Busting the Squatting myth

It’s time we break the ‘No knees over toes’ myth and look more closely at what makes for a good squat

Whether it’s your local health club or your colony playground, chances are you’ll see people squatting, the former in a more body-conscious way, the latter, unconsciously, in a deep squat, hamstrings touching calves, with bottoms almost touching the floor. Do children ever stop to think about whether their knees are going over their toes? Never! Then why is it that as adults, that’s one of the first rules we’re given?

Our knees cross our toes all the time — when we climb up or down stairs, when we sit and get out of a chair, for instance. So why do we assume we should train the body to avoid this? It isn’t “bad for your knees” to let it happen.

Sometimes, it’s simply a result of the unique structure of an individual’s body. Relative limb lengths can result in the knee being either behind or in front of the toes in a squat. So when your knees go past your toes when squatting, how do you know if it’s correct?

What’s the best look and feel for a squat?

Perform a squat looking at the angles of your back and shins as you do. Enlist a friend’s help, so she can take a picture of your profile as you squat. Go down to a point at which you can’t go any lower and can hold the position briefly. Hover here and get that picture taken, or observe yourself in a mirror.

Neither your toes, nor your heels should lift off the floor. Whether your knees move in front of your feet or not, they should definitely not move in towards each other. Try and get the knees in line with the central toes of each foot. If your knees have gone out ahead of your toes by an inch and your glutes have also gone out an inch behind you and your back is parallel to your shins, you’ve achieved a good squat. It’s a matter of counter-balancing.

What should your trainer’s instructions be?

Rather than a trainer saying, “Don’t let your knees go past your toes,” it may be a better bet to say, “Distribute your weight equally over your entire foot during your squat,” or “keep your back straight and don’t go to the point where your back goes into a ‘butt wink’”.

The butt wink is where your pelvis tucks under during a squat once you reach a certain depth (different for everyone). If it’s excessive and starts early in the descent, it could cause an injury down the road. If it’s right at the bottom and occurs in a person without a history of back pain, it’s probably not that big a deal.

Sometimes, we can’t change the amount of butt wink, because of a limited range of motion in the hip or ankle. For that person, the trainer must modify exercises to avoid full squats, but include parallel squats or low bar back squats. However, in a lot of cases, it’s a squat technique issue. Trying to reach a full depth squat without bracing properly is a recipe for disaster.

The cue of sending the hips “back and away” can be very dangerous if misinterpreted. A better way to think about squatting is to focus on what your core is doing and to pull yourself down using strength, not relying on flexibility.

How do you get there?

To work towards achieving this, start your squat by touching your heels to a box or bench, while holding a weight against your chest. Imagine you’re going to sit on the bench. Squat down till your glutes just touch the box, and stand back up. It’s nearly impossible to do this squat variation in a way that will let the knees slide too far forward. If you’re new to squatting, holding the weight away from you as you’re squatting down, will give you the necessary counterbalance which will help you achieve better form. As you get comfortable/familiar with the movement, bring the weight closer to your chest. Eventually, you won’t need either the weight or box at all.

Let’s say you can’t squat down to bench-level. Try going down just one-third, or to a position where your spine or knees do not feel a strain.

Once you’re comfortable with the box, place heels on a slightly raised surface (such as a five-kg weight plate or a rod). This helps achieve greater depth in the squat without compromising on form. Eventually, you can squat properly without the plates.

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