November 11, 2021
If you have issues with your knees, trouble activating your glutes when doing regular squats, or you simply want to isolate your glutes, a kneeling squat is a fabulous variation.
In this article, we cover the kneeling squat in depth, which includes:
A kneeling squat is a squat done on your knees. Just as the name suggests. So, rather than being on your feet, you are starting from a tall kneeling position. With that, the mechanics of a kneeling squat is mainly based on the hips, with little movement of the knees. A regular squat acts on hip flexion and extension and knee flexion and extension, through a wide range of motion, but a kneeling squat eliminates most of the knee movement, allowing you to focus on hip extension. It's essentially like you are doing just the hip movement portion of a regular squat. You can think of it almost like a vertical hip thrust.
A kneeling squat is excellent for targeting the glutes. Done properly, you can begin to really improve hip extension strength, which will translate into more powerful squats and deadlifts, plus a nice, round, solid butt.
For those with injuries surrounding the knees, regular squats can be detrimental as it put a lot of pressure on the knees. However, ideally you want to be able to do squats as it is a functional, primal movement. With that, it’s imperative to strengthen the glutes and the musculature surrounding the knee, as that will enable you to build stronger, more resilient knees, and eventually have no issues with regular squats, whether that be weighted or bodyweight-only squats. And that’s where a kneeling squat can come into play!
Note: Any type of squat – whether it be kneeling or a regular squat – need to be discussed with your physician before performing, especially if there has been an injury to the joint or surrounding tissues. If you have the go ahead, then working on a kneeling squat is a perfect place to start in regards to improving glute strength and hip extension, while still keeping the knee joint in a relatively safe position.
Kneeling squats can be done by just about anyone, and done anywhere. They can be performed with just the use of bodyweight (which is recommended, especially as a beginner or if this exercise is new for you), or can be made more challenging with the use of equipment such as barbells, Smith machine, dumbbells, or even resistance bands.
If you are looking to really engage the glutes and focus on full extension of the hips, then a kneeling squat is the perfect place to start – so let’s take a look at how to perform one correctly!
As mentioned above, if the kneeling squat is a new exercise within your repertoire, then you should begin by just using your bodyweight before adding in other implements in order to increase the resistance.
Before beginning, ensure that you have a good padded mat that you can rest your knees on. Not only will this provide some support to your knees and legs, but will make the overall movement more comfortable, especially if you are performing this exercise on a tile, rubber, or cement floor.
Quick note: if you find that it’s difficult to lower yourself all the way to your calves, or your ankles don’t appreciate the flexion on the floor, you can raise yourself up onto your toes (essentially, kneeling down on the floor with toes curled) so that the stretch isn’t quite as deep as it would be if the tops of your feet were on the floor.
Resistance can be added in several different ways in order to achieve the overall goal of the kneeling squat; however, some might find that bodyweight is enough challenge, which is perfectly fine! If you have masted this movement and want to add resistance to it, there are a few options available.
One of the more popular equipment options to utilize with the kneeling squat is a Smith machine. There are some slight variations in position that will need to be made, seeing as how the Smith machine bar only travels on one specific path. However, if you are new to adding resistance to the kneeling squat, the Smith machine might be a helpful next step, especially if you are concerned about stability in the movement, as well as the ability to maintain control of added weight. With a Smith machine, you can really focus on good form and squeezing the heck out of your glutes rather than balance and controlling the bar like you would a free barbell.
With that being said, a second popular piece of equipment to use with the kneeling squat is an olympic barbell (or even EZ bar). Typically, the barbell will be placed on the back rack, so using a squat rack in order to properly rack and re-rack the bar is necessary. The movement of the kneeling squat will certainly be challenged with the addition of a barbell; not only to stay upright and not let the bar bring you forward or backward, but to also keep it stable as you raise and lower throughout the exercise.
You can also do kneeling squats with dumbbells, kettlebells, a weight plate, and even resistance bands...
Whatever piece of equipment you use in order to add resistance to your kneeling squats, ensure that you have proper form and technique first. There’s no point in adding weight to a movement that is done incorrectly, since it can lead to imbalances, asymmetries, and possibly even injury.
While it might seem like a simple enough movement, there are some common mistakes that can be made during a kneeling squat. Let’s break down some of the top ones, so that you won’t make them!
Dropping too quickly: Although there is a lot of glute engagement on the upward motion of the kneeling squat, there also needs to be engagement on the descent – a fact often overlooked, especially since it seems like you just sit down on your calves. However, a lack of glute engagement on the descent allows for a lot more pressure to be present on the knee joint, and since they are in complete flexion in this movement, it can be painful or even cause injury if the descent is approached too quickly. With that being said, really think about engaging and activating the glutes even as you lower yourself down toward the floor – this will not only help to strengthen the glutes, but protect the knees as well.
Hinging forward: As you are learning the movement, it might seem natural to hinge forward at the hips a bit during the descent. However, you really want to maintain a strong core, and stay as upright as you can. This also means trying to eliminate leaning to the right or left as you lower yourself down as well! As soon as you begin to kneel, bring your shoulder blades down and back and engage the core. With your head in line with your ears and your ears in line with your shoulders, stay upright as you sit down, with eyes focused forward. This will also help in giving you full hip extension as you press through the top of the movement as well.
Maxing out & poor contraction: While it can be tempting to try and overload this movement with a lot of resistance, that isn’t really the ultimate goal with a kneeling squat. It's about glute activation, which usually doesn't require a ton of weight. By focusing on good movement and maximum contraction, you can see better results than using a heavy load and just going through the motions.
This exercise really focuses on improving hip extension as well as glute strength, so incorporating them into a full body workout routine is ideal. With that being said, it can be considered more of a supplementary exercise, used in correlation with other glute and hip strengthening movements (i.e. leg day), in order to maximize results for glute development.
Ideally, the rep range and load for kneeling squats will be different for everyone. That’s due to the fact that everyone will have individual fitness goals, and will have different variables present in terms of current fitness level, health history, and current injury status. However, there are some general guidelines you can follow in regards to appropriate training protocol for a kneeling squat.
Sets and Reps: For a kneeling squat, you’ll find that most of the work here is done in higher reps (i.e., 15-20 per set). This isn’t a movement that needs to be tested for a 1RM (with programming consisting of smaller sets and few reps), so 3-5 sets of higher rep ranges are appropriate, especially if being paired with other supplementary exercises at the same time.
Load: This is another training factor that will vary depending on goals and current health status, but can essentially be done with bodyweight and still achieve results – especially if the goal is to focus on proper hip extension and engagement of the glutes. Oftentimes a movement like this can be done with very heavy weight, and be done incorrectly. Start off with bodyweight and ensure that the kneeling squat is performed correctly, then add light amounts of weight if desired. Ideally, you want to have enough resistance to challenge you in the rep range you are working, which could be anywhere from 8-20 reps (with 12+ being ideal).
The kneeling squat focuses mainly on strengthening the glutes (mainly the gluteus maximus and medius, but also the gluteus minimus) – not only do they work to drive the body up off of the calves at the bottom of the kneel, but once engaged, they also help decelerate the body on the descent – and therefore taking the pressure off of the knee joint.
You really need to focus on squeezing your glutes to perform hip extension, and you will see just how great this exercise is for the glutes.
There are other muscles that are also engaged during the movement when it's done correctly.
The quads are also worked, as they aid in extension of the knee, allowing you to come up to the top of the movement. They won't be as activated as they are in a regular squat because the range of motion is shorter (meaning less stretching tension), but you will still get good quad development with a kneeling squat through contraction tension.
The hamstrings are the next big group of muscles engaged in a kneeling squat. The hamstring muscles engaged with the kneeling squat, aiding in both contraction in order to push the hips into extension, as well as stabilization throughout the descent into the squat.
Other muscle groups engaged during a kneeling squat include the lower back (erector spinae), abdominals, and hip flexors, all of which help to support and stabilize during the movement.
Kneeling squats are the perfect exercise to work into your overall programming, especially if you are needing to focus on extension and wanting to improve on other explosive movements as well – let’s check out some of the benefits of kneeling squats!
Glute Activation: First and foremost, the kneeling squat focuses on glute activation, which is key throughout the entire exercise. The quads and hamstrings are also targeted, which is fantastic for overall strengthening within the lower body. Most people, especially women, use the kneeling squat as an isolation exercise for their glutes, just like they would a hip thrust.
Low Knee Impact: The kneeling squat is a low impact activity, which is good news for those with injuries or those needing to ease into the motion of a regular squat. Proper technique and form are crucial when performing a squat, so working the motion of a kneeling squat can aid in this development and recovery.
Solid Foundation: The increase in overall stability with the kneeling squat is not something to be taken lightly; from the legs aiding in stabilization to the abdominals and lower back working overtime to strengthen and balance, this movement is a powerhouse in terms of building a stable base.
When it comes to squats in general – regardless of whether they are kneeling or regular squats – the concern for the knees is always present. However, kneeling squats are far easier on your knees than regular squats.
Regular squats can be hard on the knees, especially for those who have had previous issues with their knee joint. Yet, squats build up the muscles surrounding your knees, which makes your knees stronger. It's sort of a catch 22. But if you have knee issues, you should avoid regular squats and focus on building up quad, hamstring and glute strength with other exercises first.
As for kneeling squats, there isn't nearly as much pressure on your knees like a regular squat (especially a barbell squat), but there will be some tension as you are still acting on your knees. So, performing the exercise with the correct weight load and proper form is key. Make sure the glutes are activated properly during the descent toward the calves in the kneeling squat. If you do this, there shouldn't be any unnecessary pressure placed upon the knees. It's important to maintain engagement both on the way up as well as the way down.
MOREOVER, you need to do the exercise with some padding on the floor. This is really the main concern when it comes to the knees for kneeling squats. If you have padding, all should be fine.
As with any exercise, if you feel pain, stop immediately. It’s also beneficial to speak with your physician in regards to the exercises that you have added into your training routine, so they can be aware of anything that might irritate a current or previous injury.
While the kneeling squat is a supplementary exercise in and of itself, there are some other alternatives you can add into your routine that work in a similar fashion. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular kneeling squat alternatives!
Hip Thrusts: Hip thrusts also target the glutes, just like the kneeling squat. However, if you are uncomfortable being on your knees, then a hip thrust can be a good alternative. To begin, you’ll want your back against something sturdy like a box or bench (with the edge below your shoulder blades); feet need to be flat on the ground, and about shoulder width apart. From here, press your weight through your heels and engage your glutes as you drive your hips up toward the ceiling, stopping when your thighs are parallel to the ground. Pause at the top, then slowly descend back toward the starting position, keeping the core engaged the entire time.
Step Ups: Targeting the glutes and quads, step ups are super versatile and can be another option for those looking to not be kneeling on the ground. To start, stand close to a sturdy box or bench, at a height where your knee can be at a 90-degree angle once your foot is flat on the top. Once you have the proper sized bench, drive your weight through your heel (and trying not to push off too much through the foot on the floor) to bring yourself up to standing on top of the box, driving through and finishing with full hip extension at the top of the movement. From here, slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position, without jumping back off of the box toward the floor. These can be done alternating legs, or focusing on one side at a time before switching.
Glute Bridge: Glute bridges are an excellent exercise to target the glutes and abs without kneeling down on the ground. In order to begin, you need to lay supine on the floor, with knees bent and feet flat on the ground. With feet about shoulder width apart, engage your core and squeeze your glutes while driving your weight through your heels and pressing your hips up toward the ceiling. From a side view, you’ll be in a straight line from your shoulders to your kneecaps! Pause at the top (and avoid arching your back as you press up), then slowly lower yourself back to the ground.
Kettlebell Swing: A very complex (and very powerful) compound movement that targets the posterior chain, kettlebells are wonderful for strengthening the glutes, abs, and hamstrings – just to name a few! The swing is started with feet shoulder width apart, with the kettlebell on the floor a foot or so in front of you. Hinge at the hips and engage the glutes, grabbing the kettlebell with both hands without letting the back arch or dip. Tension is high here in the hamstrings – maintain it! Bring your shoulders down and back and pick the kettlebell up off of the floor, swinging it through the space between your legs in a swift, fluid motion. From here, extend through the hips and engage the glutes while coming back up to an upright position, swinging the kettlebell out in front of you smoothly. Once the kettlebell has reached eye level, the shoulders, hips, and knees should all be in a straight vertical line. The swing is then reloaded, with the kettlebell falling between the legs, before then repeating the swing for the next rep.
As with any other supplementary exercise, you want to work kneeling squats into your training routine 2-3 times a week, depending on overall goals and current fitness level. Supplementary exercises are just that – movements that you can add into your workout programming that supplement your current routine! There isn’t anything wrong with a schedule full of front squats, cleans, deadlifts, and the like; however, adding supplementary movements like kneeling squats, glute bridges, and hip thrusts into your programming will allow you to ensure complete focus and proper technique on the muscle groups you are targeting, as well as the opportunity to work on the mechanics of movements that might be weaker, such as hip extension.
Some people like to work these movements into the dynamic warmup portion of their workout, while others prefer to do them after a heavier lifting session. Wherever you decide to put these supplementary movements into your routine, just ensure that you are fully focused, and have the energy to perform the movement correctly.
Not only can kneeling squats activate, strengthen, and grow the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, but they also help to strengthen and stabilize the core and lower back. Since there is so much focus on engagement within the lower body, kneeling squats are a good place to focus on hip extension as well, which can help improve technique within other exercises (i.e., deadlifts, swings, etc.) Overall, we do recommend incorporate kneeling squats appropriately into your workout routine if you want to build up your glutes and improve hip extension strength and stability.
Related: 8 Best Gluteus Maximus Exercises
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