One of the most common and functional exercises to develop lower body strength is a squat. We perform squatting movements very commonly throughout the day every time we sit down or stand up from a chair among other activities. If you have ever been instructed on how to perform a squat, you may have been told to push your bottom back to keep your knees behind your toes. But is bending forward through the knees as you squat down really bad for you?
What is the knee joint like?
Our knees are what is called a modified hinge joint which makes them perfectly designed to bend and straighten with just a slight twist. With this in mind it seems that bending forward through the knees would be a good thing to do when we squat…. and it definitely can be. However the problem that many people have, is that when they squat down they almost exclusively bend down and forward using the knees and don’t recruit the help of the more powerful hip muscles. As they say, a job shared is a job halved.
On top of this, as we spend less time in positions that require a deep knee bend, the muscles that support our knees as they bend are often not strong in deep bend positions. The less muscular support our joints have, the more direct pressure there is on the cartilage. While we now know that mechanical load through the cartilage is what we need to stimulate cartilage regeneration, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The secret to healthy and strong knees lies in finding the right balance between enough load to produce positive changes, but not too much load that may accelerate the natural changes to the cartilage that are associated with advancing age.
How can I check the quality of my knee joint during a squat?
So what should you do? The key to strong knees and squatting involves firstly understanding where you are currently at. Stand just in front of a wall (around 1 foot length away). Squat down as far as you comfortably can. Does your backside touch the wall at all before you reach your maximum depth? Do you stop because of pain or simply feel that you can’t go any further down? If your backside didn’t at least graze the wall as you squatted down, the chances are that you are almost exclusively using your knees to perform the squat. As I said earlier this is not necessarily a bad thing, however many people simply lack the strength to take the full load of their body (and any additional weight if you are lifting anything up) through their knees without the help of the larger hip muscles.
How can I strengthen the muscles?
If you were limited by pain, the chances are that you need to improve on the strength of the supporting muscles, especially the thigh muscles. These can be developed in a number of ways including through a wall squat with a hold at the lowest position. Start with your feet further away from the wall and move into a pain free range only. Even if you start with a slight bend in the knees, you can gradually build and develop the strength to descend lower. As you build up strength, try to increase the amount of knee bend during the movement by increasing the depth of your movement and also eventually by moving the feet closer to the wall to increase the angle of your knee bend.
So in short, bending the knees over the toes in a squat is not a bad thing as long as the hips are helping at least a bit AND provided the muscles around the knee are strong enough to support you.