Coach Jake Shannon – Squatting & Your Knees

Jake squat

June 7, 2017

Let me put a persistent strength training myth to bed for you all. It revolves around squatting and knee placement…
When you squat, your knees can and should travel past your toes!!

Shock horror

I can almost guarantee at one point in your life (assuming you have been in a gym before,) you’ve heard someone say either one of these phrases in relation to squats. “Keep your knees behind your toes” “keep your shins vertical” or my all-time favourite “break at your hips first and sit back into the squat”

Do they even realise it’s squatting, not deadlifting?

If you were to place a box across the line of your toes and tried to squat where your knees were only able to track as far as the box lets you, you will find out several things.

Fry et al

Firstly you will have noticed that you had to hinge much more at the hips. Secondly you may have realised that it was more difficult to squat to parallel than it usually is.

The picture above is from a research paper published by Fry et al in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning. Fry and his colleagues concluded that while the forces on the knee were high when squatting with the knees past the toes, the forces in the lower back were greater and more severe when restricting the knees traveling forward. This should be quite evident from the picture.

Check out this Olympic lifters knee position while under a large load. Do you think she could get into this position if she was avoiding letting her knees travel past her toes?

Olympic lift

However here’s the thing that fascinates me all the time in the strength and conditioning/fitness industry, there are always differences of opinion. While I subscribe to the theories and methodologies of a man named Guy Gregory Haff who promotes the Olympic style high bar squat which allows an upright torso and has more transference to athletic endeavours, others disagree. Prominent American strength coach Mark Rippetoe argues black and blue that the best way to squat is with a low bar set up and a more horizontal back position. One of his cues he uses when coaching the squat is, and pardon the crudeness of it, but he says “point your nipples to the floor.” This leads to a squat position that looks more like squat ‘B’ in the previous picture.

The fact is both styles will make you stronger. What you need to decide on, is what you are after from your squats and which style suits you more.

From my experiences as a coach, the high bar squat is typically easier to learn and master. The low bar squat requires more mobility through the thoracic spine and shoulders to accommodate the setup. As previously mentioned the high bar Olympic style squat transfers more to sports whereas the low bar squat typically means you can lift more and is far more preferred in powerlifting circles. Since I train athletes and the general population I tend to stick with the high bar squat.

Have another look at the female weightlifter in the picture. She is in a perfectly safe and natural position. To those of you that think “oh my God, her knees are about to explode!” I say to you, NO YOU ARE WRONG!! (Said with frustrated anger while I restrain from screaming at you because you have little to no idea what you are talking about and you’re referencing how poor you are at squats and feel the need to beat down on someone who is good at them…) Humans were built to squat to this depth. Look at babies when they pick things up, look at cultures who don’t sit in front of computers all day. The problem is the ‘norm’ for people these days is a serious lack of mobility and flexibility due to our lazy and sedentary lifestyles that leave us rigid and immobile.

Maybe I should return to the original point of this blog. Squats are not bad for your knees. Even after surgery. Okay, two days after surgery isn’t a good idea, but you get what I mean. I have a general population client who had surgery on both knees last July/August and from memory I had him squatting around 5-6 weeks after his operations. Much to his disgust at the time, but now he squats more than he did pre-op. His doctor told him never to lunge or squat again!! I laughed when he told me this in his first session back and told him to get ready to squat in a month. He’s now also back to lunging, again much to his disgust.

Squats are for everyone. Unless you have a serious injury or the mobility skills of wooden plank, everybody should squat. Lastly, I’ll finish with an adapted quote from Dr Brett Contreras (another prominent American Strength coach) “If you think squatting is dangerous, try being weak. Being weak is dangerous…”.