Squats are one of the most efficient and effective exercises in your arsenal. They target multiple lower-body muscle groups and build leg muscles fast. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most common exercises that lead to complaints of knee pain.

Squats are simple in theory but are actually really easy to do wrong. Subtle issues of form, strength, or flexibility can lead to increased pressure or wear on the joints and tendons in and around the knee, all of which can be really painful. If you’ve been experiencing knee pain during squats, don’t just chalk it up to “bad knees,” there may be a reason for your pain and a simple solution to resolve it.

Below are 6 of the most common reasons that people experience knee pain during squats and what you can do about it. 

Reason #1 – Letting your weight shift forward

Letting your weight shift too far forward into your toes during a squat can put a lot of pressure on your knee joint and the surrounding tendons resulting in pain around the knee cap. If you notice your heels lifting upward or feel like the bulk of your weight is in your toes or balls of your feet, you may be guilty of this all-too-common error.

What to do about it

As you squat, make sure that you are applying pressure evenly with your entire foot, not just your toes. This will alleviate some of the pressure in your knees by distributing some of it to your hips and ankles. If you find that you have a hard time squatting with your weight distributed this way, you may be dealing with limited ankle mobility.

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Reason #2 – Not keeping knees and toes aligned

Another one of the most common mistakes that people make in their squat form is not keeping their knees in line with their toes and allowing them to collapse inward, known as “knee valgus.” This puts a lot of strain on the knee cartilage causing pain around the knee cap.

What to do about it

The most common cause of knee valgus is an inability to activate the lateral glute muscles. Therefore, the best solution is often to strengthen the glute muscles and train them to activate and stabilize your knees by doing exercises such split squats.

Reason #3 – Not actively engaging your hip flexors

When performing a squat, your hip flexors provide the stability that allows you to balance and sing deeply into the squat. If your hip flexors aren’t engaged, your center of gravity may shift so that too much pressure is put on your knees.

What to do about it

If your hip flexors aren’t engaging in your squat, it’s probably because your letting gravity do the work rather than actively “pulling” yourself down into the squat. One way to learn the pulling sensation that activates your hip flexors is by holding onto a band attached above your head while you squat.

Reason #4 – Weak hip or gluteal muscles

Your hip muscles, especially your gluteal muscles, are what provide stability to your knees during a squat. If these muscles are weak, you may not be able to maintain proper form or balance, putting pressure on your knees.

What to do about it

Add hip and glute strengthening exercises, like hip thrusts, to your workout routine.

Reason #5 – Limited ankle mobility

With so much focus on the hips and glutes, we often overlook the role that ankle flexibility plays in performing a deep squat. If you find that you have a hard time getting as deep as you’d like in your squats, it could be limited mobility in your ankles. This can, in turn, cause your knees to overcompensate. 

What to do about it

Simple ankle mobility exercises like calf stretches can increase your flexibility. 

Reason #6 – Overuse 

Even if your form is perfect, doing too much too soon can cause painful inflammation or wear and tear. Some of the most common conditions from overuse are bursitis, osteoarthritis, and patellar tendinitis.

What to do about it

If you think your knee pain might be cause by overuse, the best thing you can do is reduce your training and back off from the activity that is causing the pain. Pinpointing the part of your workout that is causing the problem can help you decide what you need to temporarily reduce. You may need to do that activity less often or reduce the number of reps or sets that you do. If you find that it is still causing pain, you may need to take a break from that activity entirely until your knees can recover. 

As with any exercise, taking your time and focusing on your form can go a long way toward helping you pinpoint the cause of pain or any other issue you experience. If you’ve addressed your technique, strength, and flexibility and ruled out the possibility of overuse and are still experiencing knee pain, it may be time to see your doctor.