If you squat you have likely been told to never let your knees go past your toes. If you do, you will likely damage your knees, tendons and integrity of your joints. In this video, I’m going to tell you the truth about squatting knees over toes and break down the biomechanics of the squat exercise to help you better understand this controversial opinion on this popular leg exercise.
THE KINETIC CHAIN
To start, it’s helpful to understand that the squat is performed with coordinated movement between the hips, ankles and knees. When there is a limitation at one of the joints in the kinetic chain there will be compensations that occur that alter the biomechanics of the squat exercise and can lead to breakdown and issues down the line.
ALL KNEES, NO HIPS
When we squat too much with our knees, you see the characteristic forward movement of the knees over the toes without much hinging going on at the hips. This is incredibly stressful on the anterior knee joint and actually takes out of the exercise one of the largest and strongest muscle groups that should be contributing to the lift – your glutes. This can also be seen readily on an exercise like the Sissy Squat – which should be avoided at all costs and is demonstrated in the video.
HIP HINGE GONE WRONG
The second way to squat is to hinge properly at the hips when you perform the movement but to be careful not to allow the knees to travel past the toes at any point during the squat. This creates a tendency to keep your center of mass back a bit and away from the proper midpoint of the foot. When this occurs, the anterior stress on the knees is diminished but so is the proper transfer of forces throughout the lower extremity kinetic chain as you’ll see in a minute.
THE RIGHT WAY TO SQUAT
The final way to squat would be to let the hips travel backwards as far as they can go while allowing the knees to travel forward as far as they can go. This would result in a bottom position on the squat that placed the knees significantly ahead of the toes but the hips and center of mass properly distributed above the mid foot. Now, getting into this position is actually harder than it looks because of tightness that often exists in the ankle joint.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ANKLE DORSIFLEXION
Limited range of motion into ankle dorsiflexion is one of the main reasons we can’t get forward tibial travel during the descent of a squat. This can either come from muscle tightnesses in the calf and achilles or from bony impingement that occurs in the ankle joint. Either way, limited dorsiflexion is causing the buildup of force that is created by the quads and glutes to be stalled in the knee joint rather than flow through to the ankle along the kinetic chain.
HOW TO SQUAT PAIN FREE
In order to have pain free squatting in your knees you must figure out a way to allow the tibia to move anteriorly during the squat. You can do this by being conscious of the desired movement and trying to figure out a way to facilitate the motion. The best way I know how to do this is to stop trying to lock your big toe down into the floor when you squat. Instead, you want to pin the inner and outer portion of your foot to the ground, but along the mid foot and not the toes.
Push down through the heel, outside and inside of the foot but allow the toes to remain free. In fact, if you want to really assist the tibia in getting into the proper position during the exercise you want to try and pull your big toe up slightly into extension as you drop down into the squat. This will help to assist the movement of the knees over toes while staying in balance with the hips that are moving posteriorly through a proper hinge.
When done right, you will have a bottomed out position of the squat that places your knees over your toes but results in no knee pain and a stronger, more biomechanically sound squat. If you have a history of knee pain when squatting, you will definitely want to try this and see for yourself. I guarantee that you will squat with less knee pain and will be able to experience better balance and strength during the exercise the very next time you try it.
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Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.