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Are there exercises (or sequences of exercises) which work the same muscle groups as regular squats or squat jumps with comparable intensity, but which put less stress on the knee (are safer for the knees)?

I am only interested in bodyweight exercises or ones which use just free dumbbells or resistance bands.

I ask this question just out of interest and not because I have knee problems or problems with squats or squat jumps.

It would be great, if you could include some training-scientific references of why the suggested exercises work the same muscles with same intensity and why they are safer for the knees.

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The question seems to imply that squats somehow would be unsafe for the knees. Why would they be unsafe (esp. for someone without prior knee problems) in the first place? –  Markus Wall Jul 18 '12 at 8:39
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I found another answer that goes into some scientific studies on the safety of the squat (and deadlift) fitness.stackexchange.com/a/5134/3085 –  user3085 Jul 18 '12 at 18:01
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3 Answers 3

Properly done squats are safe on the knees, assuming no prior knee problems, and will actually reduce risk of knee injury from other causes.

Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe goes into detail on why this is the case. His book is focused exclusively on barbell training, but the information still applies for dumbbells, and he also describes how to prepare for the squat without weights, which can be used as a technique guideline for doing bodyweight squats.

If you're dead-set against doing squats, then do deadlifts. Both the deadlift and the squat engage the largest muscles in the body, and all of them perform some work, although the degree will vary between the two. Either the deadlift or the squat is a necessary component of a strength training routine (ideally you use both), so if you're not going to squat, then deadlifts it is.

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Jumps will have impact on your knees, as will running for extended periods of time. However, squats past parallel actually make your knees stronger. The reason for this has to do with muscle balance. The most common risk with exercise, is focusing too much on what you like without doing what's necessary for what you don't like to do. Core exercises are a common class of exercise that get dropped because they are not fun.

You have several muscles in your legs, and with most activities the anterior (front side) muscles get exercised much more than the posterior (back side) muscles. When you consider that the anterior is what we see when we look in a mirror this makes sense. For some information about the kenisiology of squats check out this exrx.net article.

Proper squats to depth exercise the following muscles:

  • quadriceps
  • hamstrings
  • calves
  • gluteus muscles
  • core (both back and front)
  • and if loaded with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells--your arms.

It truly is a full body exercise. Any replacement would have to address all these areas. Back extensions will hit your core, gluteus and hamstrings, but won't do much for your calves. The quadriceps get more than enough attention through other exercises (like running, cycling, etc).

The next closest useful relative of the squat would be the lunge. But it is inferior to the squat--particularly if knee health is a concern.

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I agree with Robin, but i'd also add that if you have access to a Trap bar this would be even more beneficial for someone who is a little wary of their body. Because the weight is more centralised, there is much less impact on the lower back and the quads work more so than a conventional deadlift.

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But, if a person is doing deadlifts, it is to work the lower back. –  user3085 Jul 18 '12 at 20:28
    
Yeah of course, but like I said - it sounds as though Nathan may be a bit wary so it'd allow him to work the hips harder. The quads are utilised more so than in the BB DL also which brings us back to the musclers he was looking to work in the squat! –  The Reaper Jul 19 '12 at 15:49
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