The Squatting Mistake That Hurts Your Knees

Squats get a bad rap as knee killers. Here’s how to make them joint-friendly.

by Tony Gentilcore for Men’s Health.

Whenever someone mentions that squatting hurts their knees, I ask them to show me how they squat. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a small piece of my soul dies as I watch them. I tell them: “Squatting doesn’t hurt your knees; whatever you’re doing right now hurts your knees.”

It’s a concept that other strength coaches and I try to get across to our clients. There is a proper way to squat that won’t cause harm—and then there is every other way. Unfortunately, I rarely see them executed the proper way. Let’s get one thing straight about squat form, though: There is alwaysgoing to be some forward movement of the knees when squatting. Telling someone that the knees should never go past the toes because it’s dangerous is an archaic fitness myth. It needs to die.

That said, allowing your knees to excessively move forward so that your heels come off the ground can get you into trouble. That’s when you end up placing more stress on the knees. I see this happen a lot. That’s why I utilize the box squat. Not only do they help groove a rock-solid squat pattern and keep your shins more vertical so your heels stay on the floor, but they also take stress off the knees and place more of the load on your hips.

And that’s important, because your hips are a larger, more prominent joint than your knees. They’re designed to handle larger loads. If squatting hurts your knees—and you’re not suffering from an injury—it’s because you’re making your knees do more of the work than the hips. Learning how to utilize the hips during a squat is important if you want to make them more joint-friendly. Box squats can do that.

Box squats also keep people honest with their squat depth. Some will tell you that squatting past 90 degrees is dangerous and that it places more stress on the knees. That’s another myth. Squatting through a full range of motion is healthier for the knees and makes them stronger. Here’s how to do it:

1. Start with a box that’s 14 or 15 inches high. Note: The box height can be adjusted depending on your body type. As a rule of thumb, your thighs should be just below knee level when you’re in the bottom position of the squat.

2. Perform the move without weight first. Once you get a hang of it, place the box in a squat rack, unrack the bar, and stand in front of the box with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.

3. Your toes should be rotated out at 15 to 30 degrees.

4. Begin your squat by breaking with your hips. Sit back while simultaneously pushing your knees out and trying to spread the floor with your feet. You don’t need to push your knees out to the point where all of your weight shifts to the outer portion of your feet. You just need your kneecaps to stay in line with your middle toes.

5. Gently touch the box—don’t plop—with your butt.

6. Reverse the movement back up to a standing position, squeezing your glutes at the top.

In order to master the pattern, repetition is key. Do box squats twice a week for six to eight weeks. On the first day, do body-weight box squats only. Perform three sets of 10 reps. After a couple of weeks, you can add a light load for two or three sets of eight to 10 reps. On the second day, use a heavier weight. Do three to four sets of four to six reps.