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How Worried Should I Be About My Knees Cracking When I Squat?

At least it’s not my back... right?

You’ve finally arrived. After months of diligent effort, you’ve finally cracked the 300-pound squatting barrier at your gym, and you’ve got 315 pounds resting on the rack in the form of a 44-pound weight bar, six 45-pound weight plates and two half-pound collars. After taking a moment to admire how far you’ve come, you step forward, duck beneath the bar, and strategically place the bar across your shoulders in the classic powerlifting style — across your posterior deltoids and beneath your upper traps. From there, you space your feet and hands correctly, and powerfully press the bar off of the rack. You take two ginger steps back and begin the lowering process only to feel your knees crack and pop beneath the weight. Startled, you abort your lift, immediately return to an upright position and re-rack your weight. 

You’re definitely disappointed, but you figure that the bragging rights of a 300-plus-pound squat aren’t worth sacrificing your ability to walk. You don’t know what that knee-popping business was all about, but the 300-pound barrier can wait to be broken on another day.

What is causing the popping sound in my knees when I squat?

Being the expert in human anatomy that you are, your first impulse might be to credit the popping of your joints to crepitus, the normal cause of which is simply air that becomes trapped in your joints, only to be released through movement.

However, there are some far more likely noisemaking culprits at work when it comes to your squatting activity. The first of these suspects are your tendons. Yes, tendons are well known for their elasticity, but when a tendon is still relatively cold at the point when you recruit it to engage in a lift, it’s likely to be stiffer than usual, and also likely to be caught slightly out of the ideal position for assisting you in your quest to set a new squatting benchmark. Once you commence your lift, your tendons may alter their positioning slightly, and this often involves the sudden sliding and snapping of them over the tops of bones before they lock themselves into a suitable position for squatting.

It only makes sense: If you were minding your own business and someone snuck up on you and hot-potatoed a heavy weight into your arms, you probably wouldn’t be in an ideal position to properly brace yourself to catch and carry the weight. In a similar sense, if all you have asked of your tendons lately is that they assist with the low-exertion processes of helping you climb out of bed and stagger artlessly over to your computer monitor to play Fortnite, they’re probably not prepared to support the weight of Brock Lesnar in his prime.

That makes sense. So what are the other reasons why squats make my knees pop like a nutcracker?

Another reason your knees sound like a Nestle Crunch bar could be the result of cold, tight muscles. A similar principle applies to your muscles as it did with your tendons, where the tightness of your muscles reduces the elasticity in your joints, thereby causing a little bit of grinding to take place since the whole joint is tight and lacks some of its freedom of movement. 

Should I stretch my way out of this problem?

Only if you want to increase the likelihood of an accident.

As beneficial as stretching can be after your workout has reached its conclusion, pre-workout stretching can endanger you in ways you’ve probably never envisioned, and a heavy squat is as bad a place to experience the downside of stretching as I can fathom.

Let’s say you notice some unappealing noises emanating from your knees, and your solution for rectifying this is to make like a banana and split… and also to perform a battery of other lower-body stretches that I can’t think up lame analogies for. What you’ve done is altered the orientations of your muscles, extended the point beyond which your muscles are used to traveling without tension, and your mind hasn’t caught up with the extensions of those limits. Because of this, you’re more inclined to allow the weight to wander beyond its normal, natural stopping points, resulting in the placing of your muscles in hot water, and I don’t mean the hot tub.

Speaking of hot tubs, is that a solution to my knee problem?

It’s not an ideal solution, but if you’re thinking about warming up then you’re on the right track.

The most optimal thing to do here is to warm your leg muscles and tendons up with some cardio that engages the lower body, and also to throw in a warm-up lift or two before you crank up the angry music, psych yourself into a froth and start squatting in search of personal records. That way, the majority of the noise emanating from the squat rack will be your grunts, groans, huffs and puffs, and not a musical composition composed by your knees that sounds like it came straight from the mouth of Doug E. Fresh.