Squat Talk: Knees and Toes

We’ve all heard that your knees should never travel past your toes when squatting, correct? This ‘rule’ is about as close to bro science, or maybe just science fiction, as you can get. It’s hard to find much information at all regarding it’s origin.

The only information I could come up with was the same faulty study that was used to ‘prove’ that you should never squat past parallel. This was the same study I quoted in the previous Squat Talk. In this singular study from 1978 at Duke University it was shown that keeping the lower leg as vertical as possible reduced shearing forces on the knee. When looking into that information, there is actually nothing to even explain how this conclusion was drawn, and absolutely no mention of how it was tested. So I think it is safe to say that the rule of knees extending past the toes is almost entirely without merit. Save for one possible exception.

The only study that sort of explains how this came about was one study conducted in 2003. In this particular study, experienced weight lifters squatted using two different styles. They squatted allowing their knees to travel forward past their toes, and they repeated the movement while restricting forward movement of the knees beyond the toes. By reducing movement beyond the toes, torque at the knee was reduced by 22 percent, so that is defintitely something to consider when squatting – with one fairly major caveat; by reducing knee torque by 22 percent, hip torque was increased by 100 percent. This is due to the awkward position the torso must be at in order to accomodate near vertical shins.

This does prove that you can reduce torque at the knee by preventing them from going past the toes, but it doesn’t prove that this is necessary. Also of note in this study is that the researcher allowed the knees travel past the toes as part of the normal method of squatting for those experienced lifters. The prevention of forward movement of the knees was accomplished by artificial means. In both cases, the subjects in the study were capable of handling the load without incident or injury.

None of this should come as a surprise, because your knees go past your toes all the time when you run, jump, walk, sit down, and stand up. This is made possible in part by the natural dorsiflexion range of motion at the ankle. Furthermore, when your knee is flexed, some tension is removed from the gastrocnemius muscle at the knee joint. This allows the ankle to flex through a greater range of motion than when the knee is fully extended, and permits movement of the knee over and past the toes. It’s inconceivable how your knees will suffer injury if they go past your toes during a squat, especially considering they do in nearly every other movement your body does naturally. It’s amazing how our bodies work but it’s a shame that some remain so unaware of its capabilities.

The actual distance your knees will travel is dependent upon which type of squat you’re doing, as well as your body proportions. If you are performing front squats your knees are definitely going over your toes, no matter what. They had better be, or else you’re doing them incorrectly. Also, the longer your femurs, the further past your toes your knees will travel. If you are performing split squats, regular or of the Bulgarian variety, your front knee may not go beyond the toes at all. As long as you push your hips back into the standard back squat correctly, and stay balanced on your midfoot throughout the movement, it doesn’t matter where your knees end up. Allowing your body to do what it was designed to do is always the best course of action.

Happy Lifting!

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