The 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.