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  • Writer's pictureLaura Flynn Endres

Do Squats Hurt Your Knees? Do These Exercises Instead

I have several clients who can't do squats due to injury, or severe arthritis, etc. Therefore I have them do other exercises to work their leg muscles.

Depending on why squats hurt, doing these alternate exercises for a few months to work up the strength, muscle endurance, mobility and proper form allows them to level up and do squats without pain or severe discomfort.

It's an exciting moment!

Squatting is a fundamental movement so it's important to have the ability. You squat when you sit and stand up from the toilet, from the dinner table, and so on.

Having severe limitations to a fundamental movement means a lower quality of life and also a greatly increased risk of injury and falls. It even adds a layer of worry to your daily living, and that alone isn't ideal.

First, here are a few things you might be doing wrong to cause pain when squatting.

You might find you simply need to change the way you're doing squats!


Stand in front of your kitchen sink and place your hands on the edge with your fingers curled around the edge and into the basin. Lower with control, using your arms to assist, then press through your heels to return to standing.

You could hold onto anything sturdy - a railing, a post, etc.


Gone are the days of believing proper stance means every person standing with feet hip-distance apart and toes facing forward. New studies show that our hip ball and socket joints can be radically different, making different squat stances comfortable for different people.

When you find your proper - and comfortable - stance, you'll know because...

  • You'll be able to keep your feet flat - not lifting heels or toes or rolling outward or inward - throughout the squat

  • You won't feel pinching, pressure, or restriction in your hips throughout the squat. Your hips will move smoothly.

  • Your thighs will be approximately parallel with your feet — if you could look straight down from above one thigh, it will in line with your foot.

Try the following stances and see if one makes squats feel better:

  • Try a closer stance, with knees hip-distance apart or even closer, toes pointed forward. Sit only partway down into the squat.

  • Try a wider stance with your feet turned slightly outward. Just be sure your knees also face outward and bend in the same angle as your feet face.

  • Try an extra wide stance, sometimes called "sumo squats," with wider than hip-distance apart, and legs, knees, and feet turned outward. Think of your feet as pointing to the front right and front left corners of the room.


Where the problem starts (ankle, for example) might be different from where the problem or pain shows up (knee). Lack of ankle mobility is a common problem, and most would never realize it. If ankle mobility is a factor, this will help.

Stand with your heels resting on something - two small weight plates if you're at the gym, or a folded up towel if you're at home - and toes on floor. It'll be like you're wearing low, 1-inch heels. Try lowering into a squat and pressing back up and see if it feels easier.

If so, you'll want to add ankle mobility and flexibility #exercises to your workout plan.



If you find you really can't do squats without pain and discomfort (the wrong kind), let's build that leg strength in other ways.

Here is a sampling of the exercises I use with clients who can't do #squats.... yet!


This is a favorite. It target the quadriceps and hip flexors. Hold onto something for balance, or lean onto a countertop to get into a high inclined plank position. Exhale to lift your knee. Think about lifting it up and forward, rather than up and in toward you. You can alternate legs, repeat one leg over and over, lift and pulse at the top, and so on.

(Buy the mini-band loops here.)


This exercise targets the quadriceps and hip flexors too. Do these on the floor, as shown, or seated in a chair, leaning back lightly on hands. Think about making the lifting leg really long; reach away through the heel. Also, focus on flexing the front of your thigh as you lift and lower.

3. Bent Hip Extensions

This exercise targets the glutes, but it also works the hamstrings. Lean with hands or elbows on a table or bench, and flex the glute to press the leg back. One of my cues is to imagine you're pressing a heavy box away from you with the bottom of your foot.

Also, note the supporting leg should be slightly bent; don't lock out the knee. That leg will work hard to stabilize too!

4. Bridge Hip Lifts

This exercise mainly works the glutes but also the hamstrings. Push into your heels to work glutes more, or place your feet a bit further away from your hips and press into heels to work hamstrings more. Flex your glutes on the way up, and control the descent on the way down.

To make it harder, you can lift hold, lift and pulse, or do it with one leg only.

5. Step-Ups

This exercise works all the muscles in the legs. Start with the bottom step of a staircase and work your way up to higher. Get your entire foot onto the step or bench, and press down through the heel as you press up, not forward into the front of the knee.

Exhale when you step up, then control the descent and land gently - it's better for your joints!


Give these a try and let me know what you think!

If you need more ideas, I have a Lower Body Exercises Playlist on YouTube HERE.

Or, get in touch! I have training options for all budgets!

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