Everybody has to squat.
The exercise is one of the most basic and functional movement patterns you can do, and it builds total-body muscle and strength like nothing else. But who says you have to do it with a barbell on your back? If you’ve been avoiding squats — along with lunges and other leg exercises because they hurt your knees — get ready: “leg day” is coming back, in full force. You’re about to learn 10 ways to train your lower body hard, and pain-free.
“One of the reasons guys have knee pain is because they squat wrong,” says David Jack, creator of the Men’s Health Muscle After 40 (MA40) program. “The way to learn to do it right is to use a self-correcting exercise.” That means a type of squat that automatically helps fix your form while you do it.
Jack offers the dumbbell squat to curl as an example of a self-correcting exercise. Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest and squat down. Then extend your elbows, curl the weight back up, and stand up.
“This move helps you keep your trunk upright, engages your core, and gets you to drive your knees outward so you can drop into a deep squat,” says Jack. If you don’t stay vertical and push your knees out, you’ll bump into them when you extend your arms, so it’s almost impossible not to squat properly — keeping proper alignment of your joints to avoid the bad mechanics that cause pain.
Another trick for taking pressure off your knees is keeping your shins vertical. While back squats and forward lunges might make your shins drift over your toes, putting shear forces on the knees, moves like the RDL, split squat, and deadlift variations shift more of the load to your hips, so you can work your quad, ham, and glute muscles without feeling it in your joints.
Create your own lower-body workout using the exercises listed. The movements are categorized by the muscle groups that they emphasize most (quads, hamstrings, or glutes). To build your own workouts, simply choose one exercise from each category (any order is OK).
Perform reps for one move for 40 seconds straight, going at your own pace. Rest 20 seconds, and then repeat twice more. Do the same thing for each exercise. On exercises that are done one side at a time, work for 20 seconds on one side and then 20 seconds on the other.
The next time you train, choose different exercises from each list. To finish each workout, perform the half-kneeling hinge and quad stretch as a cooldown.
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