I have come to believe that the lowly deep knee bend might offer the best over-all combination of flexibility, intensity, and progressivity of any leg exercise you can do. If you had to pick only one movement that would offer you the best chance to strengthen the most muscles as well as your cardio-vascular system, this would have to be it.
In keeping with the theme of just getting up and moving, this movement requires no equipment and can be done all day long in front of your TV.
Two notes: First, the basic barbell squat movement is the same as the traditional deep knee bend. The only difference is that in one case you are squatting with more weight than just your body-weight. Secondly, as far as squats being bad for your knees, there are many articles that show that the deep squat done properly helps to make the knee stronger. Obviously, this applies to healthy joints that have not been injured. If it hurts, don’t do it! If you have any doubts about your own condition, see a knowledgeable sports physician. Here’s a long, but thorough discussion.
This is how I like to do them: 1) Spread your legs so that they are a little more than shoulder width apart. Make sure that your feet are angled out little; as you perform the movement, your knees should be tracking (pointing in the same direction) as your big toe. 2) Push out a little with your feet as if you are trying to spread the floor apart. 3) Begin the decent by keeping your chest up and sticking your butt out a little, as if you were feeling your way to sitting down on a low chair in the dark. This will engage your hamstrings, hip adductors, and gluteus muscles; and put relatively less strain on your quads and knees. 4) Descend until your hip joint is below the top of your knee; your upper leg will move past being parallel with the floor. Keep your upper back straight and angled forward just enough to maintain your balance. Your weight should be back on your heals and your lower leg should be as straight up and down as possible. Do not let your knees move past the end of your feet. 5) Ascend by consciously contracting your glutes and pushing your knees slightly outward. 6) I like to come up to where my knees are still bent about 45 degrees. In lifter terms, this is the the “quarter-squat” position. I feel this keeps the muscles surrounding the knee in tension, therefore stabilizing the knee. It also keeps the glutes and hamstrings engaged for as long as possible, therefore “saving” the quads.
Some day I’ll make a video demonstration of the different takes on the theme. In the mean time, here are some links that I think will give you some hints:
This woman, who looks like a serious athlete, is doing them on a wobble board. The balancing that is required brings in many more of the small and large muscles used to stabilize the movement. Although this balancing makes the movement much more challenging, the strength gains better carry forward into the three-dimensional world of sports.
This video will help to illustrate the form that I’m looking for. It will also give you some tips on related exercises (still ones that you can do in your living room) that will help to teach you proper form.
This example of bad form is a demonstration of how not to do them. Notice how he just sort of collapses straight down? He hasn’t rotated his hips (stuck his butt out) at all. His knees are bent almost 90 degrees at the end, yet he’s hardly gone anywhere!
Finally, I feel that you can do no better in getting started with basic weight lifting movements than by listening to Mark Rippetoe.
Once you’re warmed up with your bike, treadmill, of just walking in place, you can begin. Start with just one, slow repetition. Especially if you’re a bit stiff or creaky, the slower you do this first movement, the better you will feel. In your workout log, write down that you did “1.” Get back in position and do 2 repetitions; write it down. Then do a set of 5 and call it a day. These are intense and unless you are the type that likes to get sore in order to feel that “it’s working”, you don’t need to suffer unnecessarily from DOM (delayed onset muscle soreness).
Wait at least two days until whatever soreness that developes goes away. Do the workout again, but this time finish off with a set of 10 repetitions. Again, wait 2 to 5 days until any soreness subsides and then add a set of 15 repetitions. And so it goes. I’ve done this workout to where I finished off with a set of 60. It would look like this: 1+2+3+5+10+15+20+25+30+35+40+45+50+55+60=391 total. Needless to say, the last set of 60 gets pretty tough. This would take about a half hour, depending on the time you rest between sets.
Once you are anywhere near 400 total reps, you might go to my old standard of 20 sets of 20 reps in 20 minutes. For this one, warm up and then use a standard clock with a sweep second hand or a stopwatch (your cell phone probably has one) to time your sets. Starting at the time you push “start”, do one set of 20 repetitions. Repeat on the minute for a total of 20 minutes. (Note: if you keep time, your 20th and last set will start at minute 19.) Caution, speaking of DOM: I did this for the first time back when I was more of a road warrior, in a hotel room in Denver. It gets tough. As you progress through the minutes and become progressively more tired and push out the start of your next set of 20, your rest periods become progressively shorter. I found that I was working awfully hard to maintain the pace by the 15th set. I finished just under 20 minutes, but my legs were fried!
By the second day, my legs were so sore that I was lifting them out of the rental car to get them out the door and onto the ground. Then, I had to reach up and grab the roof of the car in order to pull myself up to a standing position. I do not recommend that you replicate this little experiment. I do recommend working up to this volume a little more gradually. That said, I have done a personal best of 20 sets of 29 reps for a total of 580 in 20 minutes without crippling myself like I did in Denver.
This summer I got back into road biking. I found that the volume of work that comes from riding 100 or more miles per week, plus the 5-600 deep knee bends, were too much for my knees. They would get a little sore and stay that way. So, I backed way off on the bodyweight squats. What I started doing more for strength and endurance was to see how many I could do in either one, two, or three minutes. This was basically maxing out the intensity of far fewer sets, but cutting the total volume to a small fraction of what it was before. To this point I’ve managed a best of 73 reps in one minute, 135 reps in two minutes, and 168 reps in three. As a measure of intensity goes, I find that I don’t get sore at all to max out for one minute. If I haven’t done them for a week or more, I’ll get a bit stiff, but not real sore by maxing out for two minutes. However, that third minute tends to be hard enough that I get sore every time I try it.
So there you have it: Deep knee bends, otherwise known as bodyweight squats, can be performed with endless variations on the theme in the convenience of your own home. You can tailer a program to whatever level your conditioning is at right now, yet the movement can grow and challenge you right up to the level of the most elite olympic athlete. Just get started!