Fitness

Why Do Squats Hurt? (And How to Fix The Problems)

It’s been called the best exercise for fat loss and muscle gain.

It’s also made the list of the most overrated exercises, and many well-known trainers even avoid it completely when they create programs.

No matter how you view the back squat, one thing is undeniable: squatting is an essential movement, regardless of whether you perform it with weight on your back.

One key for squats is making sure your front foot heel does not come up and your foot remains flat.

If you’re not doing some variation of the squat, you’re training plan is most likely flawed.

And yet, you’ll see plenty of arguments about why you shouldn’t squat. And all of the reasons revolve around how easily it is to end up hurt.

The compound, multi-muscle nature of a squat is exactly what makes it so great…and it’s the same reason why it’s difficult to do without causing injury or “feeling” the movement in all the wrong places. (Hello lower back pain!)

The reality is that there isn’t one simple fix because your problem might be different than someone else. And despite widespread belief, there’s not even one squat depth that’s universally correct—how low you should go depends on who you are. (Remember, personalization is a vital part of exercise.) Instead, to address any issues you feel when you squat, the best approach is to identify why you struggle, and then make the necessary adjustments.

Whether you back squat, front squat, or perform single-leg variations, these tips and cues will ultimately make you better at squatting, identify weaknesses, and help prevent injury and pain.  

The Problem: Lack of Control

When I watch someone squat, the first place I look usually surprises people. I observe your hands, and then your upper back. Why? Because most people barely take hold of the bar. They spend so much time trying to find a comfort spot on their shoulders that this miss a key first step.

Squat Like a Pro: When you set up for a squat, you want to grip the bar as hard as possible and try to pull your elbows under the bar. If you just drop into a squat, you’ll feel unstable during the movement. More tension equals more strength. By squeezing the bar as hard as you can and bracing your torso, you will create full body tension.  This tension will allow you to exert your maximal amount of (force) effort and lift the most weight, without getting injured.

The Problem: The (Extreme) Forward Lean

Falling forward transfers the weight away from your quads and moves it to your glutes and hamstrings. This isn’t always a bad thing, until you’re so far forward that the movement really isn’t much of a squat any more. Unless you’re an advanced powerlifter using incredibly heavy weight and going deep, you want to be mindful of preventing your chest from bowing towards the floor.

Squat Like a Pro: Work on keeping your elbows pulled down (facing the ground) and your chest up. This will ensure that the torso remains more upright throughout the lift.

You’ll also want to focus on your flexibility and mobility (more on this soon). Tight ankles, hips and upper back will prevent you from hitting a good squat pattern. And this will only get worse as the weight increases. A good warm-up and working on increases your mobility will help you hit a full range of motion (ROM) with good form.

The issue could also be linked to weak quads. Your best best is to strengthen knee extension and stability with exercises like step-ups, Bulgarian split squats and lunges.

The Problem: The Heel Trick (using weight plates)

I spend more time than I’d like on the road, but it allows me to visit many gyms and observer different trainers. It’s always interesting to see what trends seem to be popular, and one that pops up everywhere is the old “elevated heels” squat trick. You’ve probably seen in or done tried it yourself.

The ideas is that you place a  5- to 10-pound plate under your heels to help achieve a deeper squat. By putting the plate under your heels your are compensating for a lack of ankle mobility.

Ankle mobility is an issue for most everybody because of our reliance of stabile footwear during the day, at work or when we play sports. Losing this mobility will not allow our shins to move forward naturally as we squat down. They will remain more vertical.

Squat Like a Pro: A better approach? Adding ankle mobility drills, which help restore normal ankle movement and improve squat form. One popular drill requires you to face a wall in a staggered stance with your forward foot about 1-foot away from the wall.

Then, try to drive your front knee forward towards the wall as far as you can. One key for squats is making sure your front foot heel does not come up and your foot remains flat. Slide your knee forward and back tracking over the toes for several reps and multiple sets.

The Problem: Going Big…Prematurely

As you lower your body into the depths of the squat (the hole) your leverage advantage decreases.  By cutting the range of motion, we are able to move more weight, which is typically why most lifters squat above parallel.

Squat Like a Pro: As I already mentioned, many people have an issue with stability or mobility, but before even testing for that, the simplest fix is the most obvious: drop the weight and strengthen your legs in a full range of motion. If you can make it into the hole with less weight, the problem might simply be that you’re going too heavy. A greater range of motion with the correct weight will build more muscle and leave you less susceptible to injury

The Problem: Flexibility

This was my personal battle for nearly 5 years until I decided to do something about it. Sometimes when you squat down and feel tightness in your hips, glutes and hamstrings, the issue might not be bad technique or a weakness. Instead, you might have a legitimate mobility or flexibility issue. I know I did, and until I identified the weaknesses, all the squatting in the world wasn’t going to solve the problem.

Squat Like a Pro: Working on ankle, hip and upper back mobility and including a thorough warm-up (done barefoot if possible) prior to squatting, will go a long way in helping you achieve a great squat session. Not only that, you’ll feel amazing the rest of the day. Movements like squat to stand, striders and ankle mobilization drills can be added to your pre-squat routine.

The Problem: Collapsing Knees

This is pretty self explanatory. Watch your knees as you squat. A little bit of movement can be OK. But if one knee looks like it wants to kiss the other (or both knees are making the move), it’s time to fix the issue and prevent a serious injury before it happens.

Squat Like a Pro: This could be a technique flaw, mobility issue or a weakness. The walls squat is simple way to test if this is an issue (without needing weight).  Stand facing a wall with your feet about 6 inches away. Squat as far as you can. You will immediately see if your hips, ankles and upper back have any mobility issues and you’ll notice how your knees track.

If this is an problem, shift to Goblet squats, making sure you go as deep as possible, while keeping your lats and core braced and forcing your knees knees out. This will provide dynamic mobilization of your hips.

Warning: this probably won’t be enough to fix the issue. Strengthening your glutes  will help you keep your knees out during squats. Glute bridges and barbell hip thrusts will be your primary focus for your glutes, which are your primary hip abductors and will reduce the weakness causing the collapse.

The Problem: Incorrect Breathing

This is one of those concepts that is so tiny, but can have a huge impact once you learn to do it correctly. If you are inhaling (deep breath in) as you move downward into the squat and exhaling as you drive up and out of the hole, you’re not taking advantage of intra-abdominal pressure (IUP). This, along with the bracing of your torso, is your natural lifting belt.

Squat Like a Pro: I know what I just said sounds normal, but here’s what you should do instead: catch a big breath at the beginning of the rep and brace your torso. Then, squat down and as you come up, exhale forcibly through pursed lips at the most challenging portion of the lift. This tension and bracing will help keep you safe and injury free.

The Problem: You’ve Squatted and You Can’t Get Up

It’s a pretty lonely feeling to squat down with weight on your back and suddenly realize you can’t stand back up. Not to mention, it’s incredibly dangerous. Here’s how to make sure you don’t find yourself in that (unfortunate) position.

Squat Like a Pro: Glute bridges, sled pushing, low box squats and bottoms up squats will strengthen this crucial part of the lift. Bottoms up squats are performed by setting up a barbell in the power cage at the bottom position of your squat. Get under the bar and squat the weight up and back down to the pins.

The Problem: Using a Belt on All Sets

Belts (much like lifting straps) are not a bad thing. But you need to know how to use them appropriately. They should be there for assistance and not reliance. When squatting, there are a lot of lifters who wear a belt for all their sets. This much dependency on a belt will not help you develop a strong, functional core.

Squat Like a Pro: By putting off wearing a belt until the heavier sets, you’ll be increasing your overall full body strength and potential for remaining injury free. As a rule of thumb, you should work up to the point where you don’t put on a belt until you are around or greater than 85% of your one rep max (1RM).

The Problem: Too Much Back Squatting

Squats are one of the best lifts for packing on size and building real strength.  But there are other squat variations that can bring new life into your program and build different strength profiles.

Squat Like a Pro: Front squats (more quad dominant), zercher squats (very strong core and upper back engagement component) and powerlifting squats (more hips, glutes and hamstrings) can all be incorporated into your program. You will continue to get stronger and be less likely to hit a plateau.

The Problem: Missing Supplemental Exercises

For their lower body day, most lifters hit squats and then a few sets of leg curls and leg extensions. The exercises aren’t bad, but they leave much to be desired if you want to be a better squatter.

Squat Like a Pro: The majority of your training should be centered around compound, multi-joint movements.  And just like squats, your supplemental exercises (done after your primary movements) should be compound movements. By incorporating more exercises that target the posterior chain, you will be building the muscle groups required for a big squat. Movements like Romanian deadlifts, dumbbells swings, dumbbell step-ups, good mornings and prowler pushing are essential in your tool box.

The Problem: Squatting in Running Shoes

I know, I know. You don’t want to buy separate shoes for squatting. Completely practical. But understand that thick soled running shoes are not a great option to squat in. The instability of the cushion increases your risk for injury as the weight increases.  A shoe with a harder sole or even squatting barefoot are better options.

Free Guide: How To Improve Your Squat, Deadlift, and Bench

READ MORE: 

The Mystery of Squat Form: How Low Should You Go, Really?

Why Weight Machines Are Better Than You Think 

The Tension Weightlifting Technique: How to Make Every Exercise More Effective

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