You may have seen people performing the kneeling squat in the gym and wondered about its effectiveness, benefits, and whether it’s worthwhile adding to your workout.
What is the kneeling squat? The kneeling squat is used by those who are learning how to “hip hinge” or require a lower body exercise that reduces the stress on the knee. It starts by kneeling on the floor with your knees at hip-width apart. As you break at the hips, the glutes touch the back of your heels before returning to the start position.
Many can easily discard the kneeling squat in favor of more traditional squats, but some lifters might benefit from this exercise.
In this article, we'll take an in-depth look at the kneeling squat, who should be doing it, and how it might enhance your lifting program.
Kneeling Squat Overview
The kneeling squat is a great exercise for working the larger muscles of the lower body whilst protecting your knees and joints. For lifters who suffer knee trouble or issues, the option to do a traditional barbell squat is removed therefore the kneeling squat may offer some of the benefits without the extra strain on the knees.
Like regular squats, kneeling squats can be performed anywhere. You don't necessarily need any equipment as bodyweight kneeling squats are quite common. Alternatively, you can grab a set of dumbbells, a kettlebell, or even medicine balls depending on your goals and level of resistance required.
Kneeling Squat: Muscles Worked
The muscles worked in the kneeling squat are:
- Spinae erectors
The kneeling squat employs fewer muscles than the traditional squat, mainly focusing on the larger leg muscles. Most of the activation in the kneeling squat can be found in the glutes with activation also in the quads and hamstrings.
The main function of the glutes is for hip extension (bringing the hips forward) whilst the quads are activated during the knee extension (extending the lower leg forward). Because of the kneeling position, your quads won’t experience their full range of motion as knee extension is limited in a kneeling squat.
Abdominal and spinae erector muscles act as stabilization at different phases on the squat and upwards drive.
How To Do a Kneeling Squat: Step by Step
Now that we’ve discussed what the kneeling squat is and how it works, let’s go through the crucial steps required to correctly perform the exercise using a barbell.
Step 1: Get into position
Set the bar to the lowest height possible whilst still being able to get yourself underneath from a kneeling position. At this stage, you may feel it beneficial to place a mat down to pad your knees.
Slide underneath the bar and rack it across your back. Your knees should be a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Retract your shoulder blades, keep the bar tight across your back and unrack the weight.
Step 2: Lower into the squat position
Staring straight ahead and keeping your core locked, begin to drop your hips the same way you would with a traditional squat. You should continue lowering down until you feel your glutes touch your calves.
Throughout the movement, you should aim to stay centered and not sway too much to the left or right.
Step 3: Ascend back to starting position
Once you reach the bottom of the squat, begin the upwards drive whilst keeping your back straight and head forward. Aim to extend the pelvis forward similar to how you would at the top of a deadlift.
Once at the top squeeze the glutes, again similar to a deadlift or hip thrust.
5 Pros of The Kneeling Squat
The kneeling squat is a unique variation of the back squat which can have multiple benefits for lifters and strength athletes.
The benefits of the kneeling squat are:
- Knee injury rehab
- Increase glute activation
- Balance and stability
1. Great for Knee Injury Rehab
One of the main reasons you'll see lifters utilizing this exercise is because they are recovering from a knee issue.
The safe and relatively simple nature of this exercise makes it suitable for avoiding placing any added stress on the knee whilst exercising. Kneeling means you’re knee joints don’t undergo the full range of motion seen in a traditional squat, considerably easing the load on them.
Kneeling squats also do a great job of building muscle around the knee joint, building glute strength and knee flexion. This makes them a great exercise for rehabbing knee joints that have been subject to wear and tear, inflammation, or suffering from baker cysts.
2. Increased Glute Focus
Kneeling squats can activate the glutes without the need for any larger hip thrusting movements.
It has the ability to isolate these muscles in a way that traditional squats cannot. This makes it a go-to for any athlete looking to build glute strength to supplement their back squats.
With a standing squat, there can be a lot to think about across the posterior chain, therefore glute activation is harder to accomplish. As there are fewer muscles involved in the kneeling squat you can attain a better connection between the mind and the glutes, supporting activation in a regular squat.
By increasing glute activation in the regular squat, form, technique, and the amount of weight lifted can all improve. The extra activation and strength in the glutes can also support stronger performance in deadlifts (especially if you find your deadlift lockout struggling).
3. Beginner Friendly
Performing standing weighted squats can lead to serious injury if performed with incorrect form or poor technique. Kneeling squats are a gentler and safer way to improve hip extension under load compared to a regular squat.
The lack of quad activation also means you cannot overload in the same way you can for traditional squats, leading to less risk of injury if you do not have the required strength in your primary muscles.
4. Improve Balance and Stability
To correctly perform the kneeling squat, it’s important to keep your core engaged throughout the movement. This stops the back arching and keeps the glutes activated. Therefore the abdominals and lower back are working overtime to strengthen and balance.
The kneeling position provides a more stable platform therefore they cannot match the balance benefits found in traditional squats, but by locking out the core and focusing on correctly tracking the barbell up and down you can get significant core activation – thus enhancing balance and stability in your regular squats.
There are several variations of the kneeling squat that can increase or decrease the difficulty as needed.
Whilst many powerlifters will look to use a barbell for kneeling squats, this exercise is versatile enough to be done with dumbbells, resistance bands, or even bodyweight and still gain some of the benefits found in barbell kneeling squats.
Glute activation is always prominent so you can still build that mind-muscle connection that will support increased glute activation in your traditional squats and deadlifts.
Some Good Kneeling Squat Variations Include:
Kneeling Squat With Smith Machine
This exercise is great for isolating the glutes but lacks in functionality as the smith machine does most of the stabilization work for you.
Kneeling Squat With Kettlebell
The front-loading position of a kettlebell means your core and stabilization muscles have more work to do in this variation.
Kneeling Squat With Resistance Bands
This exercise can increase the load on your glutes, hamstrings, and quads without the strain on your back from a barbell.
2 Cons of the Kneeling Squat
As with any exercise, there are drawbacks to the kneeling squat.
The 2 cons of the kneeling squat are:
- Activates fewer muscles
- Knee pressure
1. Activates Fewer Muscles
The main reason lifters will choose the standing squat over the kneeling squat is simply because it’s a more functional exercise. It activates many more muscles as it takes the lifter through a full range of motion.
The full range of motion increases quad activation, whilst the less stable base means stabilization, and core muscles are utilized for more than just correct posture. For this reason, standing squats and deadlifts should be your go-to exercises for building lower body mass and strength, if you can do them correctly and pain-free.
2. Knee Pressure
Even with the most supportive yoga mats and robust knees, you’ll struggle to put too much pressure into your kneeling squats. This hugely limits the amount of weight you can lift. Your kneecaps won’t be able to take it causing discomfort and risking injury.
This limitation will stop full stimulation to the muscles you are using, restricting quad activation and glute hypertrophy.
Common Mistakes Of The Kneeling Squat
The kneeling squat is a pretty simple exercise on the face of it, but there are a few common mistakes lifters tend to make.
Here are the most common errors in the kneeling squat and how to avoid them.
1. Dropping Too Quickly
With the knees being in complete flexion at the bottom of the squat, it’s important to ensure glute engagement throughout the descent. Dropping too quickly into the squat can disengage the glutes putting pressure or pain onto the knee joints.
Thinking about engaging the glutes and controlling your movement on the downward phase can help strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee and prevent knee injury.
2. Swaying forward
As you’re descending into the squat it can be tempting to hinge forward at the hips a little. In reality, you want to maintain a strong core and stay as upright as you can.
Leaning to the left or right are common errors too which can be avoided by bringing the shoulder blades down and back then engaging the core. As you lower keep inline and stay upright with your eyes focussed forward.
This will also support hip extension as you press through the top of the movement as well.
3. Overloading The Weight
The stable base provided by the knees means it can be tempting to try and overload the kneeling squat with loads of resistance.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t the overall goal with this exercise though. It's all about glute activation which doesn't require much weight. You're better off focussing on good form and maximum contraction to really reap the benefits of kneeling squats
Who Should Do a Kneeling Squat?
Kneeling squats have their place, but they shouldn’t be staples in your workout. They cannot be progressively overloaded, lack stimulation in key muscle groups, nor will they ever build much muscle.
As an accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts, they do work well though.
They’re most beneficial for lifters who:
- Struggle with knee pain, joint issues, or are rehabilitating from a knee injury
- Lifters who struggle with glute activation when doing standing squats or deadlifts. They’re also suitable for beginners who want a safe way of generating glute activation in the squat.
How To Program a Kneeling Squat
Kneeling squats can be incorporated into your workout as supplementary exercises for squats and deadlifts. Lifters who find it difficult to activate the posterior chain (in particular the glutes) on squats might reap benefits from using the kneeling squat.
The exercise is mainly about mind-muscle connection so there’s no need to overload the weight, just rack the barbell high enough to bring about glute activation. High reps for 3-4 sets should be suitable for kneeling squats.
If your goal is injury rehab you may want to load the weight slightly higher (don’t overload though as discussed in the cons section) and try for fewer reps to replicate what you would do for a standing squat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the most common questions I get asked about the kneeling squat.
Do kneeling squats work your glutes?
Kneeling squats are all about training proper muscle activation of your glutes. They can help to increase squatting numbers for athletes who cannot currently perform solid hip extension. They also support essential hip extension in deadlifts.
Are kneeling squats bad for your knees?
Kneeling squats are far easier on your knees than regular squats, supporting building the muscle around the knees without the added strain on the knees themselves.
That said, there is still some tension on your knees, so performing the exercise with the correct load and proper form is vital.
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The kneeling squat is a squat variation that works brilliantly as an accessory exercise for increasing glute activation and improving hip extension in squats and deadlifts. The increased focus on the lower body makes them an ideal movement for this, although they lack the functionality of squats and deadlifts hence they shouldn’t be a staple part of a lifters workout.
Kneeling squats can also support lifters who are recovering from knee injuries and aren’t quite ready for the strain on the knee that standing squats give out.