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Is It Okay To Let Your Knees Go Over Your Toes When You Squat?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 21 November 2017
Hits: 13482

One movement that has a lot of confusion and controversy surrounding the "correct technique" to use is the SQUAT. For a long time people have been told to keep their knees behind their toes or it will cause serious knee damage. This teaching is still used in many gyms and fitness centres today, yet the basis and logic for this instruction is more likely to cause harm and dysfunction than prevent it. If you watch elite weightlifters competing you will see their knees always go over their toes, and the taller they are, the further they go. And not only do they not have knee pain, they have legs stronger than most people on the planet. What causes knee pain has more to do with hip and foot mechanics combined with poor movement strategies that were either taught or learned from an early age. In this article, I will explain the theory behind the squat and help clear up what the correct movement you should be striving to achieve really is.

I must admit I love squats. I love all the different variations and how strong it makes you feel afterwards. But I also recognize there is a lot of people who find this movement very painful and do not enjoy it all. And often the pain they feel in their knees or their back puts fear into their mind and is something they try to avoid. This is a real shame for often the reason behind their awkwardness or pain with this movement is a lot to do with their technique.

What is even worse is that this avoidance of pain and continual use of poor squatting from will transfer into daily life and eventually ruin joints, cartilage and tendons. 

The squat is NOT an exercise. It is a pattern of movement we are born with and we use this to complete tasks like sitting and getting out of a chair, jumping, and lifting objects at work or around the home. Your brain will continue to use the faulty pattern until it is shown a better one that it trusts. It is your job to identify the flaws in your technique, modify them, and practice them perfectly enough times that your brain re-writes the program to the new correct one.

I must also state that we are all very unique in the way we move that we have to allow for some deviations from some of the information I provide in this article. I have had to learn and accept this the hard way over 15 years of working with over 1000 different people and have found some great ways to adjust and overcome some difficulty with exercise techniques.  Hopefully by the end of this article you have a better understanding of how to squat correctly.

Before we dig deep into the nerdy information, I would like to discuss the history behind the belief that your knees should remain behind your toes during the squat.

The History Of Squat Technique Modifications

For many years I believed this cue came from the group fitness classes where technique is often ignored to get more exercise completed in time to the music or from Physical Therapists who were treating people with knee injuries from going to the gym. There is no doubting that you will definitely avoid knee pain in the short term by keeping your knees behind your toes. What people fail to understand is that you are now increasing your chances of lower back pain and significant quadricep weakness that will lead to instability of the knee joint. However, because there is no immediate danger nobody questions it and goes about using this poor version of a squat.

During my research I came across where this thought was first discovered.

In the book "The Squat Bible" by Dr Aaron Horschig he shows that safety concerns with the knees in the squat were first brought up in the 1950's by a guy named Dr Karl Klein. Dr Klein was working with many college football players in the US who were suffering serious knee injuries. He suspected these injuries were caused by squatting deep in the gym when the players did their weight training. He used some primitive instruments to measure the angles of the knee during the squat and concluded that deep squatting overstretched the ligaments of the knee and should be avoided. He suggested that all squats should only be performed to a parallel depth to protect the knee.

By 1962 his findings were published in Sports Illustrated and within no time this was taken on board by American Medical Association, the US Army and even the US education department for physical education curriculum. And ever since then as the gym world slowly evolved this method of thinking took over the mainstream area of fitness to where this belief is still used today.

Where it didn't change however was within the Olympic Weight Lifting sport who continued to squat with knees over toes and excel using this technique. There is no possible way for an elite weightlifter to perform at a high level in their sport if they were to squat with their knees behind their toes. Now you would be thinking that surely they must all have sore knees and arthritis limiting their ability to walk but that is not the case at all.

The good news is there is a ton of science showing that Dr Klein's research was fundamentally flawed. The bad news is that this information is not passed on to many people teaching you how to squat.

In 1986 researchers compared knee stability in powerlifters, basketball players, and distance runners. After a heavy squat workout the powerlifters had more stable knees than the basketball players and runners!

Okay, now that we have some history behind some of the dysfunction surrounding the squat let's look at some examples. 

Understanding The Hip & Knee Moment Arm

There are many ways to do the squat exercise.

From front squats to back squats, single leg squats to box jumps, the variations are endless. But the timing of the joints involved is very similar to all. The ankle, knee, hip, and also the spine all move in harmony with each other and importantly in the correct alignment in order to handle loads, force and braking or provide propulsion and movement. If the alignment is faulty there will be an "energy leak" that will compromise the timing and strength of the movement. This leads to poor performance and eventually injury as the body attempts to adapt to the poor alignment and correct it using a "plan B" strategy, otherwise known as compensation.

Firstly if we take a look at the squat and examine what the alignments we are looking for are, then you can begin to work backwards and find where the energy leak or compensation is happening.  

Below is a perfect visual of what the optimal alignment would be like for a back squat. A back squat is where the bar is resting on the shoulders. Take a look at where the knees are positioned, over the toes right? Take a look at where the bar is and the dotted line drawn down towards the foot. This is called the joint axis and is placed perfectly between the two moment arms, of the knee and the hips.

A moment arm is simply the length between a joint axis and the line of force acting on that joint. Every joint that is involved in an exercise has a moment arm.

The critical things to take note of is that the perfect balance of work between the two moment arms creates symmetry and perfect timing of the body to handle loads

This Is What Happens When Your Knees Go Over Toes During The Squat

  1. The Hip Moment Arm comprises the workload being completed by the posterior chain of the glutes and hamstrings. The glutes are the powerhouse or the engine room for lifting loads and they are in great position here to work.
  2. The Knee Moment Arm still has enough work to complete if the knees travel over the toes. This is where the workload is completed by the quadriceps, especially the VMO muscle that is critical for healthy knee and patella tracking.
  3. The Spine is able to remain perfectly stable in neutral and avoid being compressed with either flexion or too much extension
  4. The neck is easily held in neutral as there is no need to tilt the head back in order to look straight ahead.
  5. The ankle receives great mobility to dorsiflex to provide the necessary angle for the squat to be completed.

This type of squat will be pain free and able to generate massive force to build strength and power.

Now let's compare this to the typical squat taught with the knees remaining behind the toes.

This Is What Happens When Your Force Your Knees Behind Your Toes During The Squat

In this squat there is several things that are potentially creating pain and dysfunction in the body. The squat itself may never hurt this person, but other movements will over time as they have become weakened or tighter to compensate for this faulty pattern.

  1. The Hip Moment Arm this time is taking almost all of the load on it's own. But because the posterior chain has to cover so much of the joint it has to overstretch itself. When you stretch a muscle you weaken it. This makes the entire movement much weaker for remember I said the glutes are like the engine room of lifting. They are now in the most weakened position.
  2. The Knee Moment Arm is hardly getting any work to do at all. Now, over time if you continue to use this movement, they become weaker from never needing to be used. Even if you use leg extensions, lunges or other leg movements to strengthen your quads you will lose strength in this movement for strength is pattern specific. This will have huge potential problems for patella tracking, ITB friction and even ACL injuries from the quads becoming weak. Remember the VMO is an important knee stabilizer but it now is getting no work to do!
  3. The Spine is now being forced into flexion. Too much flexion creates disc bulges. Too much extension creates facet joint sprains, SIJ pain and many other spinal complications. Basically the spine is now forced to take some of the load for the legs are not able to evenly share the work.
  4. The Neck is forced to tilt back and excessively compress itself in order to look straight ahead. This can lead to neck strains and excessive tension.
  5. The Ankles begin to stiffen as they are no longer used to create the angle required for optimal movement. Stiff ankles can then disrupt the entire kinetic chain with movement and create injuries at all other joints.

Wow! Incredible isn't it just how a simple tip based on poor information can now create a multitude of problems.

Like I said earlier the squat itself will rarely have pain within it unless you force the person to squat full depth or with too much load. But often these people will have problems with other movements or weaknesses elsewhere in their body and completely unaware that the poor squat technique is contributing to their problem.

The biggest problems I see come from squatting like this is BACK PAIN. The load has no chance of going into the legs, especially the quadriceps, and all that ends up happening is they crush their spine. 

The Glutes Are Important

A muscle group that always attracts a lot of attention with leg exercises is the glutes. And its role within the squat is very important as it helps to align the legs and in particular the knee joint. Weakness with the glutes in the squat is easy to spot when the person's knees fall inwards, however you must also look at the feet here. To overcome this you will regularly see people turn their toes out which is okay to some extent but I would always advise working on the weaknesses correctly. Adding a band to the knees is a great start as well as implementing some corrective exercises for the glutes and the feet to rule out instability and weakness robbing the body of good movement.

The pictures below show a squat with terrible hip and foot alignment on the left, and then a corrected version on the right where a band is added to the legs to encourage glute activation within the squat.

You can see quite clearly how the squat to the right looks far more balanced than the squat on the left. Notice how much her neck has to hyperextend to get her eyes horizontal versus the girl on the right with a neutral neck position.

However, you must be careful of overusing glute strengthening exercises as you can overdo it and I regularly see "butt gripping" in the squat. This is always a give away with the person who is too upright. In this case glute stretching and mobility is more important than strengthening to allow them to use the hip moment arm correctly.

You will find a ton of information about how to strengthen your glutes correctly in the FREE CHECKLIST below. Click here to get your free copy.

How To Learn The Correct Form

Many people will tell you that you have to squat to full depth to have a great squat. Sure it is great if you can do this but many cannot, and in many cases it is not completely necessary. I think it is a good idea to work within you limitations and if you want to improve your depth work on your mobility. Some people will never squat full range due to poor genetic hip anatomy or even previous injuries that have created scar tissue and stiffness and that is fine. You do not have to be 100% perfect, just as close to good form as possible.

I highly suggest you read our article 7 Best Squats For Building Strong Legs & Bulletproof Knees where I show you seven versions of squat technique from easiest to hardest.

Below are two great videos you can observe some of the common mistakes in the squat and various ways I use to overcome them. 

 

Work On Your Ankle & Hip Mobility

If you want to improve your squat depth and ability to squat with good form you need to work on your ankle and hip mobility. Stiffness at either of these joints is a disaster for your knee and can force you to compensate with your squat form inevitably leaving you with weakness, poor performance, and eventually pain. What you will find is that there is no one magical exercise that improves this for you. You will need to experiment with a combination of foam rolling, stretching and mobility drills. Each person will respond differently so you need to find what works for you.

Some of my favourite exercises for the ankle and hip are shown in the videos below.

 

Improve Your Core Stability

It goes without saying that you will need to work on your posture, and ability to correctly stabilize your spine during the squat. You could have all the mobility you need, but if you cannot control it and fail to stabilize the body during the movement, there is a good chance you will compensate and risk injury. Doing a few planks and sit-ups is not a good idea and something to avoid as this will ruin your squat form.

Many people have been educated to treat the core stabiliser muscles in the same we would use a bicep curl to make our arm stronger. Unfortunately, the stabiliser muscles do not respond to this type of training and are not programmed to functions in this manner. Instead, they rely more on TIMING and SEQUENCING and are highly dependent on the MOTOR PROGRAM used by the brain for each movement we make. 

"Core control is reflex driven, not conscious driven"

Not only are people wasting their time with exercises that will do little to enhance the way their core actually functions, but they are gradually destroying joint stability and creating postural dysfunctions. It is ironic for the intention of using these exercises is to prevent these very things.

What people fail to understand is that your abs are unable to move you, other than making you wiggle or flop around like a fish out of water. You need your arms and legs to move you for your abdominal muscles are not capable of doing much. Basically the abdominal muscles have very little influence over how you move, for this is not their true purpose.

True core stability is all about being able to react with perfect reflexes to be able to maintain joint alignment ready for efficient and smooth movement.

This is quite a large topic to discuss and there are many things to consider here that I could take another 5000 words to explain how to do this. 

Below are great videos to watch about stability training and how to integrate the correct breathing into integrated movements like the squat and deadlift.

 

You will find these articles a great resource for all things to do with core strength.

If You Have Knee Pain

If you currently have knee pain and feel it when you squat then you really need to strip back what you are doing and go back to the basics. For many years now we have worked with all types of knee injuries and have great programs and many free articles and videos you can check out to help you. See below.

Our detailed and extensive online programs with both a 60 minute video and 70 page PDF report you can instantly download provide you with all the assessments, stretches, stability drills and strength exercises all mapped out for you. You can get a copy of this by clicking on the image below. The Functional Training free report is also a great resource to put together all the various things about mobility, stability, and overall movement that I have only briefly discussed in this article. This will help you put everything together.

  

Conclusion

I hope this article gives you better understanding of the squat and to once and for all rid your head of the terrible cue, "don't let your knees go over your toes". Not only is this ruining your squat but it is setting you up for future injury. People adopt the poor strategy in the belief it is saving their knees when it is actually liking to hurt them. Learn how to create the perfect squat using your body weight first and then gradually progress to loads and eventually speed. Nothing beats learning to move correctly so spend the time to learn this well and it will pay you back in buckets later.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • The Squat Bible - By Dr Aaron Horschig
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine