The short answer here is no. When done well squats are a great exercise when it comes to strengthening the musculature around the knee. The problem is, a lot of people lack the mobility to squat well.
You will often hear coaches tell their clients not to go below parallel (hip beneath the knee) when squatting, as it is “bad for your knees”. This is not a true statement. Generally people are what’s known as ‘quad dominant’, meaning they have a poor quad to hamstring ratio when it comes to strength. When you hit parallel you increase the recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings. The more you can recruit the glutes and hamstrings the more stability at the knee.
There are a few reasons why you might experience knee pain when you squat:
1) Lack of mobility at the ankle
If you are tight through your calf as you sit into a squat you will struggle to keep your heel down. When your heel comes up during a squat it obviously forces your weight into your toes which isn’t where you want it to be. When your weight is through your toes it turns the squat into a very quad dominant exercise and creates a shear force at the knee. You want the load to be distributed through your glutes, hamstrings and quads which comes from keeping your weight in your heels.
2) Valgus knee force
A valgus knee force is when your knees collapse in when you squat which puts pressure on the MCL ligament of the knee. When you squat, actively drive your knees out nice and wide. This action will also act to get your glutes firing during the squat.
3) Weak core and lack of thoracic extension
Thoracic extension means extension of the upper back. When you lack this and have a weak core you will struggle to maintain an upright torso whilst squatting. If you don’t extend your upper back you will again force your weight into your toes. Your quads and lower back will also have to compensate for what your glutes, hamstrings and abs aren’t doing.
4) Going too heavy
A lot of people squat with their ego and it turns into a good morning exercise, which again will transfer the weight forward into the toes (notice a common theme here). Sort your bodyweight squat out before your start loading it. Click here to see how your bodyweight squat should look like.
5) Weak Glutes
Points 1-4 above will lead to weak glutes, specifically the glute medius. When your glute can’t deal with the load it is put under it transmits forces from the glute down the IT band and to the patella tendon causing pain. This is one of the main reasons you need to look at the cause rather than the symptom when it comes to knee pain.
We use the wall squat at W10 performance as a way of teaching people what it feels like to keep the weight in the heel. To perform a wall squat stand facing a wall with your palms flat on the wall and squat as low as possible. Squats are an incredibly good exercise regardless of your training goal – so work on your mobility and get a bar on your back!
More squat videos and tips from W10 coaches: