“I’ve heard that if you squat with your knees past your toes THEY’LL EXPLODE!”
I’m sure a decent amount of individuals were cringing as they watched our pistol squat breakdown on our social media page last week. In reality, this fear is unfounded!
When I first began coaching fitness this was a worry of so many when I asked them to let go of that belief. At Nexus, we train squat variations that rely on a fairly upright torso (front squat, squat clean, goblet squats). It’s a challenge to do these squats effectively if you force your knees back behind the toes. This pushes your hip and knees backward, pitching your torso so far forward that you become off balance.
There’s no need to worry about it because the belief that the knees traveling forward in a squat will “ruin you” is false. Think about when you descend stairs, stand out of a chair, or kneel… Your body naturally places the knee more forward, towards the front of the foot in these movements, right? Good! That’s the body doing its best to find balance to perform the movement/position and achieve your task.
Where did the myth come from?
This myth gained popularity after a Duke study from over 40 years ago. The 1978 study suggested that keeping the shin perpendicular with the floor reduced shear forces at the knee. The lead researcher then used the data to support his prior belief that squatting below parallel was unhealthy.
Another study conducted by Fry et al. (2003) showed that squatting with a restricted forward knee movement decreased knee torque values by about 20%.
What many may overlook in the 2003 study was that they also found that by limiting forward knee travel, the stress shifted from the knees to the hips and low back. Another interesting point about both studies is that neither showed that these forces were detrimental to the knees.
So do we allow the knees or the hips to own the load based on this information? I think I have a better solution! Let’s allow them to share the load and find a balance that works best for each individual.
Upgrading the squat
Each type of squat (pistol squats, front squats, back squats, etc.) require a certain amount of balance, power, mobility, and ability. Working with a coach to develop your ideal squat is best but until then, make the goal of your squat to find more balance between the hips and knees. Try enhancing your squats by doing these steps:
- Instead of leading entirely with the knees or hips, unlock the hips slightly and then sit down into the bottom of your squat.
- Aim to keep your weight over the middle of your feet (not your heels) to ensure that you’ve tapped into maximum power and strength. Think about keeping your weight evenly distributed between your heel, big toe, and little toe.
- Maintain a mostly upright torso throughout the movement. Hold your arms in front of you or hold a small plate at arm’s length as a counterbalance to help keep your chest pointing forward.
If your knees bother you as you squat, it’s probably a mechanical issue. This can be made better by upgrading how you squat, not if. Your knees should be strengthened by the movement.
If you need help improving your achy knees, talk to us! We’d love to help you live a more active, pain-free life.
Mclaughlin, T.M., Lardner, T., & Dillman, C. (1978). Kinetics of the parallel squat. Research quarterly, 49 2, 175-89 .
Fry, A. C., Smith, J. C., & Schilling, B. K. (2003). Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 17(4), 629–633. https://doi.org/10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017<0629:eokpoh>2.0.co;2