When you’ve progressed through doing unweighted squats without pain, the next step is to work on perfecting your form. Proper form unweighted squats will really start to test your knee movements, and allow you to build up to weighted squats safely and without pain. Make sure your squats are flawless with these major points:
1. Keep your knees out
One of the reigning principles throughout our training and exercises, if you want to eradicate knee pain for good, is to keep your knees out. It’s a key point in sissy squats, in exercising in general, even for sitting down. If you can practise this principle effectively while performing squats, it will change your life.
Why? Because keeping your knees out will give you the strength and muscle balance to overcome patella maltracking. And it will make progressing through squats more bearable if you suffer from knee pain, as a wider base takes some of the strain off the knees.
So how do you keep your knees out? Firstly, prepare to succeed. Before you even start to bend your knees, rotate your thighs out so the knee caps point just outside the feet. Think about the direction your knee is travelling in, from your starting position to the end position, pushing the knee and shin out as you duck down. Never let the knee cave in.
2. Squat to a platform
Having a set platform to squat down to is both practical and psychologically beneficial. If you have knee problems, and have concerns about pushing yourself too far, the squat platform provides a safety net. Should something go wrong, you can sit down, rather than fall, and with that in mind you can perform the exercise more confidently.
A squat platform also provides a standard measure of how low you are squatting, so you can perform the exercise consistently. It allows you to pay attention to which part of your leg you touch down with, too, which will help you maintain the correct pelvis position.
3. Pelvis position
With your squats, your pelvis should be rotated forwards to ensure correct muscle tightness. The easiest way to establish correct pelvis positioning is to make sure you touch the squat platform with your hamstrings (rather than the seat bones you would use when reclining into a sitting position). You should be leaning forwards slightly. If the seat bones come into contact with the platform, the lower back will round and you will lose the curve of the spine.
Touching the hamstrings to the box loads the correct muscles in the leg (the hamstrings, the adductors) and tightens them. This way, they can react properly, lengthening under the load and gathering energy to shorten as we stand. If you release your back and hip tightness at the platform, by rotating your pelvis back, the leg muscles shorten at the wrong time, and lose all the elastic potential you’ve loaded to help you stand.
4. Chin position
When squatting, pull your chin in. It will feel strange, and look strange, but it helps align your body. It lengthens the back of your neck and pulls your chest up. If you don’t do it, your shoulders will hunch, your chest will drop, and your upper torso will suffer from a hollow and ineffective posture.
5. Keep your eyes focused
To help you maintain stability, and keep the chin tucked in, it’s sensible to focus your eyes on one point during the whole exercise. Look to a point slightly lower than seems natural, and fix your eyes there throughout the squat, and it will keep your head in the right position.
This is another case where theory is great, but practical demonstration is worth even more. Please check out part 6b of our self-treatment of patella maltracking guide for clear video demonstrations of all the above points. Then squat.