My journey to Safe, Pain-Free Squat Technique

Squats are renowned as being an exercise you should do. Some go so far as insisting it’s the single best exercise there is. But if you’re not blessed with short femurs and a long torso, or simply don’t know how to do it, it can be an awkward movement that leads to constant pain and injury.

That was the case with me, squats always hurt my knees and back. Over the years I kept experimenting with technique and finally found a method that permitted a very deep squat with no knee or back pain. It can be distilled down to two things:

  • Rethinking the squat as a hip exercise as opposed to a leg one.
  • Consciously using my glutes to keep my hips open throughout the movement.

Squat Technique

Contents

Hail Squats, the King of Exercises

You know the drill—squats are the best exercise in existence and if you don’t do them, you’re soft. But if leg development and living up to the machismo of physical culture comes at the cost of destroying your lower back and knees, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Done safely, squats can be a great exercise, though. There’s something special about loading up your back with hundreds of pounds, squatting down, and standing up with it. Using a machine for leg training just isn’t as satisfying.

Squat Morning to You, Good Sir

As fundamental and natural a movement as squatting is, it’s strange how bad at it many of us are when we attempt to do it with a barbell. Perhaps it’s the introduction of weight on the shoulders that throws us off, I don’t know, but someone new to lifting will normally do an awkward hybrid between a good morning and a squat. Excessive forward lean, pushing through the toes, too much quadriceps involvement, caving chest and knees.

Even after years when I should have known better, that was my technique, and the resulting lower back pain and knee damage made me mostly avoid squatting. Long thigh bones lead to the assumption I just wasn’t built for them, and seemingly unavoidable pronounced forward lean and injuries seemed to support that.

But eventually I began to feel like I was leaving a lot on the table by not squatting. As such, I redoubled my efforts to find a technique that worked with my body. Even with my awkward build, surely there was a way.

So I began researching and testing in the gym.

Squat Basics

There are some basic principles that apply to most lifts—they almost go without saying, but are important so I’ll list them.

  • Core should be braced and tight with neutral spine and pelvis, lower back neither rounded nor excessively arched.
  • Inhale on the lowering part of the movement, and hold breath or exhale slowly as you push upwards. Alternatively, and what power lifters tend to do for maximum performance, hold breath at the beginning of the movement and don’t let it go until the repetition is completed (the extra intra-abdominal pressure is reputed to help generate a bit more power, although it seems to be contentious).

Additionally, the bar should be in a comfortable position on the trapezius muscles or just below. To generate upper back tightness, the hands should grip tight, positioned as close to the shoulders as comfortably possible.

Stance width and foot angle is a matter of experimenting and finding what feels best and where you’re strongest.

Hip Mobility

Adequate hip mobility is integral to healthy squatting, especially to go deep. Mine was initially far from adequate, which lead to lower back problems for many years. I have another article in which I detail fixing up my sore back and improving my mobility. For now it’s enough to say that increasing my hip mobility was another important step on the way to pain-free squatting, and if yours is causing you problems, you must address it.

Funnily enough, I actually used the squat itself to increase my hip mobility.

Hips Not Legs

It seems so obvious squats are a leg exercise, and to be sure they are great for legs in general. However, that idea is exactly why I struggled with injuries for so long. The biggest factor enabling my safe performance of squats was thinking of them instead as a hip exercise.

Good form comes far more readily considering them this way. Think “legs”, and in the case of squatting this leads to over-reliance on the quadriceps, pressing through the toes, knee misalignment, and too much lower back involvement. Thinking “hips” on the other hand reverses these problems, and engages and emphasizes the glutes, which cleans up form automatically, drastically minimizing injury risk.

This change in approach is probably the most important part of learning good squat technique. Even if you didn’t read another word, just doing this might be all you need to transform your squat from disaster to ultimate strength, mass, and health builder.

Be forewarned, though, for me going from leg to hip emphasis meant stripping weight right back and basic relearning in order to train my backside to take its share of the work. But it was a monumental improvement and one of the best investments in training I’ve made—your ego will survive using light weights temporarily.

Lingering Knee Instability

The above change got me most of the way to where I needed to be. From the injury and pain perspective, one of the most noticeable things was reduction in back stress. Indeed, as outlined in the article I linked to above, squats were a big part of completely fixing the ongoing back pain I’d suffered for years.

But while shifting to a hip emphasis helped reduce pathological knee stress a lot (particularly vertically), it still didn’t totally clear up my tricky knees, particularly with a very deep squat. There was a side-to-side instability that meant my tendon problems remained.

Enter the Cue

In the context of exercise, a cue is a simple idea to focus on that leads to good technique, either with the intention of improving performance, or aligning the body to enable healthy execution of a movement.

There are many requirements in order to perform a good squat—core stiffness, chest position, coordination of breaths, leg alignment, etc—and simultaneously trying to keep them all in mind is too much. That’s why simple cues can be very effective. A good one gives you a basic thing to keep in mind and causes everything else to automatically fall in line.

I’ve had success with common cues for some exercises—bench pressing (‘pulling the bar apart’), and deadlifting (‘pushing my feet through the floor’ instead of standing up with the weight), for instance. That’s why I thought it might be helpful to look for some squat cues, too.

Squat Cues

In my hunt for squat form perfection I found quite a few cues. Some I found early in my search were:

  • Chest up.
  • Use feet to ‘spread the floor apart’.
  • Push through the heels (instead of toes).

Those helped get things in order and transform my previous train-wreck form into a serviceable pattern. ‘Chest up’, prevents the upper back collapsing and lower back taking over out of the bottom, thus it’s very useful for preventing lower back stress. The latter two go a long way towards refocussing the movement from the quads to the hips.

But because leg misalignment and sore knees remained, I kept looking.

I found and tested more that were directly leg-position related and looked promising, including:

  • Push knees outwards throughout the squat.
  • Make the toes ‘grip the floor’.
  • ‘Screw feet’ into the floor.
  • Keep knees in the same plane as the feet.

Still no use. My knees kept up their perpetual niggles—no major injuries, but enough pain to be a distracting annoyance and interfere with progress. For me, common squat cues were good, but only up to a point.

High and Low-Bar

Squats are typically broken down into two major forms—the high-bar version, and the low-bar one. High and low refer to bar placement, high being set on the upper trapezius, and low being a few inches down, basically at the origin of the upper traps.

A low-bar squat normally implies a wide-stance powerlifting style involving a fair bit of forward torso lean, while high-bar is closer stance with a more upright torso.

I thought one way might lead to better knee health, so tried both. Any time I significantly changed my style my knee pain disappeared… for a while. Obviously these style aspects weren’t addressing the root cause of my knee pain. My hunt continued.

(Incidentally, I ultimately settled on a funny hybrid between the styles—low-bar position, but close stance. It’s just what ended up being most comfortable.)

Heal Elevation

Lots of people squat either with small weight plates beneath their heals or with olympic lifting shoes (which basically accomplish the same thing, just in a more comfortable, stable way). It provides a different stimulus, and is often used to overcome limitations in mobility.

Could heal elevation fix my knee problem? Anything was worth a try. For a while I squatted with 2.5 kg (roughly 5 lb) plates under my heals. Honestly it felt pretty awful—quite unstable and odd. So I bought the same fancy and expensive olympic shoes I’d seen Layne Norton wearing in one of his videos (as it turns out, the same ones the guy in the photo above is wearing).

The shoes were amazing, very high quality. They were extremely stable, comfortable, and made it feel like my feet were welded to the floor.

But my knees still stung. Further, I was actually stronger and more comfortable squatting in bare feet. I put my fancy red shoes on eBay and went back to the drawing board.

Limiting Range of Motion

Limiting the depth to which I squatted was the next idea I tried. Not squatting to a butt-to-heals position always struck me as unsatisfying, like cheating somehow. But if you’re simply not able to do something without incurring physical damage, it’s foolish to continue. Perhaps super-deep squats were just impossible for me to do safely.

Anyway, if it was good enough for the sport of powerlifting to require only squatting to parallel (meaning the top of the upper leg is parallel to the ground), maybe it was good enough for me.

With everything else I’d learned, this actually worked. I could squat to parallel completely pain-free. Mission accomplished!

And yet…

It still bothered me I couldn’t hit ultimate depth. I’d developed a bit of an obsession with it, and seemed to have resolved to either find a way to squat low or explode my back and knee joints trying. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

The Final Piece of the Puzzle

The strength of my resolution waxed and waned with the intensity of my knee pain. Then finally after years of shuffling my feet around, repositioning barbells on my back, and testing various styles, it came to me. It was again a matter of the proverbially underused glutes, but this time a very specific function of them.

The glutes aren’t just involved in vertical movement, they have side-to-side actions also. The trick to stabilizing my wobbly legs in the bottom of a squat was engaging this aspect of the glutes to pull my hips open, which in turn provides rock solid stability all down the rest of the chain.

Theoretically the cues I mentioned above should have addressed this, but even with the ‘knees out’ type cues, I found a way to move my upper legs out sideways without really using my glutes.

Therefore, the one cue to rule them all: during the squat, the hips should be kept open (as such) with glute strength.

Addendum: Knees No Further Forward Than Toes!

There’s a widespread idea out there that your knees should never come further forward than your toes when you squat. Apparently this will cut down on potentially damaging forces being generated, and keep your knees safe.

In my quest for the perfect knee-friendly squat, it seemed worth trying. Up until about a second after attempting to put it into action, that is. The fact is your knees will simply go where they go when you squat—it’s 95% determined by your proportions and limb lengths. We can slightly limit how far the knees stray out in front by using more of a hips back, powerlifting style, but that results in far more forward lean, which can lead to issues itself (in my case, it’s too much for my lower back). A partial range of motion will also limit forward knee movement, but again my aim was to squat deep.

In short this approach is a waste of time. It’s perfectly possible for the knees to quite safely track way out in front of the feet during a squat.

Conclusion

I initially hated the squat, partly due to the fact it’s just a very intense and demanding exercise, and partly due to the injuries my poor technique and awkward limb proportions resulted in. However, eventually the promise of the benefits it can provide fuelled a passion to learn to do it right.

In that vein, years of form exploration lead to a technique that enabled me to squat butt-to-heals in a safe way. Those years can be summed up with two ideas:

  • I had to rethink the squat as a hip exercise instead of a leg one.
  • To allow the absolute deepest squat possible, I had to consciously use my glutes to keep my hips open throughout the squat.

After so much struggle, now there’s little in the gym as satisfying as performing a perfect squat. It feels a bit like I’ve finally learned to fly.

Hopefully reading of my journey can help you avoid some of the pain and injuries I acquired along the way. Regardless, I’d love to hear about your experiences, just use the comments form below, or drop me an email.

Thank you so much for reading.

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