Knees Over Toes… Myth or Truth?

knees over toes

The age old expression: Knees Over Toes

Have you ever been told not to let your your knees go over your toes? Whether it was in the gym or during other daily activities, most of us have heard the age old expression. We would like to take a more in-depth look into this saying and what it means on a functional level. Is it a myth… or does “knees over toes” have some truth to it?

Functionality: Can Your Knees Go Over Your Toes?

We have all heard the trainer in the gym or the sports coach tell someone not to let their knees go over their toes. While that may have once been a good cue, the phrase has been repeated so many times over the years it may now mean more than it was originally intended. The statement originated from a 1978 study at Duke University. The study provided us with some very important information at the time, but it only looked at one piece of the puzzle. A more recent, 2003 Memphis University study, took their research a little deeper and provided us with more up-to-date information on the topic.

So, can your knees go over your toes? As much as we would like definitive yes or no answer, the truth is: it depends. It depends on both your structure and the movement itself. Your structure plays the most important role in answering this question.

Structure

Everyone’s body is different. Something that may work for one person, may not be appropriate for another. Femur length, foot length, and torso length all determine the appropriate amount of forward translation demanded of the knee. Someone with longer femurs and shorter feet may naturally track over the toes. A shorter tibia/fibula length relative to femur length may naturally facilitate an anterior knee translation (see video from Stone Athletic Medicine). Torso length also plays a role in how the lower extremities flex through movement. Check out this picture shared by Zach Long, DPT SCS Cert.CMFA, for a visual representation. As the referenced study above by Fry, Smith, and Schilling reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when blocking the knees, we reduce torque by 22% at the knee joint but increase torque at the hips by 1,070%, regardless of structure.

Movement

In a gym setting, different types of activities and movements may or may not result in your knees travelling over the toes. Different bar placement, or load placement, will facilitate different hip and knee joint angles. For instance, a low barbell back squat places the barbell lower on the back and pushes the hips back further. This will make the movement more hip dominant. However, if we place the load in front of the body, like in a barbell front squat, we create a more quadricep dominant movement. The knees will move more forward, out over the toes, and the chest will be more upright. Read this article from Squat University to delve deeper into the bio-mechanics of different squats.

Knees Over Toes: In Real Life

Let’s look at a few movements we do on a regular basis. These may not be considered ‘daily activities,’ but our bodies typically do these movements with no issue.

Ascending and Descending

Our bodies are designed to navigate various different types of terrain. One typical type of terrain we regularly navigate are hills. The world around us varies in height and distance. While walking up, and most certainly down hills, our knees naturally translate over our toes to support our body weight. Another great example of this are stairs. Depending upon stair height and stride distance, we may or may not track over our toes while ascending stairs; however, have you ever tried to go down stairs without your knee going over our toes? It’s nearly impossible unless you set your hips back drastically or pistol squat every step of the way. Go ahead; give it a try!

Bicycle

Another fun activity we often do is bicycle. This may not be a daily activity, but it is most certainly one many of us participate in on a regular basis. We do this at the gym, with our children, and sometimes as our primary means of transportation. It is important to make sure our seat height is set properly, but no matter the positioning, knees typically go over the toes while in the pushing phase of cycling. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this because our bodies are made to move this way!

Resiliency

Resiliency is the name of the game. Our bodies are resilient and are not as fragile as we may sometimes be told. We are made to move about our space functionally, in multiple planes, with no issues. Sometimes our knees need to go over our toes, and sometimes they don’t. Take charge, and keep moving! Motion is lotion and makes for great longevity in life!

 

If you want to prevent injury, come visit one of our Wellness Coordinators for a professional opinion on your squat form. We would love to chat with you! Or, are you experiencing pain when squatting? Schedule an appointment with one of our Physical Therapists to resolve any issues before they become worse!

Safe Squats: Proper Form and Common Mistakes

Buckling Knees

Proper squat form is one of the most popular topics with the popularity of weight lifting. One common mistake when squatting is knee valgus. Knee valgus is when your knees move inward towards midline during functional movements. This usually occurs when your hip adductors (the muscles on the inside of your thighs) overpower your hip abductors (the muscles on the outside of your thighs). Over time, not correcting this mistake could lead to injuries. To correct knee valgus, start with a resistance band above the knees to help give you a tactile cue of pressing out against the band as you are squatting. Your knees should align with the second to third toe during the movement pattern.  Having the band guide your knees outward will help you activate your abductors and lead to better knee alignment in your squats.

Brace Your Core

One of the most important components of a squat is making sure you have properly activated your core. By engaging the core, the spine is braced not allowing for flexion or extension during the movement. Your low back should not round or have an excessive arch. Your hips should flex during a squat without movement at the lumbar spine. Start with unloaded squats to master your pattern. Use a wand or broom stick pressed against your back to see how much your back moves during your squat. The goal is to maintain the same contact and distance with the broom stick throughout the full movement.

Watch Your Neck!

Be mindful of your head and neck position during your squats. Do not lead with the crown of your head! You should not be looking up and have excessive extension through your neck. This is a common mistake that often goes unnoticed. You want to have neutral neck position and keep your eyesight gazing about six to eight feet in front of you. Imagine a dowel running from ear to ear. Do a chin tuck about that axis and maintain that position without moving your head or neck throughout the squat.

Knees Over Toes

A common myth about squatting is “Don’t let your knees go past your toes!” This is a great cue for some people, but remember, everyone’s structure is different. Center mass of load, femur length, shin length, and foot length all play a roll in knee positioning during squatting. If you have long legs and small feet, it would be hard to find a squat position where your knees don’t go over your toes. Hip and knee flexion should happen at a 1:1 ratio during the squatting motion. In short, your knees and hips should both be moving equally and together. The thought is that if we ban our knees going over our toes, then we have reduced the torque on our knees. However, that torque is then translated to the hip joint. Fry, Smith, and Schilling reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that when blocking the knees, we reduce torque by 22% at the knee joint, but increase torque at the hips by 1,070%. We have also changed the angle of the hip joint which increases the moment arm and puts more stress on the lumbar spine. Therefore, the stress you save your knees is multiplied and wreaks havoc on other parts of your body like your hips and back! In summary, sometimes the knees should not track over the toes, but sometimes they should. This cue is not a “one size fits all” cue. An individual’s structure and the type of movement performed dictate knee positioning. There is a place for both methods in training and rehabilitation.

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