It used to be the gym advice heard round the world: Never let your knees go past your toes. For years, physical therapists and fitness instructors parroted this mantra as a means to “protect our knees” during squats and lunges, but it turns out this age-old advice might not actually stand the test of time.
While the exact origin of this form cue isn’t totally clear, a misinterpretation of a study done in 2003 may have fueled the narrative. Researchers examined different variations of squats and the degrees of torque they placed on the knees, hips, and lower back. In the restricted squat, participants had a wooden barrier that prevented their knees from going past their toes. In the unrestricted squat, the barrier was removed, and their knees moved freely past their toes.
The study found that the unrestricted squats placed greater torque on the knees than the restricted squats. But, importnatly, the researchers also noted that this type of squat placed a much greater load on the hips and lower back. Manhattan-based physical therapist Victoria Sekely, DPT, CSCS, believes that the physical therapy world honed in on just the knee torque findings of the study and ran with it.
“The study’s conclusion wasn’t even ‘don’t put your knees past your toes,’ it was literally just saying how much force goes through the knee at which angles,” she says.
In fact, the study’s abstract says that in order to evenly distribute the force of a squat throughout your joints, you’ll likely need to let your knees go past your toes. And today’s physical therapists agree.
Why it’s okay to let your knees go past your toes
Like any other field, the physical therapy world is always evolving, and today’s practitioners are starting to debunk this myth that our knees should never go past our toes in squats and lunges.
“That’s a normal range of motion,” Sekely says. “Our knee is meant to do that, and also, being able to build into that and actually get comfortable doing that motion will actually make our knee stronger.”
We can’t walk up and down stairs, step off of a curb, or even sit on the toilet without our knees going past our toes, so it’s good to expose our body to this type of movement in the gym, says Andrew Millett, a certified physical therapist and owner of Move Strong Physical Therapy in Hudson, Massachusetts.
“Our knees are designed to bend 180 degrees,” exercise physiologist and yoga teacher Meredith Witte previously told Well+Good. “You’re going to have to bend them 180 degrees when you squat down to roll up your mat after class, or when you sit down on the floor to put your shoes on. So why can’t you do it during class?” She adds that by limiting your knee movement, you can actually dampen the tissue capacity.
Allowing our knees to go over our toes in exercises like squats, lunges, and jumps also helps more evenly distribute the load between our ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. Yes, it might mean the knees have more to handle. But it’s taking some of the pressure off of your other joints at the same time.
How to safely get started
If you’ve been avoiding this type of movement in the gym, Millett suggests gradually incorporating it into workouts and starting with bodyweight movements only. It may cause some irritation at first as your joints get used to an unfamiliar movement, but it shouldn’t be higher than a three to five out of 10 on the pain scale, he says. He suggests the following exercise to introduce this range of motion to your workout routine:
Kneel on your left leg and place your right foot firmly on the ground at a 90-degree angle.
Slowly shift your weight forward, bringing your knee past your toe.
Shift your weight back, returning your knee to a 90-degree angle.
Repeat this six to eight times on both sides.
This is a good introductory exercise to assess whether or not this range of motion will prompt any irritation in the knee. Like any new movement, it’s important to introduce it incrementally to allow your body the chance to adapt and strengthen.
Want to work on your new squat technique? Try this glutes-focused workout: