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If you’ve ever had a barbell on your back, then we’re sure that someone—be it a doctor, trainer, or fellow gym bro—has told you that your knees shouldn’t pass your toes when you squat. This is a lie. Not only is keeping your knees behind your toes biomechanically impossible, but it’s actually healthier to let them track over. We’ll get into that in a minute, but how did this myth start?
The roots of this fallacy can be traced back to a study conducted by Duke University in 1978. The study concluded that keeping the shin vertical during a squat (knees behind the toes) led to less shearing force on the knee. While this is technically true, increased force alone doesn’t determine if an exercise causes pain. Adequate stress, after all, is what causes muscle growth and improved cardiovascular endurance. Add in the fact that the action of flexing one’s knees over their toes isn’t comfortable if not practiced regularly, and you have the ingredients for a fitness myth that has stood the test of time.
Anecdotally, evidence of this myth being just that, a myth, is abundant. Bodybuilders and athletes tracking their knees over their toes is nothing new. Tom Platz used to perform sissy squats (where you hinge at the knees to place your weight onto your quad muscles) frequently and in his prime would routinely squat over 500 pounds for sets of 12-plus reps with a knee-dominant style. Or queue up a video of LeBron James dunking—you’ll see his knees bend way over his toes as he launches himself into the air.
As for what the science says, a 2013 analysis in Sports Medicine found that loaded deep squats, which force the knees over the toes, did not put passive tissues at risk compared to half and quarter squats.
Don’t try to tell Ben “Knees Over Toes Guy” Patrick that a deep squat or lunge is bad for you. After suffering chronic knee pain and undergoing surgery to fix it, Patrick implemented a knees-over-toes (KOT) training protocol to heal the area. As a result, his knees became pain-free and he took his 19-inch vertical jump to 41 inches. He’s also worked with several elite athletes, such as NFL defensive back Leonard Johnson, who bounced back from an Achilles tear with Patrick’s help.
While Patrick doesn’t believe you should dive knees-first into KOT training, he believes that progressively implementing movements from his program—such as knee-over-toe lunges—will strengthen the surrounding muscles and connective tissue, making for stronger and more stable knee joint.
“Appropriate stress on the body can be a good thing,” says Patrick, who likens training your knees to your chest muscles, where you’d stress it and the surrounding connective tissue. “That’s all we are trying to do here with KOT movements, load the joints and tissue appropriately and progressively and reap the rewards.”
Physical therapy doctor and manager of Sports PT in New York Alison Synakowski echoes Patrick’s sentiments.
“Always keeping your knees behind your toes when squatting or lunging can be detrimental to athletes—or anyone, for that matter. Changing direction during sport, landing in a jump, or even just going down stairs all require the knee to go over the toe,” she says. “If we do not train or avoid this movement, we may reduce our tissue’s ability to withstand the loads that we encounter every day. This can increase the risk of dysfunction and potentially lead to pain in the lower leg.” In other words: If you don’t use it, you lose it.
On your next squat day, try these two Patrick-approved moves after your main workout. Do each for five sets of 10 reps, and be sure to start with little to no weight. As you progress with the movement, add a little weight at a time.
KOT SPLIT SQUAT: Get into a split squat stance, with one leg staggered behind you and one in front, but make it wider than usual. Keep your torso up and drive your hips forward so that your front knee tracks all the way over your foot and your back leg is almost fully extended. When you’re ready to add weight, do so by loading a barbell onto your back.
PATRICK STEP UP: Stand on a 6-inch box with one foot on it and the other hovering just over the edge. Bend your knee until the heel of your free-floating foot touches the ground. The knee of your planted foot should bend over your foot. To add weight, load a barbell onto your back.