How to prevent and reduce knee pain when lifting

by John Murgatroyd May 08, 2020

Jumping over dumbell crossfit

Knee pain is a real pain and can be a nightmare to cure. Here's some of the causes and solutions that are definitely worth a try. 

Knee pain is a common problem amongst lifters everywhere and there's not one single right answer. Knee pain is caused by a number of reasons and what is affecting you could be simply one, or multiple. Knee pain is simply your body saying 'There's something not quite right, stop using that body part while I try fix it' hence possible swelling, redness or pain. Most of the time our body can fix itself in a marvellous way, but sometimes there's little imbalances that it needs our help to fix.


Cause: Improper warm-up

We've all done it. Finished work, head down to the gym, quick change and make a start. Because it's been a long day, you know you don't want to be there all night so crack on. 

This is one reason you may be experiencing knee pain, and we've all done it. Knees (and all joints for that matter) are like a car. You would never get into your car, start the engine and floor it. It's terrible for the internal parts because they're not warm, fluids aren't circulating and the oil isn't up to temperature. This is the exact same principle for our joints, and knees especially. 

Inside the knee is synovial fluid, that's one of the main fluids that aids lubrication and fluidity of the joint. This fluid needs to have chance to warm up, and when doing so your body realises the knees are being used and increases the volume of fluid to allow the knee to take the extra strain. To prevent any stiffness and knee pain, a light warm up is exactly what your knees are looking for. 

Solution: Light warm-up on a static bike

One of our favourite warm ups before lower body lifting is the static bike. Start on a low level and just spin your legs. Get the knees moving without any significant load or impact to let them warm up. After a couple minutes up the intensity to a still mild level, but one that actually forces the muscles to engage slightly as these need warming up too. Try focus on the mind muscle connection of each individual muscle group as you spin. This is a great exercise to prime you for your workout. 

 Overhead squatting in knee sleeves

Cause: Muscular imbalance and tightness

The knees are located right in the middle of the legs and attach to several huge muscles such as the Quadriceps, Hamstrings and Calves. Calves are the smallest of the three and least interaction with the knee regarding pain. The calves mainly control Plantar Flexion, pointing your toes, so for now, we won't worry about these. 

Quads and Hams. These two have a significant effect on knee health and pain. It's very common for us to do a leg session with a main focus on the Quads. After all, they're going to improve my squats right? Well yes... and no. Quads do in fact play a major role in the extension of the lower leg and indeed play a huge role in squats, but they're not alone. Hamstrings and Glutes play an equally huge role, and are often overlooked and neglected. 

One huge cause of knee pain is tight Hamstrings. Hamstrings a one of a few muscles that contract from both sides. Unlike the Bicep which just lifts the lower arm and lift it exclusively, the Hamstring attaches at the hip and the top of the lower leg both curling the lower leg up towards your Glutes, and also pull the upper leg back along with the Glutes. 

Hamstring and glutes image

Hamstrings are one of the most neglected muscles on the body when it comes to lifting for either strength or size. Research shows when the Quads are significantly stronger and larger than the Hams, there were signs of knee meniscus and cartilage degeneration or swelling. Similarly the same study found that when the Tear drop portion of the quad was larger than the outer sweep, the same knee problems resulted.

Solution: Balance Quads and Hamstring strength

This one isn't an easy fix but simply takes a little time. Regular stretching and training of the Hamstrings in isolation is a great way to increase the balance the Quad, Hamstring relationship allowing them to work in a more synergistic way apposed to fighting each other. Try ensure the Quads are balanced from inside to out, and Hamstrings are picking up their share of the work. 


Cause: Glutes

The Gluteus Maximus is one of the larger and stronger muscles in the body. Well known and more commonly targeted by the female lifters, this key muscle is one of the many reasons people may be feeling knee pain.

The Glutes are the huge muscle at the top of the back of your legs, your bum. The Glutes play an incredible role in lower body training and similarly to Hamstrings, can often be overlooked for the much more popular Quads. Glutes play a huge role in the management and control of the hip joint, being one of the major movers of the upper leg. 

Personally, I suffered from knee pain for years and realising my Glutes were making squats insufferable was one of the best breakthroughs I've ever made. 

Solution: Train Glutes before squatting

Train Glutes before squatting? But won't that decrease my squat if I'm already exhausting muscles? 

Sort of, but no. 

Since training my Glutes pre squats, I've made squatting comfortable, pain free and one of my favourite lifts. The reason I personally was experiencing pain in my knees when squatting was due to knees that were unstable. The Glutes keep the upper leg in line and stable, allowing the knee to work as intended and the patella (knee cap) to move along the right line. Training the Glutes pre squat was more to get the mind muscle connection established, Glutes firing and taking part in the lift, plus stabilise the knee joint allowing the patella to do it's job. 


So give some of these knee pain solutions a go and let us know in the comments how you found them. Hopefully we can help you reduce your knee pain and get back to lifting!

John Murgatroyd
John Murgatroyd


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