One of the most common strength training exercises is the squat. It can be done with a barbell (front & back squats), a kettlebell, dumbbells or even a medicine ball.
Done properly, squats do an excellent job of strengthening just about every muscle in your lower body and core.
So yeah, a pretty valuable exercise!
It is also one of the most common ways people get injured in a strength training program. Not everyone is ready to squat because they may lack the necessary flexibility and core strength required to execute them properly.
Yet for those that are ready to squat with a decent amount of weight, there are still a series of technique fixes you can apply to make sure you get maximum benefit from your squatting program while avoiding unnecessary back and knee pain.
FIX #1 - Get A Symmetrical Stance
This is about as simple as it gets. Often times inexperienced lifters will have their feet set with one slightly more forward than the other, or with one foot turned out more than the other.
Before starting your set, check to confirm your feet are even, and are either both pointed forward or equally turned out (30 degrees or less is recommended).
FIX #2 - Start Your Descent With A Hip Hinge
Proper squat technique begins with a bend at the waist, with the hips moving back and then down when initiating movement.
Some people start with a forward knee drive, shifting their center of gravity forward. This is problematic for your knees, and patella tendon in particular, because it places far too much strain on a joint ill-equipped to handle it. This forward shift also limits your ability to squat with depth, as we'll discuss in a bit.
Practice squatting without weight using the hip drive back at the start, and even use a box or chair to tap behind you if necessary, before squatting with significant weight.
FIX #3 - Knees Out!!
Those who experience pain on the inside of their knees when squatting heavy are almost certainly allowing one or both of their knees to crash inward.
Common sense tells us you need a vertical line of support under a heavy barbell to avoid problems, yet weakness in your hip muscles can cause you to lose this position under the strain of the exercise.
One way to fix this, if it is simply an awareness issue, is to place a mini band around your knees and practice squatting while pushing out into the band. Use light weight while practicing.
If the issue is more a hip muscle weakness, you'd be better served strengthening your hips before attempting to squat at weights that cause your knees to buckle in.
FIX #4 - Ankle Alignment
It's not just your knees that can collapse inward.
Your ankles may also roll in as well during the bottom portion of the squat. This can also cause knee pain, but if you squat long enough with heavy weights it can alter the structure of your ankle joint and make you more prone to lower body and back injuries over time.
If you do this, it is almost certainly an ankle flexibility issue. Take the time to fix your ankle mobility restrictions before squatting heavy weight.
FIX #5 - Get Low On Your Squats
The top half of your squats primarily strengthen the quadriceps muscles on the front of your legs. However, the hamstring and glute muscles on your back side do not get engaged until you get close to a parallel (to the floor) thigh depth.
Squatting without depth leads to muscle imbalances that increase injury risk over time. More immediately, losing out on hamstring and glute development limits your speed capabilities.
All of the reasons above can make it nearly impossible to squat low. It could also be a balance issue, as your nervous system may not be comfortable putting you in a potentially dangerous situation it doesn't feel ready for.
Or perhaps it just takes experience in feeling what proper depth is. Practice with lighter weights down to safety bars or a bench to get a feel for squatting to the depth you need for maximum success.
FIX #6 - Never Trade Extra Weight For Proper Technique/Depth
In a rush to squat heavier weight, you may be tempted to sacrifice part of your technique or depth to hit the lift.
Don't do it.
Your body is in a constant state of adaptation, and heavy squats will definitely provide a stimulus for change inside you that can destroy the healthy foundation you had before.
Imbalances between quad and hamstring muscles lead to joint injuries, muscle strains, and slower play.
Bones, ligaments and tendons slightly adapt their shapes and density where they receive the most stress. This will impact your mechanics in a range of skills, along with potentially producing chronic pain as you age.
You always want to improve of course, but in an exercise as intense as heavy squatting you want to take 'sensible bites' when it comes to increasing loads.
FIX #7 - Avoid The Bounce At The Bottom
Those who have excellent lower body flexibility may be tempted to use a bounce at the bottom of a low squat for momentum. This strategy takes advantage of the elastic properties of your ligaments, tendons and muscles to sling shot you out of the bottom position.
I'd advise against this for athletic purposes specifically because you are taking away one of the best benefits of squatting - the ability to decelerate at high stress.
One of the main ways strength training lowers injury risk is by building your muscles capacity to absorb high forces without buckling or straining. Squats, when you can decelerate at the bottom under complete control, are probably the best exercise to help you build this skill.
Ditch the bounce, control the weight, and watch your deceleration skills improve.