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“Don’t Let your Knees Go Past Your Toes!”

Aimee Anaya

 By this point in your quest for total “jackitude”, I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Never let your knees go past your toes.”

I’m not sure how this saying started, but I assume it started during a game of Dungeons and Dragons, perpetuated by a long standing myth that some guy blew out his o-ring sitting on a toilet, which resembled a squat. Then, as time progressed, the o-ring became the knees (You know how the telephone game works, right?) and there you have it.  Now, you can’t start squatting in any gym without some trainer, who has a certification bought off a seal at Sea World, running up yelling at you through a pre-pubescent, squeaky voice that you’re going to destroy your ACL.

And that, my fellow iron friends, is how the myth of “Never let the knees go over the toes,” started.
Often times in daily moving, your knees travel past your toes, such as when climbing stairs (according to a study by the American Sports Medicine Institute, 0-66 degrees of flexion is normal in this instance), or squatting down to grab that pesky piece of food that fell on the floor. Yet, even though this occurs daily, people inherently still think it’s bad for you and you’ll inevitably catch the Bubonic plague.

The argument largely begins when sheer forces to the knees are examined under load while squatting. According to the American Sports Medicine Institute, maximal compressive forces were found at exactly 91 degrees of flexion, compared to 90 degrees during a leg extension exercise.  The article goes on to say how electromyographic data illustrated greater hamstring and quadriceps contraction during the squat than the other tested exercises.

The thing you should focus on is the hamstring and quadriceps recruitment/contraction, as those are the muscles that support the knee in positioning. Without the contraction between the two, the probability of getting injured is greater than if only focused on one muscle contraction.

In application to sport, where your knees will travel ultimately depends on a few factors, such as what squat you’re performing (low bar, high bar, front), and body proportions (long femur, short femur, etc.). In effort to properly utilize your hamstrings, it’s necessary for your knees to travel slightly in front of your toes in order to get that “bounce” out of the hole, and also for your quads to assist in muscling up the weight. If you want to be an efficient squatter, it makes sense to utilize every muscle you have.
The fact of the matter is, squatting increases the strength of the musculoskeletal system, including the quadriceps and hamstrings, which in turn strengthen (presuming you’re performing the squat properly) the joints.  Stay balanced in your mid-foot, keep the bar over the middle of said mid-foot, stay tight, and allow your body to do what it naturally wants. The more you try to keep your shin vertical, the less balanced you’ll likely be (unless you’re a wide squatter, which is a different story for a different day).

Source Cited:
   Fry, A.C., J.C. Smith, and B.K. Schilling. Effect of hip position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. J. Strength Cond. Res. 17(4): 629-633. 2003.

Wilk, Kevin, Rafael Escamilla, Glenn Fleisig, Steve Barrentine, James Andrews, and Melissa Boyd. “A Comparison of Tibiofemoral Joint Forces and Electromyographic Activit During Open and Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises.” A Comparison of Tibiofemoral Joint Forces and Electromyographic Activit During Open and Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises. N.p., July 1996. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. <>.

Maitland, Murray, Stanley Ajemian, and Esther Suter. “Quadriceps Femoris and Hamstring Muscle Function in a Person With an Unstable Knee.” Quadriceps Femoris and Hamstring Muscle Function in a Person With an Unstable Knee. N.p., Jan. 1999. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. <>.


13 thoughts on ““Don’t Let your Knees Go Past Your Toes!”

  1. Are you making fun of D&D?

  2. Lol.. its rediculous !! ACSM wrote this.. know when you ask somebody to deep squat, you hear: “But my knees can handle”. Oh crap.. why not ?! lol

  3. Hmmmm, this comment is usually made in connection with LUNGES, because there actually ARE asymmetric forces coming from the hammies/quads depending on the style of lunge… Maybe I’m not getting out as much as I used to.

  4. awesome article! I actually figured this out about a week ago. I had been doing the westside style wide squats with a big “sit-back” and no forward knee travel. As a raw lifter, it killed me. So I assumed a wide squat was not for me. Started squatting oly style … never felt right, my back was always in compromising positions. Until I realized, I can squat wide, not sit back as much, AND let my knees travel forward … for some reason it worked. Now I’m a squat machine. Thanks for the good info all the time. – tyler

  5. It seems immediately apparent that position of the knees in the bottom position depend fully on the bar placement, the lifter’s anthropometric peculiarities, and the strength and extensibility of the muscles that make up the posterior chain.

  6. The Mayo Clinic squat stuff is pretty priceless as well. Good for at least a few face palms!

  7. Great post, totally agree.

  8. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along.I’m impressed. You’re truly well informed and very intelligent. You wrote something that people could understand and made the subject intriguing for everyone. I’m saving this for future use.

  9. A big thing that I like to focus on when I coach is that mid-foot cue you talked about. As long as the heel is on the ground during the entire lift then you can be balanced on your mid-foot. One of the bigger limitations I have come across is ankle mobility which will limit the ability to keep the foot planted firmly on the ground.

  10. i have been reading Kelly Starretts book and he say’s to keep your shin vertical as possible this will allow you to channel the power of your hips and hamstrings, personally I find it better to let my knees pass my toes as it gives me a better position to power out of the bottom, as a Crossfit Coach should i stop giving this sue of vertical shins? What are your thought people , thanks

  11. I would say that based on the article, the cue is not doing you any good. When Starrett says to keep the shin as vertical as possible I take it as a cue to forcefully press the heels into the ground when you stand up as this will harness the power of your hips and hamstrings. I too am a CrossFit coach as well as a former D1 football player, our gym is very Olympic weightlifting focused so we are all about life below parallel. I personally have very long femurs and therefore my knees track way in front of my toes, but I try to minimize with a little wider stance and knees out. Think in terms of each of your client’s different body types and you should be using cues that are specific to each individual.

  12. Starrett, uses that cue to initiate out of the bottom of the squat and to keep feet planted firmly. If you watch when he squats his knees track out over his toes but when he goes to stand he gets his shins vertical to allow a stable base and more power. I love this article one of the biggest concerns my athletes have is about their knees.

  13. Thanks for your really helpful comments mr_gfunk and chase watt,

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