When it comes to planning a workout, squats sometimes get a bad rap. Sure, they're effective in toning the tush, but they can also be killer on the knees when you don't do them properly. Since there are often questions surrounding the right form, you might be tempted to ditch the squats in your workout. But squatting is perfectly safe if you take care to learn proper technique. Even if your knees have seen better days, you can modify the move to make it easier on your joints while still reaping all the benefits.
There's a reason trainers and workout programs still call for squats. While they're often performed incorrectly, when you nail the proper technique, they help tighten the hard-to-tone glutes -- the back of your thighs. In fact they work your entire legs and engage your core, making them ideal as a lower-body workout. You can also up the ante by holding weights while you squat to make the move more challenging and effective, as long as you have the move down pat.
Unfortunately, when the squat goes wrong, it can be downright dangerous. Allowing your knees to take the brunt of the pressure can cause you to strain and end up with sore joints later. In fact, the squat shouldn't be a knee exercise at all, but a thigh exercise. If your knees feel sore after a few squats, your form probably isn't as precise as it should be. Overextending the knees and putting the pressure in your joints could spell trouble.
The best way to describe proper squatting technique is to imagine yourself sitting in a chair. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hinge at the hips to press them down and back at the same time. Lower your bottom down like you're taking a seat, pressing down into your thighs for leverage, rather than your knees. As you lower, your knees should never extend past your toes. Rather, it should be your bottom that sticks out when you've squatted as far as you can, until your torso comes close to your lap. Your abs should be engaged, and the weight of your body should be mostly in your heels while your back stays flat -- never rounded.
If you've tried the right technique and your knees are still sore, try modifications that take some of the pressure off of your knees. For instance, you could try a half or quarter squat if a full squat bothers your knees. Or, try a supported squat: Grab an exercise ball and place it between your back and a flat wall. Press into the ball as you roll down the wall and back up again -- using the same proper squat form -- to relieve some knee pressure but still reap the benefits of a perfect squat.
Kay Ireland specializes in health, fitness and lifestyle topics. She is a support worker in the neonatal intensive care and antepartum units of her local hospital and recently became a certified group fitness instructor.