How to do unweighted squats without knee pain

unweighted squatThe single most important exercise for knee strength, and for health and fitness in general, is the squat. When you reach your perfect level of fitness, you may squat to platforms as low as 12 or 13 inches, bearing incredible loads and pushing your knees about as far as your toes. When you’re suffering from patella maltracking, though, bending your knees a fraction over the foot may be excruciatingly painful. You can get around that pain by doing unweighted squats with a few minor compensations, laying the foundations for a squat without compensations later.

The picture above shows the correct movement we will ultimately aim for with the unweighted squat. Squatting low, with the knees moving along the foot, may not come easily: and if you suffer from knee pain, those are the two criteria we need to adjust to make unweighted squats possible. The video below explains how to do a more manageable unweighted squat, with demonstrations (part of the patella maltracking treatment series), with further explanation below.


1. Squat to a higher platform

There’s no need to go too low to begin with, rushing into a position that is difficult or painful for you. Using a regular training bench, or whatever platform is convenient to squat to, you can use pieces of wood to provide comfortable variations of height. Start out higher, and gradually progress.


2. Limit your knee movement

If you prevent your knees from travelling forward too much, you can control how much load they bear, and how painful the exercise is. The best way to do this is to exaggerate how far you sit back with your hips. With a correct squat, your chest and shoulders remain in line with the feet and you sit back a short distance, with the knees moving to around the end of  the toe. However, by sitting back further, balancing by leaning your upper body forward at an angle more shallow to the ground, the knees need not travel far at all. It may still hurt, even with the slightest knee movement, so sit back further and only move your knees as much as you feel comfortable.

To clarify the movement, please do watch the above video for a proper demonstration.


Progression of the unweighted squat

Without forcing any extra knee movement, you can progress in the unweighted squat by gradually lowering the height of the platform you squat to. The aim is to squat to a height where your thighs are parallel to the floor. Then, combining this training with your sissy squats and our other advised techniques, you can start to introduce more load to your knees.

At first it will feel like your back is doing most of the work – it is, and this is not ideal for a correct squat, but it is necessary to introduce the unweighted squat to those with knee issues. As you start to travel your knees forward more, approaching the toes, this puts more load through them, and then the legs will start doing more of the lifting. And then you will be squatting like a genius.


Making these compensations and practising the unweighted squat gives you the opportunity to progress in the most important exercise possible, no matter how bad your knee pain. It provides a starting point to squatting, and will give you the confidence needed to resolve your knee problems. Yes, it may seem like a challenge, but as our three keys highlight, it’s only through pushing yourself through such challenges that you will heal.

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5 Responses to How to do unweighted squats without knee pain

  1. Alex Stern says:


    How far apart should the feet be from each other?
    Also what degree angle should the feet be pointed out?
    I’m paranoid that one foot is at a sharper angle than the other…

    Thanks for your help,

  2. Hi Alex,

    The width of your feet is dependent on how much confidence you have in your knees right now. If you have little confidence in your knees at the moment, your heel width may need to be slightly outside the width of your shoulders in order to give you a wider “base” between the knees as you squat. This distributes more of the load onto the adductors to cushion the load through the quads and knees. However if you have built up better confidence in your knees you can narrow your heel width to shoulder width or even slightly inside. With the narrower stance there is less load on the adductors, so the quads and knees take more of the load, but you will find it easier to get the knees out.

    Foot angle should match the angle of your thighs. So it ranges from feet at about 45 degrees with a wide stance, to about 30 degrees with a shoulder width stance, to parallel to each other with a close (hip-width) stance.

  3. Pingback: Perfecting unweighted squat form

  4. Sarah says:

    Hey chris this helped me alot!!! I have healed one of my knees – the left one to be precise -and i am now working on my right knee through this technique.
    I am really grateful for all your articles. You gave me hope when i had none. I cannot wait to message you as soon as my right knee is pain free. I have always been a silent reader. I just wanted you to know your articles helped me alot to recover. i am extremely grateful for your videos/ free content- Sarah

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