A common bit of advice given to people in the strength training world is that you don’t want to let your knees travel too far over, much less past, your toes when doing lower body exercises. The idea is that doing so puts a lot of pressure on the knees, which is supposed to be bad for them. However, this advice is wrong and it leads to a lot of people ignoring the real issue and developing bad lower body lifting mechanics.
The problem with this advice is that the amount of pressure on your knees has less to do with the position of the knees and more to do with where the pressure and weight is on your feet. Anytime you shift your weight to you toes you end up putting extra stress on the knee joint…but it is that weight shift and not the position of your knees that you need to be worried about.
If you are able to squat all the way down and keep your weight evenly distributed on your feet then your knees are perfectly safe. You are keeping the majority of the stress and pressure on the hips and away from the knees, which is what you body is designed to do.
But if you squat down and your weight shifts to your toes then it doesn’t matter how shallow you squat or where your knee is in relation to your toes – you are placing extra stress on the knee joint and taking it off of the hip joint. And this is usually caused by restrictions in the ankle and hip joint which result in the bad movement patterns that cause problems with the knees.
The advice to keep the knees from traveling too far over or past the toes as you descend into a squat comes is because if you shift your weight onto your toes then you will see the knees starting to travel over and past the toes. The theory is that is that the problem comes from the knees traveling forward but how the knees move is just a symptom of what is happening at the foot, ankle and hips.
Sure, if I restrict the knee joint’s forward movement it will decrease my chance of pain and injury in the knee joint BUT that doesn’t fix the real problem. If you fix the real underlying cause of the bad movement then you can let your knees travel over and past your toes without any danger to them at all.
So the real focus needs to be on the feet and learning how to move in a way that keeps your weight balanced on them. The position of the knees is secondary to the weight distribution on your feet but if you mix up those two things and focus on the wrong thing you can completely miss one of the important causes of good lower body mechanics.
If you’re not sure exactly what I’m talking about then you can watch this video to see how this works and how you can safely let your knees travel past your toes when squatting.
And this leads me to my last point…
We often forget that the goal of our workout is to practice and improve our movement quality. The exercises we use are just tools to help us do that. Modifying an exercise to get around bad movement is getting away from the ultimate point of training.
If your knees bother you when you do deep squats or if your knees travel over your toes then that is a sign that you need to fix some ankle and hip problems, not to avoid or restrict those movements forever. Obviously you need to restrict them until you can move pain free but your ultimate goal is always to get to pain free, full range of motion, authentic movement.
To achieve this, though, sometimes we have to back off of the “work hard” mentality and focus more on flexibility and mobility. The real problem often stems from someone who doesn’t need to be focusing on “getting stronger” but first needs to focus on “moving better”. Without someone to explain this to them they often look for ways to work around the real issues that are holding them back.
Once you fix those issues then it is time to focus on getting stronger – you need to lift some weight if you want to really see some massive improvement with your bike. Moving well but being weak isn’t the answer either. But you have to move well before you can safely get stronger.
On a side note, this is why the Ultimate MTB Workout Program follows the progressions that it does. The first few phases take the time to fix the common movement dysfunctions seen in most riders so that you can safely lift more weight and do more advanced exercises in the later phases. This ensures that you move well and have the strength you need to use it on the trail.
So don’t worry about how far your knees are traveling over your toes, worry about being able to keep your weight from shifting forward onto your toes. If you have problems then attack the ankle and hip restrictions causing the problems. Once you do this then your knees won’t be in danger no matter what position they are in relative to your toes and you can safely focus on getting stronger.
I hope this clears up some of the confusion around this subject. If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer it.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems