Are squats and lunges bad for my knees?
No. In fact, if you have healthy knees, squats and lunges should form the foundation of your lower-body training program. These highly functional movements translate to nearly every sport, working multiple muscle groups and quickly elevating your heart rate. Those who have a previous knee injury may experience pain and soreness in their knees from exercise, but so can an overzealous exerciser who does too many impact exercises in addition to a schedule of heavy squats and lunges. Regardless, if your knees start launching a complaint campaign, it’s worth a listen.
The first thing to do is investigate your exercise form, because if your form is faulty, you’re likely to experience pain somewhere down the line. Here are some key points to remember for each move:
- Align your knees with your second or third toes.
- Your knees can pass your toes as you descend if your weight is centered over your midfoot.
- Your hips go back first, as if sitting in a chair, then your knees bend.
- Your forward knee should be stacked over your heel throughout the move.
- Your feet should be spaced hip-width apart — not one behind the other — to maintain balance and control.
- Your action is straight up and down — not pushing forward into your knee.
If your form is on point and you’re still having issues, try these alternative options.
- Front squats — though actually more knee-dominant — can help correct your squatting form because they require you to sit back into your heels so you don’t fall forward.
- Hack squats or stability-ball squats in which you lean back mean less hip and knee flexion and less stress on your patellar tendons.
- Opt for squat-like movements that emphasize the hip hinge over knee flexion, such as kettlebell swings or barbell deadlifts.
- A back-step lunge is less stressful because it shifts the work into your hips rather than your forward knee.
- Hinge forward from your hips during a Bulgarian split squat to shift the focus off your working knee and into your glutes and hamstrings.
- Experiment with single-leg movements that are similar to standard lunges such as step-ups, stationary lunges or lateral lunges.
When planning your programming, make sure you have a balance of knee-dominant moves like squats, lunges and step-ups and hip-dominant moves like bridges, hip thrusts and deadlifts. Plan high-impact workouts like running or plyometrics on non-leg days, and of course, always include plenty of recovery such as foam rolling, stretching and non-impact cardio. Finally, be kind to your knees, and if something is causing pain, take care of it. You’ll have happier joints and better lifting longevity.
Much controversy exists over the risks of squatting below parallel, or “ass to grass.” A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared stresses to the front of the knees during varying squat depths and loads in female exercisers. They found that a bodyweight squat can be taken to full depth without issue. However, the addition of weight to a squat at any depth increased the stress on the knees, especially when working with about 85 percent max weight.
Remember that “stress” doesn’t necessarily equal “danger” for a trained athlete with healthy knees, but novice lifters and those coming off an injury should practice more caution while squatting, especially with weight.