Struggling With Jump Squats? Here's What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

Jump squats not only require strong lower-body muscles, but stable lower-body joints as well.
Image Credit: supersizer/iStock/GettyImages

Squats can get stale. Adding a jump is a great way to inject a little spice, build speed and power and get your heart rate up with minimal floor space required.

But it's easy to get jump squats wrong. Some people feel like their legs are made of lead, causing every rep to feel slow and awkward. Others wince in pain every time they land on touchy knees or ankles.

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Here are the most common reasons you might struggle with jump squats, and what to do about it for better workouts and results.

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If You: Have Hip Pain

You Might: Have Poor Hip Mobility

Hip mobility is a common casualty of desk-bound lifestyles. Sitting for hours on end causes your hip flexors (the muscles that bend your hips) to work overtime, leading to tightness and soreness. Tight hip flexors can cause pain or pinching while you squat, says Carol Mack, DPT, CSCS, owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Ohio.

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Plus, when your hip joints aren't used to any position but a seated one, they have a hard time keeping up when you ask them to do something else — like, you know, do jump squats.

That means you'll have trouble moving through a full jump squat comfortably, if at all. And, as your body tries to make up for your super-tight hips, you may even feel pain in your knees, ankles and lower back, Mack says.

Fix It

Gauge your hip mobility at home with the Thomas test: Sit at the edge of your bed and hug one knee into your chest. Lie back slowly on the bed and let the other leg relax toward the floor.

If the relaxed leg doesn’t drop below the level of your bed, that means your hip flexors are tight, says Christopher Lauer, DC, chiropractor and clinic director at Life Time's LifeClinic in Minnesota. (Make sure to test both hips.)

To relax your hips, incorporate hip mobility exercises into your daily routine. These two hip-opening stretches hit internal and external hip rotation and reduce stiffness from sitting all day.

Move 1: Lizard Pose

  1. From down dog (an inverted V position balancing on your hands and feet), inhale as you lift your right leg high back behind you.
  2. Exhale as you step your right foot in between your hands into a low lunge. Bring your right hand to the inside of your right foot. Make sure your right knee stays in line with your right ankle.
  3. Gaze down toward your mat, keeping your shoulders over your wrists and hips squared forward.
  4. Hold this position for a few deep, slow breaths before returning to down dog.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side.
  6. For a deeper stretch, drop down to your elbows and/or place your back knee gently on the floor.

Move 2: Pigeon Pose

  1. Begin on all fours with your hands under your shoulders, knees under your hips.
  2. Shift your right knee forward so it sits on the floor behind your right hand. Then, bring your right ankle toward the left edge of your mat.
  3. Straighten your left leg behind you so the top of your foot is flat on the mat. Adjust as needed so your hips are squared forward and your weight spreads evenly between both sides. Keep your chest up and hands on the floor in front of you.
  4. Hold this position for a few slow, deep breaths before returning to the starting position.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side.
  6. For a deeper stretch, walk your hands out in front of you to fold forward and bring your chest to the mat.

If You: Can't Jump Very High

You Might: Have Weak Glutes

Another side effect of sitting all day is that our glutes get weak from inaction. This is a major problem when it comes to jump squats. That's because two main glute muscles power jump squats: the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius.

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The gluteus maximus is the one you probably know. In jump squats, this meaty butt muscle plays a central role in straitening your hips so you can explode toward the ceiling. Meanwhile, the gluteus medius in on the outer, upper sides of your butt and stabilizes your pelvis as you jump, then helps control your landing, according to Lauer.

When these muscles aren't up to snuff, your jump squats will lack oomph. Even worse, other muscles and joints (like your knees and lower back) may pay the price with soreness or pain.

Fix It

To check your glute strength and stability, perform a single-leg glute bridge. Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and knees bent. Raise one foot, then drive through your planted heel to raise your hips toward the ceiling. Hold for 10 seconds, then repeat with the other leg.

“You should be able to hold it without pain, cramping, or wobbling,” he says. If you can’t do single-leg glute bridge holds, this is a sign that your glutes need some work, he says.

If you detect some weakness, strengthen your glutes with monster walks. “Often, we see people doing lateral walks, which is great, but this variation will train your muscles for greater stability during the squat,” Lauer says.

Monster Walk

  1. Loop a mini resistance band just above or below the knees or ankles.
  2. Keeping your feet shoulder-width apart, take a big step forward so there’s tension in the band.
  3. Step the other foot forward and keep going for 1 minute.
  4. Then, walk backward for 1 minute. Keep a slight bend in your knees and make sure your knees don’t cave in as you step.
  5. Rest briefly and repeat 1 to 2 more times.

If You: Have Knee Pain

You Might: Need to Keep Both Feet on the Ground

Knee pain after plyometrics like jump squats is common. That's because place a lot of impact on the joints.

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For some people, that stress on the knees can be completely healthy, but if you have arthritis, past knee injuries, gluteus medius weaknesses (see above) or poor form, it can be excessive. The stress builds up over time until it becomes too much for your knees to handle, causing jump squats knee pain during or after your reps, Lauer says

Fix It

If you feel jump squats knee pain, Lauer suggests laying off the jumping and sticking to squats that keep at least one foot on the ground at all times.

Once you've built more strength with squats, test your squat form (see below), paying attention to any discomfort.

“If you can’t do a body-weight squat without pain or proper form, there’s no reason to do a plyometric version of it,” he says.

If You: Wear Out Fast

You Might: Need More Cardiovascular Endurance

Dynamic exercises like jump squats get your heart rate up in record time. On the one hand, this is great, because they can help you improve your fitness level in a short amount of time, Lauer says.

But if you've been slacking off in the cardio department, banging out a dozen or more jump squats in one go can be a big ask. And if you try to just push through, your form will fall apart at the seams.

Fix It

If your jump squats fizzle out in a flash, Mack suggests starting with 3 sets of 2 to 3 reps and adding 1 to 2 reps each week.

“Another option is to supplement with cardiovascular training to improve even more,” she says.

If You: Can't Keep Your Heels Down

You Might: Have Poor Ankle Mobility

Most of us don't pay much attention to our ankles, but it turns out they're pretty important for doing jump squats (or any squat, really). It's vital for your ankles to be mobile. If they're tight, your knees can't travel forward the way they need to when you bend them. Instead, your knees will likely collapse inward.

"This puts unnecessary stress on the foot, ankle and knee, especially the inside of the knee," says Tom Biggart, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of EBM FItness Solutions in Massachusetts.

The easiest way to tell if ankle mobility is an issue is to... squat. Go as low as you can and stand back up. "If your heels come off the ground, there is a pretty good chance that your ankles are tight," Biggart says.

Fix It

If you can’t squat without feeling your heels peel off the floor, start stretching out your ankles daily, Mack says. Try these two moves.

Move 1: Downward-Facing Dog

  1. Begin in a high plank with your palms flat on the ground directly under your shoulders, arms straight.
  2. Press through your hands to push your hips up toward the ceiling. With a slight bend in your knees, direct your sit bones towards the ceiling to intensify the stretch.
  3. Pedal out your feet 10 times on each side with a 3- to 5-second hold.

Move 2: Calf Stretch on a Step

  1. Stand on a step and, holding onto a railing for support, let your heels hang over the edge.
  2. Allow your heels to relax over the edge of the step for 10 to 15 seconds.
  3. Do 5 reps.

Are You Ready for Jump Squats?

You know the old adage, "You have to walk before you can run?" Well, you have to squat before you can jump (squat).

Jump squats may look easy, but they're actually pretty technical, Lauer says. You have to adhere to all the form requirements of a body-weight squat but with the added layers of speed and power. Those additions can trip up even the most experienced squatter.

So, how do you know if your squats are in good shape? The ideal scenario is to have a personal trainer assess your squat form. However, since many of us don't have access to an expert, here's the next best thing: Assess yourself using video.

Position a camera so you have a front-facing view of yourself and do 10 to 15 body-weight squats. Watch back the video and keep an eye out for these cues:

  • Knees staying in line with toes (they shouldn't cave in or push out)
  • Feet pointing forward

Next, take another video of yourself squatting, only position the camera so you have a side-facing view. Watch for these cues:

  • Torso staying upright (it shouldn't fall forward when you squat)
  • Hips sitting back (your tailbone shouldn't tuck under at the bottom of your squat)

If everything looks good, congrats! You can graduate to jump squats. If not, stick to the body-weight version until your form checks out.

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