Squatting is both an exercise and a basic human movement. Whether you like squats or not, you probably do it multiple times every day.
Odds are nobody has told you that your knees can’t go past your toes as you sit down on the toilet, but try that in the gym in front of certain people and you may find yourself on the receiving end of a lecture on biomechanics. (Granted you probably don’t have room for an audience in your bathroom!)
Have you also heard that squats are bad for your knees? Doesn’t that seem odd, considering it’s a movement we do many times every day?
You’ll find a more complete explanation about why it’s time to reconsider these and a couple of other bits of “wisdom” about squats.
In the gym, it’s not unusual to run into someone who doesn’t squat. Sometimes it’s for legitimate reasons in which squatting is contraindicated for them, but quite often you meet someone who avoids squatting simply because they’ve been deterred by one of several pervasive myths about squats that make them believe squats are not for them, or that squats are simply bad.
Do any of the following myths sound familiar?
For some reason this myth makes me start humming, “head, shoulders, knees, and toes…” Anyone else? What about now? Either way, “Never let your knees go past your toes” is a common instruction when squatting that is not entirely accurate. It is true that, in some cases, the knees jutting forward past the toes is a sign of poor squat form. However, sometimes it is simply a result of the unique structure of an individual’s body. Relative limb lengths can result in the knee either being behind or in front of the toes in a good squat.
Tip for coaches and trainers: Good or bad squat, though, I don’t actually don’t like this “knees and toes” language because the knees going past the toes is an outcome. Often when someone says, “Don’t let your knees go past your toes,” the person doesn’t know exactly what to do to fix that. Odds are that they aren’t going to quickly spring to the conclusion that if they keep more of their weight in the heels and/or lower their hips straight down instead of shifting them forward as they lower down that it would cause the knees to stay farther away from the toes. It would be more helpful if they were actually told what to do rather than making them try to figure it out on their own, mid-rep. As far as I’m concerned, “Push through the heels and toes during your squat” is a more helpful correction than “don’t let your knees pass your toes.”
To work on mastering this cue, start your squat with your heels up against a low box and holding a weight against your chest. Squat down until your glutes just touch the box, and then stand back up. It’s nearly impossible to do this squat variation in a manner that will let the knees slide too far forward. If you’re new to squatting, hold the weight away from you as you squat down, since that will provide a counterbalance that will help you achieve better form. As you get comfortable with the movement, start keeping the weight closer to your chest. Eventually, you won’t need the weight or box at all.
So, if your knees go past your toes when you squat, how do you know if it’s actually a problem? Perform another squat-to-box, taking a look at the angles of your back and shins as you do so. If you’re squatting with a light weight, set yourself up with a mirror at your side and hold the position briefly when your glutes touch the box. Hover, don’t sit, as you look at yourself in the mirror. How does your shin angle look relative to your back angle? If it’s about the same, you’ve probably got a pretty nice squat, regardless of where your knees are relative to your toes.
If you’re not comfortable holding that position and looking over to the side while you squat, ask someone to record a video of you from the side, or setup your camera so you can record yourself, and then stop the video at or near the bottom of your squat.
While this angle comparison almost always ensures you are squatting nicely, it is still worth checking that your weight is in fact evenly distributed over your whole foot. Chances are that if you have these parallel lines, your weight is spread evenly over your whole foot. But it’s still nice to have independent verification.
Next, have a look at your feet as you squat. If your heels rise up off of the floor, it’s likely that you are shifting your weight forward as you squat. Try keeping your weight distributed through both the heels and the toes, and see if you can notice the difference.
Now take a look at the front view of your squat. As you squat down, pay attention to the arches of your feet. Are they getting smaller as you get lower into the squat? This may happen on the way down, on the way up, or both.
If so, you’re actually seeing medial (toward the inside) movement, which does not necessarily mean you are shifting forward, but medial and forward movement often go together. To correct any issues, try pushing through the whole foot as above, but try to push your knees out as you do so.
Tip for coaches and trainers: Even if you notice a client’s feet are shifting to the inside without a forward shift, this medial movement is still worth correcting. I don’t use “knees out” to cue squats in general as I don’t necessarily want to see the knees go out, but if I see the knees going in, I say “knees out” as a way to stop the knees going in.
We all have different bodies, so do we need to all squat with the same stance? Is there any compelling reason that spreading your feet hip-width apart and turning your toes out by about 10 degrees is the best way to squat? There isn’t. Sure, it’s probably a good stance for the average exerciser, but we’re not all average. So how do you find your best squat stance? There are several options that work, and I’m going to share the one I use with my clients: trial and error. After all, sometimes the simplest option is the best one.
Grab a relatively light weight — a 15- or 20-pound kettlebell or dumbbell — and hold it in front like a goblet. Start with your feet in the “average” squat position I just discussed (hip-width feet with toes turned out by about 10 degrees) and perform three squats. Pay attention to how they feel and, if possible, have someone watch them and see how they look (from the front and from the side), or record yourself performing the squats on video. Repeat this test with the following squat variations:
Note that, if you’re performing three reps of each variation, that adds up to 27 squats.So if you’re new to weight training, you may want to split that up into two or three sets.
Did one option feel great? Did any feel awkward? If one felt particularly good, record a video to see if it also looked good. If it did, then you’ve got yourself a squat stance.
Tip for coaches and trainers: Interestingly I often hear this from clients: “This one feels easier, so it must be wrong,” or “This one feels harder, so I think it’s right.” Um, no. In fact, when I hear this, I question whether I contributed to their negative view of exercise. But then I realize that, in many cases, if an exercise feels easy, it’s a sign that they are doing it wrong. Like a floppy bird dog, or a push-up with a limp core. So that’s a fair point, but in the case of a squat, often the position that feels easiest is actually the best position. Just double check that it looks good, too.
If you found that more than one squat stance felt good, then have a squat-off between those positions and see if one feels best. If you found that none felt quite right, but some felt awful, then try tweaking the ones that didn’t feel awful. Maybe go even narrower, or even wider, or in between. If you still can’t find a position that feels good, then it’s possible that squats aren’t a great exercise choice for you at the moment. More on that next.
(second video goes with this myth. It’s more talk-y than normal with only a brief demo)
This one leads nicely from the last myth. I just typed “Squat is the” into Google, and came up with
“perfect analogy of life”
“most important exercise”
“king of exercise”
It appears that the Internet loves the squat. Unfortunately, the squat doesn’t love everyone. There are a host of reasons why squatting may not be ideal for you.
Did you know that there are significant differences between one person and the next’s hip and pelvic bone structures? For some people, the angle and depth of the hip openings (acetabulum), and the height and width of the pelvis are masterfully perfect for squatting. They combine to enable unparalleled stability and range of motion in this movement. Then there are people whose hips are, well, not so masterfully perfect for squatting. And of course, there is a big range of structural squat potential in between. Where you fall on this continuum is going to affect whether you should and how well you can squat. This is an aspect of squat ability that you can’t control.
Sometimes injuries can get in the way of squat ability. Those with hip issues may find their hips don’t love the torso-to-leg angle that a good squat requires. Those with knee issues may find their knees do not love the forces placed on them during the squat movement. Those with back issues may find their back does not love the forces placed on it by the weight in a squat. The key word here is “may.” Squats are not bad for the hips, knees, or back. In fact, a squat done well is an excellent way to strengthen your hips, knees, and back. For some people with injuries to these areas, squats are perfectly fine. While for others, two things can happen:
If you are unable to adjust your form in a way that allows you to squat well without pain, then you shouldn’t be squatting, at least not for now. Ideally, if you have an injury that is impeding your squat ability, you can work with a physical therapist or other healthcare practitioner and a quality trainer to help you progress to a point in which you can squat well without pain.
Structure and injuries aside, you do actually control many critical aspects of your ability to squat. Being able to squat well requires leg and glute strength, and a whole lot of core strength. It also requires ankle mobility and, depending on the variety of squat you’re performing (back, front, overhead), it can also require upper-back, shoulder, and even wrist mobility. Basically, the stronger you are and the better you move, the better your squat will be. The converse is typically also true and, as such, improving your squats can be a powerful tool in helping you improve your strength and mobility.
This myth gets a lot of coverage on the Internet, so I won’t give it too much attention, but I do want to mention it in case anyone has not yet seen this myth busted. I think squats get a bad rap because they exert force on the knees, and when done either poorly or by someone who has an existing knee injury, they can result in knee pain.
The thing is, all exercises exert forces on some part of the body. That’s kind of the point, right? It’s how the body gets stronger and better able to deal with forces in real life. So the real truth is that squats done well are good when performed with healthy knees.
But what about with unhealthy or damaged knees? This is where I invoke my favorite answer to any training question: It depends.
The truth is that whether or not squats are good for damaged knees varies from individual to individual. Sometimes it’s a case of timing. For example, squatting too soon after an ACL surgery is not a good idea, but squats are typically advised once the patient is further along in rehab. Meanwhile, when someone with knee arthritis starts training, squats often don’t feel great. But once the rest of their body is moving well and is strong, squats can be a good way to strengthen the legs, hips, and core.
Ultimately your body is very good at telling you whether or not the squat is a great exercise for you. Try it, check your form using the various stances mentioned earlier. Ask someone who has good squat-sense to watch you, or record a video of yourself (from the front and the side) to see how they look.
Do they look and feel good? What about a few hours later? Still feel good? Next day? If yes, then it’s fair to say that squats are good for you. Hurrah!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find out how the squat is the perfect analogy of life.
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