Bulletproofing Your Knees

Tuesday, 08/29/2017

Do you have pain in your knees every time you squat to parallel? How about during lunges or jumps?   Ideally, your knees should be able to flex and extend pain free throughout a full range of motion when you squat, lunge, or jump. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many people, and as a result, a lot of athletes eliminate movements from their program unnecessarily. Fortunately, there are many ways to address knee pain and restore function. In this article we are going to take a step by step approach to fix your achy knees.


Step 1: Look at Your Exercise Programming


In order to master a movement like the squat, you need to squat often. Ideally you should be doing some variation of the squat 2-3 times per week. This could be in the form of a back squat, front squat, split squat, goblet squat, or any other variation you can think of. Constantly varying your squatting movements will keep you from overtraining one particular version of the squat.


To give an example of this, let’s take a look at the back squat vs. the front squat. Both are great ways to squat, but the emphasis of the movement is different for each squat. Your hips are more active in the back squat in comparison to the front squat. Your quads on the other hand will be more dominant in the front squat in comparison to the back squat.


It is important to note that a squat is considered a knee dominant movement. In order to balance out your squat, you will need to perform hip dominant (hip hinge) movements as well. You should be doing hip hinge variations 2-3 times per week. The hip hinge can take the form of a deadlift, trap bar deadlift, kettlebell swing, good morning, or any variation you can think of. Hip hinge movements are a great way to strengthen the glutes. Having strong glutes will keep your knees from caving (preventing injury) and will help you sit back in your heels as you squat.


Another aspect you need to look at is the amount of plyometrics you are performing. When we jump, gravity is pulling us down with a force that is 1.5 – 3x greater than our body weight. The impact from landing takes a great toll on our joints, especially if proper landing mechanics are not applied.


Although we would never say that you shouldn’t include jumps into your training program, knowing when to apply them will be of great value in order to increase your strength and prevent injury. Do NOT perform endless repetitions of plyometrics as a conditioning tool at the end of your workout. You will be tired at the end of your workout, and your landing form is going to pay the price.

DO use plyometrics as tool to activate your nervous system before you strength train. Performing a whole body movement such as a jump that requires the muscles to contract quickly is a great way to prepare your nervous system to lift heavy weights.


Step 2: Revisit your technique


Once you’ve gotten your exercise programming together, it’s time to take a look at your technique. When a squat is performed correctly, there should be no knee pain (baring a pre-existing condition). When you squat, be sure to do the following as you perform the eccentric (muscle lengthening) portion of the lift: 1) Stand with your feet at shoulder width with your toes slightly pointed out, 2) Push your hips back, 3) Drive your knees out, 4) Keep your heels flat, and 5) Make sure your back is strong and flat.

On the concentric (muscle shortening) portion of the squat, 1) Drive your hips up and forward, 2) Extend your knees pushing them outward, 3) Drive through the three points of your foot (heel, great toe, and pinky toe), and 4) Keep your chest up.


 Improper form: Knees Cave in                           














Proper Form














It is also important to understand what “good” or “proper” depth is. There are many arguments of what good depth is. Different body types will squat differently, but for the purposes of this article, we are going to say “proper” depth is achieved when the hips are either parallel with, or below the knees.


There is a limit to how low you should go however. Do not force your body into a depth that it is not ready for or you will get the dreaded “butt wink” and could do some serious damage to your lower back. Butt wink is when your lower back rounds and your pelvis rotates back which will lead to an injured back.


Improper Depth                                                














Proper Depth














"Butt Wink" 














If you fail to have your hips reach knee level when you are squatting, you are performing a “partial” which will primarily work the quad. Although there is nothing wrong with a partial squat (they can be great for developing the quads, or stimulating your central nervous system with heavy weight,) if your goal is to engage as much musculature as possible, you should not be performing partials. Your glutes and hamstrings engage the most when you squat to “proper” depth. If you are squatting parallel, or below parallel you can be sure that your glutes are firing. When your glutes are firing properly you diminish the amount of stress placed upon your knees.


Now that we’ve cleaned up your squat, let’s take a look at your landing mechanics if you are performing any kind of plyometric jumps as part of your program. When you land, check for the following; 1) your shoulders are in line with your knees, 2) you are landing on the balls of your feet 3) your knees track outward when you land, and 4) your back is strong and flat. Landing with sound mechanics will help ensure you don’t get sidelined with a knee injury.


Improper Landing Position                                              


Proper Landing Position                                                  


Step 3: Address Your Lack of Mobility


When dealing with your squat, and pain in your knees, ankle mobility is the number one culprit. If your ankle cannot dorsiflex properly, a lot of stress is placed on your patellar tendon. In order to help your ankle dorsiflex when you hit your squat, we recommend doing some soft tissue work before you train.


Calves (Foam Roller)

  1. Place one foot on top of your shin to apply pressure on the calf against the foam roller
  2. Begin rolling the inside, middle, and outside of the calf, starting towards the ankle


Once you roll the calves, it’s time to loosen up your hips and thighs. If you do not have adequate hip mobility, you will either have a butt wink when you try to squat to parallel, (which will wreak havoc on your lower back), or you won’t be able to squat to parallel. When preparing the hips and thighs, we recommend using a foam roller or lacrosse ball for the hips, a barbell for the quads, and a lacrosse ball for the hamstrings.


Hips (Foam Roller)


  1. Cross one leg over the other as you sit on the foam roller
  2. Roll back and forth over the glutes and piriformis of the leg you have crossed


Hips (Lacrosse Ball)

  1. Place the lacrosse ball in the side of the hip and draw small circles with your hip on the ball
  2. Work your way from the side of the hip towards the tailbone


Quads (Barbell)

  1. Place a barbell at a 45 degree angle across the body
  2. Beginning just above the knee, slowly roll the barbell up the quad towards the hip


Hamstrings (Lacrosse Ball)

  1. Sit on a hard flat surface and place lacrosse ball under your hamstring
  2. Roll around on lacrosse ball until you find a tender area
  3. Extend and flex your knee once you find an area of tension


Step 4: Perform muscle activation before you train


Once you’ve finished your soft tissue work, it’s time to fire up the glutes. Hitting some muscle activation for the glutes is a must if you want to squat without aggravating your knees. Although there are many exercises you can do, we have listed a few below that are easy to implement and do not require a lot of set up time.


Band Walks

  1. Place mini band around ankles
  2. Step laterally left and right putting tension on the band


Fire Hydrants

  1. Assume a tabletop position
  2. Keeping your knee bent, raise one leg out to the side


Hip Circles

  1. Assume a table top position
  2. Fully extend your hip and knee backwards, then draw big circles with one leg


Outside Leg Raises

  1. Assume a table top position with one leg extended out to the side
  2. Keeping your knee straight and using just the hip; lift your leg off the floor


Step 5: Stretch Post Workout


Technically, stretching could be classified in step 3 as mobility (there are plenty of stretches you can do before you lift,) but we decided to give stretching its own header at the end of the article. DO NOT neglect stretching post workout! Stretching post workout is an ideal time to hold stretches for a longer period of time since your muscles are already warm. Below are a couple stretches we recommend to increase you hip mobility post workout.


Standing Pigeon Stretch (hips)

  1. Place one leg across a box at a 90 degree angle
  2. Press your opposite hip forward and rotate the hip that is on the box backward


Lizard Lunge with External Rotation (hips and hip flexors)

  1. Place one foot in front of you so that your knee is behind your shin, and extend your opposite leg behind you
  2. Roll to the outside of your foot and press your knee away from your body


Squat Hold with Reach Back (hips and thoracic spine)

  1. Keeping your heels flat, squat down as deep as you can comfortably hold
  2. While keeping you heels flat, reach one arm up as you try to touch your bicep to your ear


Ankle Stretch Using Resistance Band (calves)

  1. Place a resistance band around your ankle and loop the other end around a fixture
  2. Keep your heel flat as you push your knee forward to that it goes past your toes
  3. The resistance band will act to pull your shin backwards, facilitating a stretch in your ankle




Although the journey won’t be easy, understanding the 5 steps above will give you a roadmap to fixing your knees. Remember, every solution to pain when training begins with sound programming followed by proper technique. Once you understand programming and proper technique, you will know why your pain exists.


Performing some soft tissue work before you train will greatly alleviate how much stress is being placed on your knees. Making sure your glutes are firing properly by doing some muscle activation before you train will ensure you are targeting the muscles the exercise is supposed to engage. Stretching once you’re done will help you stay mobile and is the final step in bulletproofing your knees.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. We would like to invite you to try out one of our strength sessions to see how we can help you get in the best shape of your life while staying safe doing it.


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