Explaining clicking knees during squats

knee clicking squatsClicking joints during exercise, or movement in general, can be both confusing and frustrating. The origins are not always clear, so when one of our clients found she experienced clicking in her knees during a wide-stance regular squat, but not during the similar movement of the sissy squat, we decided to give it some thought. Even though both these exercises involve bending the knees, the fact there was minimal clicking when performing sissy squats (or more traditional narrower knees style squats), but that there was clicking with the wider kneed, split-the-floor-with-the-feet style squats, tells us something straight away.

The clicking is a sign, essentially, that the patella is not properly aligned. So why are our knees better aligned in one squat than another?


Why there’s no clicking in the knees during sissy squats

Consider the amount of tension that runs through the quadriceps, its tendon and the patella during sissy squats: it is extremely high – it starts off high from first unlocking and gets higher and higher the closer we get to the wall. This is the whole point of sissy squats – they are about training the quads to work extremely hard, forcing a load through the patella with an ultimatum of “either track properly or hurt”. Because high tension is put through the patella as soon as the knees unlock, the activation of the quads must instantly be correct and the patella must fit in the femoral groove exactly right, straight away, and stay there. The constant tension on the quads ensures it stays there.

Narrower knee squats are not quite as “knee-intensive” as sissy squats, but there is still a high degree of tension through the knees from start to finish, as these use more of an up-and-down concertina style than the wide knee squats, where you have the clicking.


Why there is clicking in wide-knee squats

The wide knee style squats achieve the strongest squat technique possible, in the long run, because they work on getting strength and stability from the hips. The musculature around the hips have more potential to be stronger joints than the smaller knees, hence this style works the hips more than the knees. It may seem counterintuitive, therefore, that these were causing more knee clicking for the client than the closer knee squats, which theoretically put more stress on the knees.

However, it is precisely for this reason that the wide knee squats may make your knees click – there is not enough stress on the knees at the start of the exercise to force your quads to activate enough (especially the VMO) to pull the patella properly into its groove. It is only when the client got about a third of the way down that she had enough quad activation to pull the patella into place (when it clicked); from there down the tension in the quads kept the patella in place with no more clicking for the rest of the rep.

The success of the sissy squat exercise in treating patellofemoral pain is a signal that sufferers actually benefit from exercises placing high tension on the patella, as they need this to force their VMOs to act, which, without that forcing,are generally quite reluctant.

So what does this mean for you?

Simply put, the lack of clicking in sissy squats shows that the more you activate your quads, the better the patella will track. Meaning that if your knee clicks during wider-knee squats, you need to work your technique harder to track properly. This doesn’t stop at activating the quads. The more you can get the knees out, the more you can activate the glutes, the more your feet split the floor, the firmer the balls of the big toes are pressed down, the more the heels press the inside of the shoe, the better the patella will track – that’s just a case of the better the mechanics, the better it will work.

It’s not just the mechanics that can help, though. You can feel the strain, to better improve. By consciously thinking about putting more strain into the knees as you do the exercise, you might get VMOs to activate early on, with more quad tension and more accurate patella tracking from the start. By really trying to feel more of the load in your knees, it could help you get the tension you need.

If your knees are still clicking too much, there is an alternative to developing this style.

You could perform the squats by squatting the first rep down from the top to parallel (possibly incurring a click as you pass through the problematic point in your depth), but then keeping the rest of the reps moving from parallel to just below the problem point and down to parallel again, only returning all the way to the top again on the last rep.

This creates a lengthy spell of time under tension, so you would not be able to lift as much weight or perform as many reps, but hopefully it would allow you to train the improved glute strength and squat mechanics you need without incurring an irritating click of the knees on every rep. Across 5 sets of 5 reps, say, you would go from suffering 25 clicks to only 5 clicks. Over the long term this would help you get strong enough at correct form to the point where there are no longer any clicks even in that troublesome point in the range.


Try it, and let us know how you get on.

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5 Responses to Explaining clicking knees during squats

  1. Anne says:

    Thanks for your site. I had been working with a physio for three months (with very slow progress) on patella maltracking of my right knee when I discovered your site this past summer. Now that I understand, from your great info, all that is happening and have really been focusing on the exercise and “knees out” mentality, things are getting much better — quads are stronger, I’m in much less pain and am starting to be able to walk long distances again . But, I have recently developed a click in behind my knee when I go up stairs. Maybe in the past this was happening but I had never noticed because of the pain and soreness of my knee. Now that I have no pain, I do notice the click on every step. Same principle in that I need to focus on engaging the quads as I go up stairs?

    • Hi Anne, thanks for the compliments. We’re very pleased to read of your success. To an extent, the principle will also yield some improvements reducing clicking when climbing stairs. You may face some difficulties in applying it to stairs, however, as stair climbs usually involve a fairly short range of motion and the movement is performed very quickly, making focussing on engaging the quads and consciously loading the knees a little more difficult. But it is certainly worth trying. Failing that, you may need to try self-mobilisations of the patella (coming in an article on the site soon).

  2. Tom says:

    Hi Chris,
    Thank you so much for all of the info you have provided us maltrackers. I recently visited an Ortho Dr and was given a brace and a shoe wedge. I kept thinking that is only treating the symptom not the root cause! I really appreciate your approach and philosophy. I’ve recently begun your improvement process and have seen some resluts already. I do have a lot of clicking (not much pain) with sissy squats and was wondering if that will eventually clear up as well? I have no clicking or pain with full squats. Also I want to continue to do my cardio work (elliptical and bike) while treating my knees – is that OK by you? Thanks again for the outstanding guidance here!

  3. Pingback: Top 10 Most Popular Articles of 2014 - Part 1 - KneeStrength.com

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