamstrings back. Drop your knees out slightly and then start lowering your body into the bottom position.
6) Leaning (Way) Too Far Forward
If you initiate the squat properly by reaching your hamstrings back, your torso should lean forward a bit. A forward lean ins’t a problem until you’re so far forward that you’re hingeing instead of squatting. An extreme forward lean prevents you from squatting to depth, stresses your lower back, and increases your risk of injury.
How to fix it: This problem is most often caused by lack of tension and/or lack of mobility. To fix it, ensure that you’re creating tension on your setup (as described in section 2 above).
If you’re performing a back squat…
- Grip the bar firmly and create an external (outward) rotation torque on the bar by rotating your hands outward slightly.
- Screw your shoulders into the backs of their sockets.
- Keep your elbows directed toward the floor.
- Keep your chest up.
You’ll also want to focus on improving ankle, hip and thoracic spine mobility by including a few mobility drills in your dynamic warm-up.
7) Overextending (Overarching) Your Lower Back
Failing to organize your spine into a neutral position by using the bracing sequence described in section 2 will often cause you to collapse into an overarched lower back position as you initiate your squat. Overextension can also occur if you’re too focused on “keeping your chest out” or maintaining a tall torso.
This fault is problematic because as soon as you lose control over your pelvis, you lose stability throughout your entire body, which limits your ability to produce force. So you can’t lift as heavy and you put stress on your lower back.
How to fix it: Again, focus on your setup. Create full body tension before initiating your squat and be sure to keep your abs braced throughout your set.
If you setup properly and still end up overextending your lower back, then the problem can be related to hip mobility. If your hip capsule, hip flexors, and quads are tight, they’ll pull your lower back into an overextended position after you initiate the squat. If this is your issue, include a few hip mobility drills in your dynamic warm-up and work on loosening up those tissues over time by incorporating lacrosse ball smashes and other self-massage techniques as part of your cool-down or active recovery routine.
8) Collapsing Knees
This one is pretty self explanatory. If you see or feel your knees drop in — like they’re about to knock — as you drop into your squat, then you’re placing some serious strain those joints. It’s important to fix this fault before you hurt yourself.
How to fix it: Collapsing knees can be caused by a technique fault, mobility issue or weakness. Start by addressing technique first. I know I’m beating this point to death, but create full body tension using the setup described in section 2. The part of the setup that addresses this fault particularly is “screwing your feet into the floor”. From there, focus on driving your knees out as you descend into your squat, if you do this correctly, your knees will follow the same line as your baby toes.
If you focus on using proper setup and squat technique but your knees still collapse in a bit, then you’ll need to improve both hip mobility and glute strength. Include mobility drills that target your hip flexors, quads, adductors (inner thigh muscles), calves, and ankles. And incorporate a few glute accessory exercises like hip thrusts, clamshells, and lateral band walks into your program. Goblet squats and squats variations with a mini-band or slingshot above your knees are also helpful.
Summary and Action Steps
If you’re having trouble squatting — whether it be pain or lack of range motion — the solution isn't to avoid them.
The squat is a basic human movement and training it makes you better at sports, fitness, lifting, and life in general.
If you want to improve your squat, practice. Practicing the movement will help you develop the coordination, stability, mobility and strength required to perform a pain-free, full range of motion, heavy squat.
Beyond that, focus on…
- A strong setup.
- Creating and maintaining full body tension.
- Improving your technique.
- Working on your ankle, hip and upper back mobility