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Ask Adam: What about the “Never let your knees go beyond the toes during a squat” warning?

READER’S QUESTION

Great question this week, from Jodie, an athletic 49 year old client undergoing some physical therapy after some meniscus repair surgery.

Hi Adam!
I have a question for you.  For as long as I can remember, personal trainers have said that we must not allow our knees to pass beyond our feet when doing squats and other various exercises.  We were told that this would “protect our knees.”  My physical therapist has told me that this is basically BS…someone just made that up and it stuck.

As I’m sure you know, she is very much a proponent of ‘natural’ movement, as you are and wants me to do squats as if I’m picking something off the floor, bending my knees, and reaching down… with good posture, but without leaning back in a unnatural way to keep my knees from bending over my feet.

ADAM’S ANSWER

squat_child-713x475

Great Squat, Kid! (note his knee is slightly in front of his toes 😮   -and it’s OK!)

Hey Jodie,
That’s a really great question. And I found this really great kid-squat picture as part of my answer.
Very small kids are very often excellent models of effective, natural movement.  (Unfortunately, they seem to lose some of that perfection by the time they are tweens or teens )

Things to notice about this kid’s squat position:

  • his weight is largely on his heels;
  • his spine is pretty upright, and pretty neutral (for his age);
  • his squat is quite deep (his knees and ankles are more flexible than most adults);
  • he could pet that bunny, or pick up a stone or shiny object;
  • it looks quite functional, and quite natural this is a great squat!  and;
  • his knees are slightly in front of his toe line!

Here is a collection of my thoughts about the “Keep the knees behind the toe line” statement:

  • it is a useful  guideline, but it is not the law, or the line beyond which damage occurs, or you die;
  • the tension on the patellar tendon does begin to increase faster as the knees move forward of that line;
  • as the knees get too far beyond that line, good squat form will become less possible;
  • many people do have their knees too far forward when they “squat down” to be doing a “proper squat;”
  • this is because a good squat has the majority of your weight on the heels, not on the toes/balls of your feet;
  • when the knees go so far that your heels rise, you’re not “doing a squat,”  you are doing a “deep knee bend,”
    •  My dad used to do “deep knee bends,” coming all the way up on his toes as he squatted down for multiple reps.
    •  This is like the antithesis of a good squat, is a very quad-dominant* move, and is biomechanically hard on the knees.
  • The right place for knees above the toes is going to vary within a range depending on the person, and the kind of squat they are doing
    • e.g. bodyweight squat, loaded squats, supported squats, front squats, back squats, lateral, split…
    • that right place, or sweet spot will usually be in the vicinity of just above the toe line

*Quad Dominant means the front of their legs (quadriceps) are much stronger their glutes and hamstrings

What is important, from a functional fitness and good biomechanics perspective, is that you have most of your weight (I like ~80-90%) driving through the heels.

“Driving through the heels” really defines the basic squat (though there are variations, like an offset squat, in which one foot drives through the ball/toes, which can be quite functional and effective in the garden, etc.).

Why driving through the heels is important:

  • it activates the gluteals (or glutes=your butt muscles) involved in the movement;
  • the glutes are designed to be major squat participants (this video animation from our last newsletter illustrates this nicely)
  • it also activates the hamstrings, the big muscles in the back of their legs;
  • most people are quad dominant,” i.e. the front of their legs (quadriceps) are much stronger their glutes and hamstrings;
  • in many people, the glutes are soft, underdeveloped, fading away, and not contributing much to their ups and downs;
  • part of my work with my clients is preventing or reversing VOMBS (Vanishing Old Man Butt Syndrome).

Learning to “drive through the heels” is a key part of developing a good squat pattern, and balancing your lower body strength, front-to-back.

In a good squat, the glutes should be delivering half or more of the forces required to lower you down, and return you to standing. To me (anatomy nerd that I am) much of the joy of training is learning to discern and decide which muscles are creating a movement.

I quite enjoy getting clients to actually feel and experience the glutes contributing to a squat, reducing load on the quads (and unhealthy load on the knees), and noticing which portion of the move each muscle group is doing more or less of the work in.

This can get potentially quite complex and nuanced. It is also elegant and beautiful, and fun to explore in movement.

I could go on about it for pages, but I prefer to move with you as I explain. It becomes much more alive that way.

So my summary answer is:
  • use the toe line as a guideline (not a rule) if it helps you;
  • drive a lot of your weigh through your heels, and enjoy using your glutes and hamstrings in your squat;
  • keep it alive and interesting and explorative and dynamic and effective and pain free;
  • enjoy the grace and power and beauty of this simple and elegant movement;
  • squat a lot, lest you lose the ability to, and your butt along with it!