The truth is that Squats are a good indicator of health. If your knees hurt you're Squatting incorrectly or something prevents you to Squat correctly. Here are 10 tips to stop your knees from popping and cracking.
1. Strengthen Your Knees. Your knee joint is made for stability. Strengthening your leg muscles — quadriceps, but especially hamstrings & glutes — increases the stability of your knee joint by adding support.
Squatting below parallel is the best exercise for overall leg strength. Start with an empty bar, focus on Squat technique, add weight each workout. After 2-3 months Squatting with good technique your knees will feel better.
2. Squat Correctly. The length of your legs & torso influences the knee position on Squats. Your knees may or may not come over your toes depending on your built. Knee position is therefore irrelevant. What matters:
- Squat Below Parallel. Partial Squats don't strengthen your posterior chain, causing muscle imbalances. Your hip joint must come lower than your knee joint. Tape yourself or ask someone to check depth.
- Sit Back. You risk bouncing on your knees if you Squat straight down. Squat down by moving your hips first. Push your hip back as far as you can. Lower the weight and stretch your hamstrings if necessary.
- Knees out, Toes out. Knees out strengthens your adductors. Your feet must be inline with your thighs. Squatting with your knees out & toes in (or knees in & toes out) puts uneven compressive forces on your knees.
- Heels on The Floor. Squatting with your heels off the floor stresses your knees. Read how to keep your heels on the floor on Squats.
3. Warm-up. Warm-ups lubricate your joints, raise the temperature of your body, let you practice technique, etc. Do some dynamic stretching. Start each exercise with an empty bar. Read how to do proper warm-ups.
4. Improve Hip Mobility. Your knees are designed for stability. Your hips are designed for mobility. Lack of hip mobility forces your knees to compensate & causes technique problems. Read how to improve your hip mobility.
5. Improve Ankle Moblity. Same story as for the hips. Lack of ankle mobility forces your knees to compensate, causing knee pain. Tight calves can cause posterior knee pain. Improve your ankle mobility.
6. Glute Activation. Tight hip flexors — lack of hip mobility — are linked to dormant glutes. Weak glutes lead to several problems on the Squat: heels coming off the floor, knees buckling in, etc. Work on glute activation.
7. Soft Tissue Work. Popping knees is evidence of trigger points causing joint stress. You can remove the knots through soft tissue therapy using a tennis ball or foam roller. Lauren wrote a guide on soft tissue work using a tennis ball.
Trigger points in your peroneals can cause knee pain. Massage them using a tennis ball. Massage all your leg muscles while you're at it. I recommend the trigger therapy handbook for a definitive guide on soft tissue work.
Soft tissue work for Peroneals. Image credit: laurensfitness.com
8. Learn to Jump. Landing with straight knees forces your joints to absorb force. This is bad for your knees, but also for your lower back, hips, ankles, ...
The correct way is landing into a Half Squat. This way your muscles & tendons absorb the force, not your joints. This is for any kind of jumping: basketball, plyometrics, Power Cleans, etc.
9. Eat Healthy. You are what you eat. Healthy nutrition improves the quality of your skin, digestion, joints, ...
- Fish Oil. Inflammation is linked to joint destruction. Fish oil helps against inflammation. Eat fatty fish and supplement with fish oil.
- Veggies & Fruits. Full of vitamins, minerals & antioxidants. Especially antioxidants (berries) improve connective tissue health.
10. Stop Doing What Hurts. Watch out with leg extensions, straight-legged deadlifts, hamstring/adductor static stretches with locked knees, etc. All put pressure on your knee joints. Avoid.
More on Knee Health. I didn't include knee sleeves or supplements. Improving technique, mobility and posterior chain strength will solve most knee problems. Check out Bullet Proof Knees if you want a resource on eliminating knee pain.