All my life, from strength training with the middle school football team, to casual conversations at the gym, the idea of letting your knees go past your toes while squatting has been forbidden. Today, I'm going to explain to you why that's actually not the case, and what is much more important to focus on instead.
The reason why people have said for so many years to not allow your knees to pass your toes is to prevent knee injuries. To be clear, squatting can cause knee problems, no matter where your knees are. However, squatting with knees going past the toes can strengthen your VMO muscles in your quads. This study (1) shows us how squat depths between 50-80 degrees had much higher VMO (vastus medialis obliquus) activation than a 15 degree squat depth. It's kind of obvious, since a 15 degree squat is a very small movement. But, the path we are seeing is that a deeper squat works out our VMO muscles harder, and that's valuable information.
I would also like to mention that keeping your ankles and knees in a line while squatting is unnatural. If you allow your body to move the way it wants to, your knees will pass your toes. The position of being past a 90 degree angle while squatting is a compromising position, but maybe the reason it's a compromising position is because you're weak in that position because you never train in that position. Was that a run on sentence? Anyway, it's like a self fulfilling prophecy. Leave the ego at the door, and squat naturally with less weight, if any, than you are used to doing. Get stronger in this compromising position until it's no longer compromising.
Dr. Peter Attia, who is much smarter than me, says "If you want to kick ass when you're 85, you can't afford to be average when you're 50." Replace 50 with whatever age you are, and it still holds true. He teaches exercise for longevity, and one of the key components he's doing in this video is eccentric loading on a step up. As he sets up the lift, his leg is at 90 degrees. But as soon as he starts his demonstration, he allows his knee to pass his toes.
Like I mentioned in one of my previous posts, falling is one of the easiest ways to get hurt as we age, and doing squats, lunges, and step ups with your knees passing your toes might be one of the best ways to strengthen the legs to prevent these falls.
The next study (2) we can look at examined two squatting positions, one with knees moving freely (naturally may be a better word...) and one with vertical shins. What they found is very interesting. Vertical shins did reduce the amount of impact on the knees, it transferred that force to the lower back and hips.
From that, my takeaway is that those with existing knee pain may want to do weighted squats with vertical shins. If you don't experience knee pain while squatting, though, you should definitely allow your knees to move naturally.
If you have knee pain, I would strongly suggest by starting with hamstring exercises like the Romanian deadlift and the Roman chair. Strengthening these muscles will support your knee.
As for squatting, don't give up just yet. Start practicing squats with natural movement in your knees with no weight and limited range of motion twice per week. If you can do 4 sets of 15 squats at 25 degrees without knee pain, then next week try 35 degrees, then 45 degrees, and so on until you can break past 90 degrees without pain. Once you can do it without pain, add weight.
The last thing I want to mention, and potentially the most important, is the position of your knees horizontally is far more important than whether your knees pass your toes or not. Your knees buckling is extremely dangerous (dramatic picture below) while squatting. Watch your knees while you squat. If you notice your knees buckling slightly, lower the weight and put an emphasis on where your knees are supposed to be. I had to do this, and it was very humbling. Like I said, leave your ego at the door when you get to the gym.
And as always, email me with any questions you have.
Until next time,
Owner and operator of Heroes Fitness, INC.