Religion, Politics, and Knees Over Toes

knees over toes squat

In the beginning…

I grew up believing one thing about god, faith, and religion. But now I believe differently…
I also used to support one political party but now I support another…
And I used to tell people not to put their knees past their toes. But now I do.

See, as we grow and develop, it’s ok to shift our outlook as we collect more information on a subject.

Much like my beliefs have evolved in religion and politics, I now see things differently with regards to training knees over toes.

knees over toes squat

I’m sure many of you reading this have been told by a trainer or two not to put your knees past your toes in a squat. Heck, we were all taught this by whichever certifying body accredited us as a personal trainer.

But now as a trainer going on 12 years, owning a fitness business for 10+ years, having trained over 4000 unique individuals, as well as applying the practice of knees over toes on both myself and many members in the gym, I can tell you that I support knees over toes in training.

So let’s dive into it:

Saying “no knees over toes” is simply a myth with no scientific merit, and here’s why:

It starts in 1978. Duke University did a study about squatting when you let your knees go over your toes and how it puts more pressure on your knees.  That’s it. 1 study and since then, this huge myth has grown that has propagated throughout the fitness industry.

Then in 2003, Memphis University did a study that when you put your knees over your toes in a squat and how it puts 22% more pressure on your knees, but when you don’t put your knees over your toes in your squat, it actually puts 1000% more pressure on your lower back! I can’t even compute how bad that must be for your back!

It looks a little like this:
knees over toes squat
Doesn’t one just look better than the other? And one will prepare you more for life. Walking down the stairs, building tendon health and strength through a full range of motion.

So what you have, is you have people like myself who have been squatting for years with their knees not passing their toes, not preparing their knees for sport, and hurting their knees and backs in the weight room despite “perfect form”.

This is what originally took me down this rabbit hole… I started looking at the fittest people in the world, the most knowledgable personal trainers, and the one thing that was evident in almost every individual is that they let their knees go past their toes in the squat.

But everyone is different and we should always bring back the exercise to how we feel with it. How do our muscles feel? Do we feel our quads in our squat or do we feel our backs? Much like nutrition, there is no one size fits all. For example, if you have a long torso and short femurs chances are your squats and back have felt good no matter what you’ve done… While you probably hate back squats if you have a shorter torso and longer femurs (thighbone) and probably gravitate to front squats (because it let’s you put your knees past your toes) which takes pressure off your back.

In 1994 there was a study done with olympic lifters…
(Olympic lifters compete in the snatch and the clean and jerk in the Olympics).
Now, olympic lifters are trying to get under the barbell as fast as they can with a maximal knee bend and hamstring completely covering the calf in the bottom of the squat position.

front squat
Like this… That’s an ass to grass squat!

Yes, the very things we are told not to do, yet it’s an olympic sport and yet it was found in this study that olympic lifters had healthier knees than basketball players, football players, gymnasts, and soccer players. This full range training helped them develop 37% thicker tendons giving them more stable knees and less chance of injury. Their knees are literally healthier than the rest of the population!

So 25% of people currently have knee pain…

Now, if you look into physiotherapy for the general population, the step down or reverse step up has been proven to help people rehabilitate their knee.

So if this is helping rehab a knee, why wouldn’t we train that progressively with increased load over time as a strength movement to bulletproof the knee?

No study has ever been done on strengthening the ability of your knee to go over your toes.

YET study after study after study after study will find that both the stronger someone is on a reverse step up, and the better their ankle mobility, the less chance of acl tear, tendon pain, etc…

Here are just a few examples:

Rabin A, Portnoy S, Kozol Z. The Association of Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion With Hip and Knee Kinematics During the Lateral Step-down Test. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2016;46(11):1002‐1009. doi:10.2519/jospt.2016.6621

Kline PW, Johnson DL, Ireland ML, Noehren B. Clinical Predictors of Knee Mechanics at Return to Sport after ACL Reconstruction. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(5):790‐795. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000856

All of this sort of training is building your VMO. The more active your VMOs (vastus medialis oblique), the more protected you’ll be, and the more you’ll get out of all your efforts. The Chinese Olympic weightlifting team actually will elevate individual’s heels in their squats during training if anyone complains of knee pain (which puts the knee forward even more and develops the VMO).
vmo, muscle

But how do you get started if?

  • You have pre-existing pain in your knee
  • You have limited range of motion and your knee feels worse with full knee bend
  • When you add weights, your lifts feels worse
  • You’ve never trained with full range
  • Your hips are much stronger relative to your knees (structural imbalance)

>>> You simply decrease the range of motion and feel the burn in the muscle while NEVER TRAINING THROUGH PAIN OR DISCOMFORT.

>>> Strength radiates 15 degrees so the more you train pain free, the more pain free range you will acquire and eventually open up the next 15 degrees of range of motion and so on…

Makes sense right… So why wouldn’t we do this on a split squat as well?

No studies have been done on an ass to grass split squat, but studies have been done on both ass to grass squats and traditional split squats:

“Provided that technique is learned accurately under expert supervision and with progressive training loads, the deep squat presents an effective training exercise for protection against injuries and strengthening of the lower extremity. Contrary to commonly voiced concern, deep squats do not contribute increased risk of injury to passive tissues.”

This is the first study to suggest that BI [Squat] and UNI [Split Squat] training interventions may be equally efficacious in improving measures of lower-body strength, 40-m speed, and change of direction in academy level rugby players.

Thus, combining both an ass to grass squat with a traditional split squat, we get a movement which the studies above clearly indicate may provide maximal athletic benefits AND maximal health benefits at the same time!

I’ll continue to take this obsession with the details further down the rabbit hole so that you may maximally benefit from your time in the gym with us.

The more you are aware of your body, your reps, and the weights you are using in every exercise, the more you will benefit progressively over time.

Committed to your success,
Josh Saunders