Knees in Front of the Toes on the Squat

Mar 23rd, 2013

Category: Fitness

Knees in Front of the Toes on the Squat

Reminder: I will be holding a Starting Strength Camp on the low bar back squat tomorrow, Sunday, March 23rd, from 1 PM till 5 PM. I still have a few spots open. Sign ups and additional info can be found at the Aasgaard Company Store.

Jo Ann Clean

Jo Ann receiving a clean in a full depth front squat. Note that her knees are in front of her toes and that her shins are inclined. This segment arrangement keeps her from falling backwards and maintains an upright torso, both of which are necessary for a recovery from a clean.

People often suggest that squatting is bad for the knees. I am not, however, going to address that assertion in much detail this evening. Suffice to say that I disagree and I would sincerely enjoy hearing an explanation for how a properly executed, full depth squat is dangerous to knee health. Said explanation should involve a thorough treatment of knee anatomy and a look at the forces encountered by the knee during a squat. Enough about that.

Instead, we’ll take a brief look at where the knee should end up during the squat, particularly with respect to the toes. When I talk about knee position, think about a plumb bob (I like that word) tied to a string hanging off the front of the knee. The position of that plumb bob above the ground is that in which we are interested.

Let’s address a commonly voiced concern – the knees should not be allowed to travel in front of the toes while squatting. Due to varying segment lengths among trainees, the position of the knee will not be the same for everyone. However, for a large majority of lifters, the knee can and probably should travel in front of the toes by the time they are about half way down in the squat. The biggest reason for this is balance. Try this for yourself – squat with as vertical a shin angle as you can. Not very easy is it? You have to lean pretty far forward to counteract the vertical shin, if you can even maintain such a configuration. Allowing the knees to come forward in front of the toes allows a trainee to keep their center of mass, which closely approximates the barbell at heavy weights, over the middle of the foot, which is also the point of balance for human beings.

How far forward the knees travel will be a function of segment lengths and the type of squat being performed.  Low bar back squats have less forward travel than high bar back squats which have less travel than the front squat. Some are concerned that when the knees travel in front of the toes, the patellar ligament will undergo undue strain. Provided that the hamstrings are properly engaged in a strong isometric contraction (ahem… as happens during a low bar squat), the forces along the anterior and posterior aspects of the femur are very nicely balanced. Remember that the patellar ligament inserts on the tibia and the tendons of the hamstrings also insert on the tibia and fibula. Things work out nicely that way.

Allowing the knee enough forward travel in the squat allows a trainee to stay in balance and also provides the quadriceps additional opportunity to aid with standing back up. The eventual position of the knee with respect to the toe will vary from trainee to trainee. A vertical shin is not necessary in a squat and is not possible for most trainees without a very wide stance, or the use of a box to contact at the bottom of the movement.