I was giving a two-day seminar to a group of 15 personal trainers on powerlifting techniques. When we started the squat module, I asked, “How many people think squatting with your knees past your toes is dangerous?” All but one person raised their hand.
Can your knees go over your toes while squatting? If you have no injuries, your knees can safely bend in front of your toes during squats. To keep your knees stable and balanced, you must keep them in line with your foot (not caving inward) and ensure the bar is directly over the mid-line of the foot at the bottom of the squat.
Let's dive deeper into the squat mechanics to see how much stress gets put on the knees when they travel forward. We'll also discuss setting up and initiating the squat to ensure a safe and effective position with your knees.
What Makes Knee Over-Toe Squats Different?
Similarities to Proper Squats
No matter how far you bend your joints, either forward or backward, it is always recommended that your knees at least track your toes. This ensures that the hip, knee, and ankle are all aligned and working together optimally through a squat. Knees over toes squats especially must rely on keeping knee position stable.
Where your toes point on a squat does make a difference, and knowing whether to have toes pointing inward or outward is something you should understand if you enjoy squatting.
Upper Body Positioning
Regardless of what the lower body is doing, the upper body in a squat should look the same. Whether you’re a high-bar or low-bar squatter is irrelevant if you keep sticking to the same one. Though you may change between knees over toes and proper squats, the upper body stays the same regardless of your choice.
Regardless of knees over toes or proper squats, the cueing of when to bend your hips and knees and the depth of your squat remains the same. Not just for normal and knees over toes, these cues can apply to most existing squats and should be followed regularly.
Differences to Proper Squats
Depth of Squat
The possible depth is the clearest difference between proper squats and knees over toes. By pushing your knees over your toes, your hips can fall much lower to the ground than when you focus on pushing your hips backward.
More of a prerequisite than a result, but knee over toes squats demand a certain level of ankle flexibility to perform them well. Whereas with a proper squat, the shins remain vertical, in a knee over-toes squat, the shins angle forward, creating ankle flexion. Ankles that are too stiff will not be capable of this action, and it is often visible because the heels struggle to stay on the ground.
Though commonly taught, pushing through the heels during your squat is only a partial instruction. When performing proper squats, the cue is often to push through the heels, which is not wrong but incomplete. The full instruction is to push through the forefoot and the heel, imagining the big toe and pinky driving into the ground, which is greatly emphasized in knees over toes squats.
Benefits of Knees Over Toes
Before doing knee over toes squats, you should understand their benefits and risks.
Improved Hip, Knee, and Ankle Mobility
By having your knees go over your toes, you indirectly train your body to be more tolerant of extreme positions, in this case, with the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Just like you would stretch to become more flexible for exercises like the splits, practicing knees over toes will help make you more flexible in the positions you need to hold.
Better Stretch of the Muscles Working
It’s important to start with a little background of muscle contractions here. A muscle can either contract (gets bigger as the ends come closer together) or lengthen (gets smaller as the ends get farther apart). When exercising, you may have noticed that flexing your muscles makes them look bigger and tighter; that’s a contraction.
Stretching a muscle to its limits and contracting them as much as possible will, in turn, train the whole part of the muscle.
This is important to understand so the difference between knee over toes squats can be seen. A proper squat with hips moving back and shins vertically doesn’t maximize full muscular contraction, whereas knees past toes do maximize length within the quads and hamstrings. This allows full muscle development, which is especially important for bodybuilders.
Risks of Knees Over Toes
Can Cause Bad Spinal Curving
Specifically, at the bottom of the motion, squatting down to the ground with knees over toes can sometimes cause you to do a “butt wink.” This is a whole other myth discussion, but the main point to take away is that if you lack control of your spine during a squat, you may start butt-winking. This becomes a problem because it can lead to lower back pain as the spine loses stability at the bottom of the lift and has the load push through it damagingly.
Excess Load on Joints
Similarly, the joints will also feel an excess load and tension because knees past toes require excess joint motion compared to proper squats. While being mindful of nagging pains and how you feel can help avoid injuries, there is an increased risk of knee pain occurring over time because of the intense motion of knees over toes.
If you are experiencing knee pain when squatting it is worthwhile to discover underlying issues, as they can certainly compound and make it difficult to work out.
Types of Squats for Knees Over Toes
Some squats do better with knees over toes as a cue than others. Those that benefit are front squats, Hackenschmidt squats, barbell back squats, and sissy squats.
Some that do not benefit include sumo, Spanish, and box squats.
When it comes to Hackenschmidt and sissy squats, the cue of knees over toes when squatting makes sense because the only way to do the movement properly is to have the knee position itself over the toes. In fact, both variations require you to squat with heels in the air, forcing your knees far beyond your toes. Considering the simple concept of knees over toes is controversial, doing something like a sissy squat really pushes that fear to the edge as it's an extreme squat variation.
Consider whether sissy squats are good for the knees to help settle some of your fears over that exercise specifically.
Variations like sumo and Spanish squats wouldn’t benefit from knees over toes cueing based on how they are performed. The knees must stay more over the heel with shins vertical and hips staying central, as in a sumo squat, or hips excessively moving backward, like in a Spanish squat.
If you are interested in experimenting with knees over toes on different squat variations, be careful that it does not compromise the movement or cause you to perform it in a damaging way.
But First, Where Did This “Myth” Come From?
The “don't let your knees pass your toes” myth started from a 1978 study that claimed squatting with your knees not passing your toes reduces forces on your knee.
These forces are called shear forces, and I want to explain them. I will bridge these nerdy physics into practical applications in the next section.
What are shear forces? Shear forces are unaligned forces pushing one part of the body in one direction and another part of the body in the opposite direction. When contracting the quads in the squat, the kneecap gets pulled on due to the femur (leg bone) shifting backward and the tibia (shin bone) shifting forward. This causes the kneecap to move away from the tibia.
This is shear force at its finest.
But there's one more thing to know: shear forces increase when the joint moves further away from the load.For example, when standing with the barbell on your back, the load is directly over your hips and knees. It's in alignment, and there's not much shear force happening here. As you squat, though, your knees move in front of the load (the barbell), creating a horizontal distance between the load and knees, which is where the shear force described above occurs.
The further the knee travels forward, the greater the horizontal distance between the knees and the load and the more shear force. Keep your knees back, more in line with the barbell, with less shear force.
So with the result of the 1978 study showing that shear forces can decrease if you can keep your knees behind your toes, fitness professionals advised their clients to squat this way. This makes sense because fitness instructors work with everyday people (not athletes) and err on the side of caution — as they should.
But the study failed to account for one thing…
Squatting is a Multi-Joint Movement
The 1978 study failed to address other forces acting on the body, especially through the hips.
A study in 2003 confirmed that shear force increased by 28% when the knees were allowed to move in front of the toes while squatting. However, the shear force increased at the hip by nearly 1000% when subjects were restricted in moving the knee forward in the squat.
The same principles above apply to the hips but in reverse.
Instead of the knees traveling forward, the hips are now traveling backward. If you want to prevent the knees from going over the toes, the hips need to travel quite far behind the load. You can think of this type of squatting as trying to push your hips back as you descend into the squat, putting most of the load onto your heels.
So what should we take away from this?
Squatting is a multi-joint movement, and we're going to experience some level of shear force at the knee and hip as we descend into the bottom range of motion. There is a give-and-take relationship between the hip and the knee. As the knee limits its range of motion forward, the hips increase its range of motion backward, and vice versa.
So the cue to limit the knees from moving forward only works to a point. If you want to do a full-range squat, you will need to push the knees forward in front of the toes eventually. The deeper the squat, the more your knees must move forward to remain balanced and prevent excessive shear force at the hip.
Let's talk about the right balance between pushing the knees forward and pushing the hips back in the squat.The knees will be farther forward in the back squat than the box squat. Learn more differences between the back squat vs box squat.
Want to improve your squat technique?
It All Starts With How You Initiate The Squat
What To Do & What Not To Do
The best way to start the squat is by hinging at the hips before bending at the knee.
You don't want to over-exaggerate the hinging, but you do want to feel like there's some forward lean and bending at the hip before cracking the knees. This will load up your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae) and keep the bar over your support base (the foot's midline).
Let's consider the opposite — bending at the knees first.
Eventually, you will reach a point halfway down where your ankles will restrict you from going further. At that point, you must push your hips back rapidly to compensate for this restriction. This is not the point in the squat where you want to make any rapid changes to your hip position, especially under load (a big squat mistake).
In addition, your balance and efficiency are judged by how well you can keep the load over your base of support. When you bend the knees first, the load automatically goes forward onto the ball of the foot, which is less stable and harder to control.
Related Article: Best Squat Shoes For Knee Pain
Cue Hips, Then Knees
So the squat should be initiated by the hips first. A good cue is to think about ‘cracking the hips' and ‘loading the feet'. This allows you to load the posterior chain and feel your support base through your feet.
Regardless of your individual mechanics, everyone must have some forward knee movement.
So at about halfway down, you'll want to push forward into the knees to move the hips underneath the torso.
Remember, the deeper you squat, the more forward knee bend is required. This is normal.
What To Look For In Terms Of Safety
At the bottom of the squat, you're looking for a few key positions for the movement to be considered safe on the knees:
- Are the heels flat on the floor?
- Are the knees caving inward, or are the knees aligned with the toes?
- Is the bar over the mid-part of the foot at the bottom?
So rather than being concerned about whether your knees are going in front of the toes, look for each of these positions. If they aren't achieved, you'll experience a more sheer force at the knee joint level above and beyond what's considered ”normal”, and you'll feel less stable while squatting.
Want to feel your glutes more while squatting? Check out my 9 tips.
Key information to consider is the application of hip and knee torques which differ based on performing a proper squat or knee over toes squat. Knee torque is higher when performing a knees-over-toes squat, but the hip torque is significantly greater with a proper squat than with a knees-over-toes squat.
For our purposes, it is simple enough to know that torque is force acting upon an object trying to make it rotate, so the greater the torque, the higher the chance of rotation. When it comes to torque on a joint like a knee or hip, the greater torque implies greater stress to that joint.
Individual Mechanics: How Much Forward Knee Bend Should You Have?
How much forward knee bend will vary drastically from person to person based on the length of their tibia (shin bone), femur (thigh bone), and torso.
Someone with longer femurs (and shorter tibias) will need to push their knees forward more if they want to squat at full range of motion. Conversely, someone who has shorter femurs (and longer tibias) will be able to sink their hips into a deep squat without having to push their knees forward as much.
Also, consider your feet and how they stand normally. Some people often have “duck feet,” where the toes always point out. Thinking about how to squat with duck feet is important because the knees will follow the toes, so you must pay attention to that alignment.
The best explanation of how to treat your individual mechanics while squatting is by Tom Purvis. What you should take away is that there will be biological strengths and limitations with how you're built. It's not whether the knees will travel in front of the toes. It's when they do travel in front of the toes. The distance traveled is a result of how you're built.
If you play a sport, there will be several moments when the knee must travel past the toes. Therefore your strength training program needs to consider your performance goals and prepare the muscles and joints to handle the applicable forces.
This is true whether you're a powerlifter, football player, speed skater, or otherwise. However, if you work out to lose weight and have general health goals, then your training requirements may not require you to squat as deep and, as a result, not have excessive forward knee bend. You must decide which category you fit into and assess whether doing deep squats will benefit your goals.
For example, you can read my article on the Olympic squat vs powerlifting squat, where I describe that it's more beneficial for Olympic weightlifters to have their knees bent further forward in the squat.
Rather than focusing on how much the knees go over your toes while squatting, consider this: keeping the bar over the midline of the foot, the heels on the ground, and prevent the knees from caving inward.
To help achieve this, start the squat by ‘cracking at the hips' to load the posterior chain, and then bend the knee forward as you get deeper into the bottom.
What to Read Next?
- Should My Toes Be Pointed In or Out
- How Low Should You Go For Powerlifting Squats
- Best Squat Shoes For Low Bar Position (Top Reviews)
- Hip Dominant vs Knee Dominant Exercises (Simple Guide)
- McLaughlin, T., Lardner, T., & Dillman, C. (1978, May). Kinetics of the parallel squat. Research Quarterly, 49(2), 175-189.
- Fry, AC., Smith, JC, S., & Schilling, BK. (2003, November). Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 17(4), 629-633.