The squat makes up one of the basic movements of daily living, and while on the surface it seems very straight forward, there are levels to this exercise. There are numerous versions from the pistol squat, the sumo and the most important for this article the kneeling squat.
At it’s core kneeling squats is a regression (simpler exercise) from its cousin the standard squat. It has a few uses: some incorporate it as a glute building exercise, others use it for functional training, etc. One of the most popular goals of this exercise however is to develop the muscular strength and coordination to perform the standard squat.
Kneeling squats can be used at any training level, but they greatly benefit those suffering from acute knee pain. There are many important parts to the knee joint (the meniscus, cruciant ligaments, MCL, ACL, etc.) that when disrupted, torn or swollen can lead to several debilitating conditions. Baker sists for example create fluid that expands around the joints, creating a herniation around the joint capsule that makes bending the knee (knee flexion) very difficult.
To combat knee pain and restore full knee flexion, the kneeling squat has been used by physical therapists and fitness enthusiasts alike. Because this exercise is unloaded, the emphasis is placed on developing the proper squat movement pattern while building stability at the knees. It’s a simple exercise but it will serve as a great foundation for more advanced, complex lifts down the road.
If you have knee pain this exercise can also be performed on your bed or with a soft pad in a gym setting. Whatever measures are necessary to prevent knee pain, I suggest taking them.
How To Do Kneeling Squats
Essentially the kneeling squat is performed by lowering your butt into a sitting position just above your calves and coming back up with a neutral spine. Depending of the levels of internal and external rotation of the knees you will be working different muscle fibers of the thigh. For example keeping your calves aligned with your knees and directly under the thigh will target the vastus intermedius. If you wanted to emphasize the muscles of the inner thigh such as the vastus medialis, your goal would be to angle your ankles outside of the knees. This placement creates greater tension along the inner thigh, creating greater muscle activation in the medial region.
The opposite would apply if you wanted to train the outside of your leg or the vastus lateralis muscle. By internally rotating the ankles while performing the kneeling squat, you target the outer region of the quadriceps group.
How To Perform:
- start in a kneeling position with a straight, neutral posture (thighs, hip, and torso in alignment) and your knees about shoulder width apart.
- depending on the muscles of the thighs you want to target specifically (the medial or lateral muscles of the quads) internally or externally rotate you feet accordingly. The standard foot position works fine as well, but regardless of which you choose, this will be your starting position.
- leaning forward slightly, begin moving your hips back- creating a bend in your hips. After about 15 degrees start sitting into the squat, lowering your butt into the space between your feet.
- once knee flexion is as deep as possible- extend your hips back towards the starting position. Feel the contraction in your glutes as you lockout at the top of the movement
- repeat for as many reps are necessary.
Kneeling Squat Form
Here are a few pointers to keep in mind that will help you maintain good form.
Keep the knees wide: You’ll want to keep your knees in the same position as the standard squat which is about shoulder width apart. This distance will ensure you get full squat depth as your bottom has a clear path between your feet.
Full range of motion in the hips: when sitting into the squat initially, it’s important to bring the hips back and down as close to the feet as possible. Focus on bringing your hips back and firing your glutes during the first 15 degrees of the movement similar to hip-hinge exercises like deadlifts. The idea is to close as much space as possible between the legs to create ideal hip flexion and then extend the hips back to the starting position. You should make sure the glutes are activated at the top.
Keep your back straight: with virtually all squats there is going to be a slight forward tilt in the torso. The trick is to make sure there is no excess curvature of the spine in the upper or lower back. Because the standard kneeling squat isn’t loaded, it’s easier to take mental notes of what certain body parts are doing and train them appropriately. This will ensure that when moving on to more advanced squat variations you’ll have the proper technique to protect yourself from lower back pain or more severe injuries.
Kneeling Squat Variations
While the kneeling squat is an excellent exercise in and of itself, there are multiple ways to build upon it. It can be progressed, it can be regressed, weight can be added, and other forms of equipment can be used. Below we’ll briefly go over some of the variations you can incorporate and how they can benefit your workout experience.
Banded Kneeling Squats
Kneeling squats in recent years has become a popular exercise for working the glutes, especially when using bands. This band variation is essential for adding tension at the hips. This extra resistance emphasizes hip hinging during its eccentric phase and glute dominance as the hips extend back to a neutral position. Studies have shown that exercises with additional resistance at the hips like barbell hip thrusts trigger greater muscle activation of the hip extensors (gluteus Maximus and bicep femoris) when compared to the squat (1).
When choosing the right band, you’ll want to pick one with enough tension to make each rep challenging, not just the last few. Once the band is set up, you’ll want to be far enough from the band to keep constant resistance at every phase of the squat. If your too close to the band’s anchor point, it’ll become slack and the reps will be too easy. Too far away and you won’t be able to perform it with proper form.
Ideally you want the band’s height to be parallel with your hips at all points, but it can be lower as well. The banded version is performed just like the regular kneeling squat from start to finish, however the focus is on glute activation. At every phase, specifically the concentric portion, really feel the contraction in your glutes. Pause and squeeze them at the top of the movement for a few seconds.
Barbell Hip Thrusts
While hip thrusts aren’t classified as squats, if your goal for using the kneeling squat is to focus on hip flexion and glute dominant exercises- then hip thrusts are for you. On top of the bodybuilding/ aesthetic benefits they also have pretty cool practical applications like improving athletic performance such as sprint times.
Barbell hip thrusts address one of the major drawbacks of standing barbell exercises like squats or even kneeling squats. These exercises have decreased tension in the hip extensors as the movement returns to it’s starting, neutral position. Because the hip thrust is horizontally loaded, tension at the hips is actually maximized as they lock out at the neutral position(2).
How To Perform:
- start by sitting on the ground with your legs straight. Rest your upper back against a padded bench or box.
- position the barbell over your hips. Be sure to pad the barbell to protect your hips from the weight of the metal bar.
- lean back and tighten everything by scooting your feet towards your butt and digging into the ground. Keep your feet shoulder width apart with a 90 degree bend in your knees.
- breath in, brace your core and extend your hips towards the ceiling. Keep your back as neutral as possible. A slight bend in your lower back is fine. However too much curvature can heighten your risk of injury and disk deformation.
- raise the hips until the torso is parallel with the ground. You can slightly hyper-extend the hips about 10 degrees for extra glute contraction.
- hold the lockout position for a moment or two and slowly return the bar back to the starting position.
Kneeling Barbell Squat
While the form and execution is identical to the standard version, consider this with kneeling barbell squats:
- choosing a reasonably weighted barbell is crucial for a few reasons. Kneeling squats don’t have the same depth of motion as regular squats. This means picking a weight heavy enough to fatigue the muscles with such a short distance to travel and lower reps is important for muscle growth.
- the weight should also be manageable enough to perform with proper form. Consider how important good form is to any exercise. Even a slight deviation in the angle of the torso, the placement of the knee, the movement of the hips, etc. can alter the muscles being worked. If you end up altering your form to compensate for a heavier load, the end result could be counterproductive. For example, it’s tempting to shift weight from one side of the body to another when trying to complete a difficult rep. Just keep in mind that these types of imbalances add up over time and do nothing to help strengthen or fortify the body. If the weight is too much simply choose a lighter one and adjust other factors for greater intensity like reps or tempo.
Kneeling Squat Smith Machine
The smith machine kneeling squat is another loaded variation nearly identical to the kneeling barbell squat. The only real difference is the equipment (aka the smith machine). Because this piece of equipment is assisted, it removes a lot of the potential dangers that balancing free weights can cause. This allows for greater focus to be placed on muscle contraction opposed to stabilization.
The next best progression from the kneeling squat is definitely the machine row. The consistent tracking motion of the bar will help sharpen proper form without having to worry about balancing too much weight on your shoulders. Definitely give this version a try.
The prone squat is one of the simplest variations of the squat. It is an excellent choice for those developing the strength and mobility before moving onto more advanced progressions. If you can’t squat at all this is also a great place to start.
The prone squat is basically a squat from a plank position. While it is a very simple exercise, there are a few things to be conscious of to perform it correctly. Like a standard plank you should keep the core engaged at all times. This will help to lower your hips into the squat and keep your spine flat. Make sure to keep your arms directly underneath your shoulders to allow for greater squat depth. And lastly keep your feet planted at at all phases of the exercise, especially when sitting into the squat. When your feet start shifting backwards, you start to lose optimal knee flexion and muscle contraction in the quadriceps.
How To Perform
- start by getting into a plank position with both your hands and feet shoulder width apart. Your neck, torso, and hips should all be straight and parallel with the floor.
- while keeping your arms fully extended begin to squat back into your calves. It’s important that you perform this motion without allowing your knees to touch the floor. Your upper body and pelvis should be parallel with the floor, so avoid sticking your butt above your torso.
- sit as far back into your calves as possible, and once you have reached full knee flexion, extend your hips back into the starting position. Remember to keep your pelvis tucked in so that it doesn’t rise above the torso.
- repeat for as many reps are necessary.