Front Squat Knee Pain: 4 Potential Reasons Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 20, 2023

Among the numerous variations of the conventional barbell squat, the front squat is particularly favored for its greater recruitment of the quadriceps muscle, as well as the reduced need for large amounts of weight.

Despite its seemingly lower risk of injury, some lifters may begin to notice sharp pain radiating from one or both knees as they regularly practice the front squat. 

While knee pain from performing the front squat exercise is rarely indicative of a serious injury, it is nonetheless a symptom that should be addressed as soon as possible, as pain is often a sign that something may be wrong in the manner with which the front squat is being performed.

What is the Front Squat?

In more technical terms, the front squat is a lower body compound movement of intermediate complexity, usually performed in lieu (or in addition) to the conventional back squat.

In comparison to other barbell-based squat movements, the front squat has the barbell placed atop the chest-shelf of the exerciser, usually secured with both hands and a somewhat more upright posture than would be used for back squats.

front squat

The front squat is known for recruiting the muscles of the quadriceps femoris, the hamstrings muscle group, the gluteal muscles and the entirety of the core with only a relatively low amount of weight needed, making it a particular favorite among home gym owners or individuals with squats-triggered lower back pain.

How to Perform the Front Squat Correctly

To begin performing a repetition of the front squat exercise, the lifter should load a barbell with approximately half of their back squat working weight, ensuring that the bar is on a rack peg that allows the lifter to immediately rest it atop their chest shelf when unracking.

front squat muscles

Then, unracking the barbell atop the chest, the lifter will step into the clear space of the rack, ensuring that their elbows are pointing forward and not flaring excessively as the hands secure the bar to their collarbone.

Bracing their core and keeping the chest pointed forwards and upwards, they will then bend at the hips and knees simultaneously, lowering the pelvis behind the knees until at least a parallel level of depth has been reached.

From this position, they will pause for a moment, then push through the heels - resulting in their knees extending as the lifter returns to the original starting position. This completes the repetition.

The Knee Joint in Relation to the Front Squat

The knees consist of a set of connective tissues cushioning and otherwise holding the bones of the thigh and shins in place. Along the anterior section of these tissues is the patella, a circular bone that helps protect the joint and is secured by another band of connective tissue known as the patellar ligament.

During squatting movements, this patellar ligament will enter a state of flexion (stretching) as the thigh is brought to a parallel plane with the patella bone. It is during this point of all squatting movements that the majority of knee injuries take place, as the connective tissues are at their most disadvantageous position.

front squat knees at parallel

Unsurprisingly, the knee joint and its subsequent biomechanics during the front squat are almost identical to those employed by a conventional back squat. 

The sole difference between the front and back squat in terms of knee utilization is that the front squat will place greater vertical pressure along both joints, often leading to errors in form or chronic irritation of the patellar tissue.

As such, it can become possible to pinpoint whether it is indeed the knee joint that is injured - if at all - by seeing whether parallel depth of the front squat triggers pain or not.

Causes of Knee Pain While Performing the Front Squat

The most likely cause of knee pain during or after a set of front squat repetitions is the manner in which said repetitions were executed. This could be a small and often-overlooked form cue like pelvis positioning, or something far more serious like knee valgus during the descent.

Regardless of whether you believe your knee pain is caused by your front squat form or some other factor in your training, it is a good idea to go over your front squat execution and ascertain whether you are performing it correctly or not.

1. Knee Valgus or Knees Rotating Internally

Regardless of whether it is a front squat or a back squat, internally rotating the knees during a squatting movement is one of the easiest ways to injure the tissues therein, as it will not only pull the entire joint into a disadvantageous position, but also destabilize the entire body while it is under load.

While one or two repetitions with knee valgus is unlikely to result in injury, frequently allowing this mistake to occur can lead to injuries or conditions like knee tendinopathy, a dislocated patella or a thinning of the connective tissue that holds the joint together.

To avoid this, it is advised that lifters keep their knees parallel with the ankles throughout any squat exercise, as well as avoid too narrow a stance, as this can also cause knee valgus.

2. Asynchronous Joint Flexion

In order to reduce any one part of the body bearing too much force during a front squat repetition, it is important to ensure that both the hips and knees move in a simultaneous manner - especially during the descending portion of the repetition, where moving one before the other can easily lead to injury or a loss of balance.

squat hips too high

Occasionally, novice lifters may be doing so unintentionally, as it takes some measure of bodily coordination in order to bend at the hips and knees simultaneously. 

In such cases, the best course of action is to practice the front squat motion with an unloaded barbell, thereby ingraining the correct kinetic pattern in the lifter’s muscle memory.

Otherwise, more advanced lifters may wish to perform pin squats so as to better practice moving their hips and knees during a squat variation exercise.

3. Forward-Rotated Pelvis

Either due to poor core flexion or weakness of the gluteal muscles, a pelvis that is tilted forward can place additional stress along the femur and the structures of the knee, resulting in pain during heavy exercises like the front squat.

butt wink
"Butt Wink" pictured left

While an improperly rotated pelvis due to muscular weakness is far more difficult to correct, if it is the sort that is caused by the lifter failing to recruit their core musculature correctly, then the best way of remedying this issue is to practice proper core bracing on its own.

4. Collapsing Chest or Shoulders

Because of the unique bar position of the front squat exercise, even minor internal rotation of the shoulders or poor curvature of the upper torso can result in a large redistribution of weight. Often, this will present as pain in the knees or lower back, and can go entirely unnoticed without the aid of a professional athletic coach.

Lifters should be performing the front squat with an upright torso and neutral shoulder rotation, ensuring that the weight is evenly distributed across the body and that not too much pressure is placed on the knee joint by bending the torso forward.

In order to assess possible collapsing of the chest and shoulders, lifters should record themselves from the side as they perform the front squat, or ask an experienced coach to observe their form.

Causes of Knee Pain Unrelated to Front Squat Execution

Though form is often to blame when knee pain arises from a set of front squat repetitions, certain aspects of the lifter’s training or physiology may be the actual culprit. Factors like insufficient recovery time, overtraining or muscular weakness can often cause pain in seemingly unrelated areas, the knees included.

Unlike issues in form however, knee pain caused by the following factors may be much harder to correct, and can often take a significant length of time before symptoms are alleviated. If you’re unsure of how to go about doing so, it is best to speak to a professional.

Weak or Inflamed Quadriceps Muscles

The quadriceps femoris muscle group is responsible for flexion and extension of the knees, with any damage or irritation of these muscles or their related connective tissues causing a host of unpleasant symptoms that may be worsened after strenuous exercise.

Though the treatment for weakened or irritated quadriceps muscles will vary depending on severity, performing low-impact mobility exercises and avoiding strain involving the affected area is usually enough to reduce the intensity of the related pain.

Excessive Volume or Weight

Not to be confused with overtraining, performing too many repetitions or using too much weight for the front squat can easily lead to the tissues of the knee becoming damaged due to excess wear taking place as a result of training intensity.

While some level of intensity is required in order to maximize muscular development, performing too many repetitions or trying to lift too much weight during any exercise can easily overload the body, resulting in serious injury or chronic physiological conditions.

To manage the intensity of your training, a good method to employ is that of “RPE” or rate of perceived exertion. 

Generally, you’ll want to keep the RPE of your front squat sets somewhere between 5 and 9 on this scale, depending on whether it is the primary compound movement of the workout or simply a secondary one.

Overtraining

Overtraining is the term used for when an exerciser trains at too great an intensity far too frequently, often to the point where the body can no longer recover properly from the individual workouts themselves.

It is most frequently seen in novice exercisers who have yet to fully bring their recovery methodology in line, though more advanced lifters following improper workout programs may also suffer from overtraining as well.

To avoid overtraining, the general advice to all exercisers is to take at least one day of rest between workouts that target the same muscle group. 

In the case of knee pain from front squats, this means only performing front squats up to 3 times a week on alternating days, ideally with one day of lower intensity as well.

Tendonitis of the Patella or Quadriceps

Though tendinopathy or tendonitis of the knee and quadriceps connective tissues may not be necessarily caused by the front squat itself, it can nonetheless be aggravated by the pressure and strain associated therein.

Symptoms of tendonitis can vary in nature and severity, but will usually benefit from rehabilitation methods like compression and the application of ice, as well as a general cessation of strenuous exercise involving the legs.

Tendonitis can present many symptoms that are similar to that of more serious conditions and injuries, and as such it is best to seek out the advice of a medical professional instead of attempting to rehabilitate it yourself.

When to See a Doctor for Front Squat Knee Pain

If your knee pain is intense and sharp or otherwise accompanied by tingling, instability, a loss of mobility or discoloration of the affected area, it is best to seek out the advice of a medical professional, as attempting to rehabilitate the affected knee yourself could potentially worsen the issue.

While it is unlikely that any serious injury or condition has been developed, the advice of a medical professional may aid in speeding up your recovery, as well as allow you to return to training with the full capabilities of your knee still intact.

In Conclusion

Checked your form, revised your training program yet still experiencing knee pain as you perform front squats? It may be time to ask for help from a professional.

Remember that training through the pain is rarely a good decision, and will just lead to further stalling in your development in the long run. Ensure that you properly address the affected knee, and that every attempt has been made to ensure that further injuries do not occur.

References

1. Cotter JA, Chaudhari AM, Jamison ST, Devor ST. Knee joint kinetics in relation to commonly prescribed squat loads and depths. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):1765-74. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182773319. PMID: 23085977; PMCID: PMC4064719.

2. Rinaldi, V.G., Prill, R., Jahnke, S. et al. The influence of gluteal muscle strength deficits on dynamic knee valgus: a scoping review. J EXP ORTOP 9, 81 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40634-022-00513-8

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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