When it comes to squatting there are many made-up rules. Most of these “rules” were not made by strength and conditioning professionals but by people who think they know what they are talking about. One of the most common myths out there is that it is bad for your knees to come forward of your toes in a squat. This myth is still prevalent to this day.
Even though you can allow your knees to go over your toes in the squat, you do not want to have pre-mature knee bend and forward travel. This is bad and could cause damage and irritation over time. The squat requires so much more than what most people realize. The squat requires the proper engagement of the posterior chain as well as the anterior chain. Now many have heard that said before but honestly few know what the actually means, and that’s ok, as the names of the muscles to anyone outside the strength and conditioning world are not important (however if you consider yourself a coach and don’t know basic anatomy please go find a book and do some reading.) By engaging your hips first, you de-load the front part of the knee when you squat and by allowing your knees to bend naturally your hamstrings and gluteus muscles pick up the majority of this load. When I watch people overhead squat they keep this position for the initial part of the movement but immediately transfer to pushing the knees forward. This loading of the knee is not only not ideal but it is also problematic over time. It puts a tremendous amount of stress on the patellar tendon, ACL, and meniscus. When I squat I still want to descend backward and allow the knees to naturally bend without a forced forward knee travel. Now the knees will inevitably track forward of the toes as your decend in what some would call an “a$$ to grass” squat or butt to the lowest level possible squat. This is fine. But you must remember it should never be a knee initiated movement. If you can sit back further and keep your shins as vertical as possible, this will keep you knees lasting well into your 80’s. This is the most ideal way to squat.
Now when it comes to squatting and the knees traveling forward of the toes many people have quoted Kelly Starrett as their source for not allowing the knees to come forward of their toes. I have heard this said in my own CrossFit Level 2 Seminar. This is a misunderstood part of his book “Becoming A Supple Leopard”, which should be required reading for all coaches. Kelly does say that you should aim for keeping the shins vertical but the knee traveling forward will eventually happen (p 164 of Becoming a Supple Leopard). We must be able to understand that the knees were designed to travel forward of the toes. People tend to just hear something that fits their narrative and then stop reading or listening. Anyone with proper ankle mobility will be able to have their knees move forward of the toes.
Like any movement in strength and conditioning, the squat comes along with many fallacies and tall tales. Always understand that there are very little absolutes in this world and everybody moves differently. There are however some more ideal ways to move and less ideal ways to move. Squatting will your knees forward of your toes is completely safe so long as you follow some simple guidelines, make sure the knees do not cave inward or too far outward and always make sure to keep a stable hip and ankle going by creating torque as you squat by screwing your feet into the ground. Follow a knowledgeable strength coach but always make sure he or she can give you an explanation as to “why” a movement should be done a certain way.