The health impacts of squats have long been debated. Certain populations, such as those with arthritis and knee injuries, may experience pain while engaging in squat exercises. In contrast, fitness and recovery experts often tout the many health benefits of squats.
Squats have been found to be beneficial for strengthening the knee, which supports prevention of and recovery from common knee injuries.1 They’ve also been reported to improve cardiovascular health because they can reduce fat and create leaner muscle mass.2 Proper technique is essential, however, to reap the benefits of squats.
Benefits of Squats
Squatting was once an integral part of human life. Before urbanization and technology, hunter-gatherer populations spent large amounts of time in active rest poses, such as squats.
A sedentary lifestyle, which is more common in the modern world, has been linked to numerous chronic ailments, including heart disease, while the active rest postures of our ancestors have been linked to improved cardiovascular health and mortality rate.2 This is because squatting requires light muscle contraction. In other words, it’s more physically active than sitting in a chair, and physical activity is crucial for elevating heart health.
Are Squats Bad for Your Knees?
It is believed that deep squats increase pressure on the knee joint, which can contribute to knee pain and degeneration. This is inaccurate.
A review of research on this topic found that deep squats don’t contribute any pain or damage to the knee joint compared with half and quarter squats.3 This is because the knee displaces the additional tension incurred during a deep squat, ensuring that the weight is balanced throughout the knee and surrounding tissue.
Moreover, this review showed that squats can actually be beneficial for knees. When attempted properly, deep squats strengthen the knees. A practice of deep squats is also great for preventing knee injury.
Squats for Rehabilitation
Squats can be a helpful exercise to include in injury rehabilitation. Specifically, research shows that squats can strengthen the quadricep muscles more safely than isokinetic exercises (like a stationary bike) in people with ACL injuries.4
Additional research points to the importance of the ACL in deep knee bends. Deep squats engage the ACL more than half or quarter squats, which keep the knee at a larger angle. This shows that deep squats are an important part of rehabilitating the knee, especially when the intensity is gradually increased under supervision from an expert.1
When to See a Doctor
If you feel pain doing squats, it’s important to check your form. Performing squats inaccurately can lead to pain in the low back or knees. If you still feel pain when completing a squat with proper form, or if you’re recovering from an injury, see a doctor to make sure squats are beneficial for you.
Proper Techniques for Squats
To receive all the health benefits of squatting, it’s important to use the proper form. Follow these tips:
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hip width
- Keep your spine straight and your shoulders down
- Imagine your heels are glued to the floor
- Actively press your knees outward so they are pointing in the direction of the second toe
- Engage your core to keep your lower back flat
- Lower your hips deeply, but keep your knees at a right angle
- When you stand up, press your feet into the earth and straighten your legs
Another way to get used to proper squat form is to imagine you’re sitting down in a chair while doing a squat.
Modifying Squats for Beginners
If you’re new to squats or you have a condition like osteoarthritis, squats may be more difficult. However, modifications can make squats more accessible.
A great beginner modification for squats is to use a chair. Sit on the edge of a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Then, press into the heels and engage the core to lift your glutes off the chair. Rest here for a moment, then return to the chair. You can repeat these chair exercises multiple times to help your body get used to the new movement.
A stability ball provides another great way to do a squat. Place the stability ball between your back and a wall. Then, slowly guide the stability ball downward until you’re in a squatting position. This will provide you with more support in a squat position. The extra pressure you place on the ball strengthens the muscles needed to hold a freestanding squat, including the glutes, quadriceps, and back.
Lastly, you can improve your form by holding a weight while squatting. A dumbbell or kettlebell encourages core activation, which is key to doing this move properly. Holding extra weight also requires you to keep your back and neck straight as you squat. Plus, it’ll boost the strengthening of your lower body while toning your arms and shoulders.