Squats are a great lower-body exercise that can help keep your knees healthy by building the muscles that support them. But if your knees cave in like a baby deer when you squat, you’re putting them at risk for injury. The first step is to figure out why that’s happening. From there, you can tweak your squat and improve your technique.
Here are five reasons why your knees might cave in, and their corresponding easy fixes.
1. YOUR STANCE IS WRONG
Squats come in all shapes and sizes. No two people will squat the same, so it takes time to find your ideal squat stance. The proper stance will allow your knees to stay in line with the toes.
The two most common stance mistakes are standing too wide and pointing the toes straight ahead. Instead, stand a bit narrower (closer to hip-width apart) and turn your toes so they’re pointed slightly outward. This will put your hips in a more natural position because, for most of us, our hips are naturally rotated outward.
If you struggle with a body-weight squat, try holding a light dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest. This will turn on your abs and make a narrower stance more manageable.
2. YOU DON’T USE YOUR FEET
It might sound strange, but most people don’t use their feet properly while squatting. By actively using your feet, you can prevent your knees from caving in while also targeting your glutes more effectively.
There are two main strategies for incorporating your feet into squats: The first is spreading the floor and the second is corkscrewing the floor. Both methods turn on your glutes to help keep your knees straight.
To spread the floor, move your feet away from each other in a lateral direction. Imagine trying to rip a wet paper towel between your feet. If you have a resistance band, place it around your knees and squeeze out against it as you squat.
Corkscrewing the floor works similarly to spreading the floor, but it works better if your knees cave in as you stand up from the bottom of the squat. Imagine trying to spin dinner plates under your feet in opposite directions. Spin the right foot clockwise and the left foot counterclockwise. This works especially well for lifters with flat feet by creating a better arch and more stable ankle position.
3. YOU DON’T BRACE YOUR CORE
Your core muscles control your pelvis, which dictates your hip position. The knees follow the hips, so if your pelvis is out of position, your knees will follow. Bracing your abdominals and obliques properly can keep your knees from crashing in as you squat.
Many lifters overarch their lower back in an attempt to stay upright (see photo). This dumps the pelvis forward and narrows the space in the hip sockets. To make room for the femurs (thigh bones) as you lower into the squat, the lower back rounds and the knees cave in, which lets you squat lower at the expense of your knees. Bracing the abs effectively fixes this problem in a snap.
How should you brace your core? Tighten your abs like you’re about to get punched in the stomach. This should decrease the distance between your ribs and your hips (see photo). Maintain this position throughout the entire squat to keep your knees in the proper position.
4. YOUR ADDUCTORS ARE TIGHT
Your adductors (inner thigh muscles) stretch as you push your knees out during a squat. If your adductors are tight, they can pull your knees inward as they relax at the bottom of the squat. Stretching and foam rolling are your first lines of defense against tight adductors.
Foam rolling helps tight muscles relax and can loosen you up before your workout. Unfortunately, the adductors are tough to hit with a foam roller. Using a tennis ball or lacrosse ball while sitting on a box or chair can get those hard-to-reach places. Beware, this can be uncomfortable, but a better squat makes it all worth it.
Once you’ve rolled your adductors, mobilize them with a few dynamic stretches. The alternating lateral lunge with overhead reach stretches the adductors and shoulders while activating your core, making it a perfect presquat exercise.
5. YOUR GLUTES ARE WEAK
Your glutes are hip external rotators, meaning they turn your knees and feet outward. If your glutes aren’t strong enough, they won’t be able to keep your knees turned out as you squat. Targeted glute training can remedy this issue — and may likely result in a great looking backside.
Side-lying clamshells focus on external rotation. Add a few sets to your warmups to get your glutes ready for squats.
Single-leg hip thrusts target the glutes one side at the time while sparing your knees. Rest your upper back on a bench and do high reps for a challenging body-weight glute exercise.