Squatting with Your Knees over Your Toes

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How to squat is a highly debated topic and cues for teaching the squat are very extensive. Typically most people are good to go as long as they focus on sitting back and driving the knees away from the midline of the body. Those two adjustments make a huge difference in squatting.

Notice I left out whether or not the knees should come out forward over the toes. This is a cue that I have used as well as ignored. Sounds contradictory, right?

Well depending on where you learn from, you might be opposing beliefs on the matter. Let’s take a look at what different groups think about the amount of knee flexion in squatting.

What does the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) say?

They favor the vertical shin technique where the ankle angle does not change from standing. The shin more basically forms a right angle with the foot.

What do the (Olympic) Weightlifters Say?

Weightlifters require full depth squats and therefore are not concerned with the increase of ankle dorsiflexion. The knees can come as far out over the toes as necessary to catch the lift.

The difference in opinion is because of safety versus performance. The NSCA is not going to recommend anything that might get someone hurt, Weightlifters need to lift the most amount of weight they can in the clean and jerk and snatch. 

I am still not going to take a side yet, but take a look at the injury rates from weightlifting. A 1970’s study found high shear forces in squats that do not maintain a vertical shin.

So who is right?

In the words of Dan John, Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, etc.: It depends.

Populations that should not try to let the knees come forward include:

  • Those whose ankles do not allow it
  • Those who cannot correctly hinge at the hips and sit back
  • Those in pain with too much ankle dorsiflexion (usually this means that they are not pushing the hips back correctly)

Populations that can go nuts and squat either way:

  • Those that have the ankle mobility
  • Those that have mastered the hip hinge
  • Weightlifters
  • Those wearing weightlifting shoes- the heel lift automatically puts you in a more forward knee position
  • Those that squat with their weight on the full foot, sit back, and with a neutral spine.

Those that should squat with the knees coming forward:

  • Those with back pain

Research has shown that unrestricted (knees forward) squatting lowers compensation patterns in the low back from squatting.

I would assume that these people sit back properly and do not need to be coached to do so. For anyone that has a tough time squatting back and not straight down, I actually prefer to restrict knee movement. Once they can sit back properly I take the focus off of the knees. 

Look at where you stand in the groups of people I detailed above. If your knees are killing you from squatting, master pushing the hips back. Squatting with a vertical shin temporarily will help teach you the correct movement.

If you are someone that keeps good posture and squats pain free, do not concern yourself with where your knees are.

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