Not too long ago I wrote a blog called “Lunges are Awesome for Your Knees! Or NOT!” (August 2018). Before that, there was another one called “Preventing Low Back Pain – Check Your Hip Flexors” (October 2017). And, way back when, there was a blog about using the hip hinge in many every day and sport activities, called “A Little Move That Means A Lot” (June 2016).
They are all related to a question that comes up frequently. The question: Is it really necessary to keep your knees behind your toes when you squat or lunge? If not, why do they almost always tell you this in a training session or class situation? (me included)
I will answer this by bringing in a few key concepts and maybe a little bit of research.
Let’s say you are in a class and the next exercise is to do some squats. Normally (hopefully) the instruction is to push your butt back first, don’t round your back, and hinge forward from your hips. Then as you squat, make sure your knees don’t come out in front of your toes. You need to be able to see at least a little bit of them. The reason: if your knees are heading too far forward during a squat, it puts pressure behind your kneecap where it sits on your femur. Like 28% more pressure than normal. So, for general purposes in a class or in many training situations, that is good advice.
To take it a bit further, there are a couple of concepts that can help you even more.
1. Everything is connected.
If your hip hinge isn’t very good, it can mean that you do not have much mobility at your hip joint. If that is the case, and you try to keep your knees behind your toes as you squat, you may end up rounding your back and bending forward too much to compensate. When that happens, you can get a huge amount of increased hip stress, and plenty of low back stress as well. What does this mean for your squats?
It means that you can learn a lot about what your body is doing by checking things out. Take a look in a mirror when you squat, if possible, and see what is happening. If you are not getting the hip hinge or much mobility in your hip that allows you to go down in a squat, you need to work on that. Another area that you could check out is your ankle. Often if you find that you can’t get very far down in a squat, even with a good hip hinge, it can mean that your ankles don’t bend enough to let you get down. Another area you can work on!
2. There are times when having your knees go past your toes in a squat or other moves is really OK.
If you watch sports, you will notice that athletes have to make all sorts of dips and contortions in order to be good at their sport. In this case, training their knees to go past their toes is part of the deal. Having said that, you may notice that often the execution of their required sport is done using a hip hinge and taking care not to jam the knees too far forward. Please note: baseball catchers are NOTORIOUS for having bad knees. When you get a chance, take a gander at how they have to position themselves to do their job, and you will understand.
The take home?
In regular life, and in a regular class when you are squatting, it’s a good idea to do the best hip hinge you can, keep your knees behind your toes, AND check out what is happening as you do so. You may learn some very useful things about how your body works, and be able to fix a few things (like your hip and ankle mobility). This can be huge for improving how you walk, climb stairs, move around in general, and for saving yourself from knee or back pain.
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