Every time I attend a HIIT class, I let the instructor know ahead of time that I’m not going to be participating in any knee-intensive shenanigans—box jumps, for example. I’ve got old-lady knees, I tell them. The truth is, I started having knee pain after several years of doing “bad” squats. What is a bad squat, you ask? The short answer is: one that hasn’t been assessed by a professional.
Weirdly, sometimes what causes knee pain has little to do with your knees. “A lot of times, the pain can be attributed to something that’s happening up or down the chain—for example, at your hip or at your ankle,” says Heather Milton, a senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center in New York City.
There is a formula for a good, stable squat (which I’m about to share with you), but keep in mind that this is just a loose prototype and the specifics will depend on your body and its limitations. “Flexibility and mobility are like the foundation of a house,” Milton says. “You can stack on as many bricks as you want, but if you don’t have that foundation, you’re putting strength on top of disfunction.”
Here’s the general form you should have when you’re doing a squat, according to Kristie Alicea, a certified personal trainer and founding trainer at Beast Fitness Evolved in Brooklyn:
1. Bring your feet hip distance apart or a bit wider, depending on where your hips are (some people’s hips externally rotate naturally—again, this depends on their flexibility). There should be a slight outward turn of your toes—about 30 degrees.
2. Keep your weight in your heels and the outside of your feet as you drive your seat back and down.
3. Your knees should be driving out towards your last two toes on the way up and down. (This is the tiny but powerful thing I was not doing which, Milton confirms, ended up putting too much pressure on my knees.)
4. Maintain a long spine by pulling your belly button in to engage your core. Lengthen the back of your neck so your head is in line with your spine.
5. Lift your chest and pull your shoulders back and down towards your spine.
6. Your end position should be: hips directly under your shoulders, engaging the back side of your legs—glutes and hamstrings—as you come up.
Here's Kristie's demo in slow-mo, for your squat-revering viewing pleasure:
Have a qualified trainer who’s worked with a variety of bodies help you adjust this formula to make it your own. That first step is one of the most important to consider tailoring. “If you’ve ever noticed yourself going into a squat and your feet are super turned out or one foot is more turned out than the other, it could be due to tightness of the muscles that actually help to rotate the hip or it could be anatomically the joint itself,” Milton says.
Implementing squats into your workout can help you build core strength and muscle in your glutes, hamstrings, and quads (your stabilizers), so it’s valuable to know how to do them in the most effective way. And doing them wrong—when you consider the potential for injury (e.g.,old-lady knee)—is worse than not doing them at all. “We need to be careful about how we cue squatting,” Milton says. “We want to make sure it’s something someone anatomically can do.” If there’s any tightness or imbalance in the muscles, she urges you to address that before you push through a motion that your body might not be able to handle.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.