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Strength training: Why you should put your knees over your toes during exercise for stronger joints

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Been told to avoid letting your knees go over your toes in certain exercises? Here’s why that’s not necessary (and how knees-over-toes can actually build stronger knees).

There are some fitness rules that we just follow without question. Many of them are justified; you really do build strength in a low rep range, and interval training actually can increase your speed and power in your running. But others need more questioning. 

For example, have you ever been told to avoid letting your knees go over your toes while squatting or during Warrior 1? Whether it’s in yoga or strength training, keeping your knees behind your toes is a common technique tip given by trainers to protect your joints. Yet, there’s a growing number of trainers who are rejecting this idea in favour of a more forward-leaning stance. 

Is it bad for your knees to go over your toes in exercise?

According to Pennie Varvardies, a strength and conditioning coach, not training with your knees over your toes is actually the more dangerous option. “If you’ve never trained with your knees going further forward than your toes, you’re going to get injured,” she says. “Your knees go over your toes all the time in real life, when you jump, run, climb the stairs, and particularly if you play sports. If you haven’t built the strength to handle that position, then you’re going to hurt yourself as soon as you do it. You need to build the foundation of strong knees, just like with anything else.”

So why do so many trainers insist on knees-behind-toes? Well, if you already have sore knees and attempt an advanced knees-over-toes position, it probably does hurts. That can make people feel like they should be avoiding those positions. But that’s actually more reason to practice them, according to Ben Patrick, AKA the Knees Over Toes Guy. Speaking to Pennie on her podcast, Strong Habits, he said that “exercise science isn’t often approached from a bullet-proofing perspective. Most tests are done on simple concepts and in the 70s they established the idea that there’s more pressure on your knee when it goes over your toes. The majority of trainers and doctors have carried through this idea.”

Ben explained that avoiding positions that hurt is a “protective mechanism… but what are you setting yourself up for in the rest of your life? Knee surgery rates are blowing up to epidemic proportions.” In fact, Charles Poliquin, the most Olympic-medal-producing strength coach of all time, said that “the athlete whose knees can go the furthest and strongest over their toes is the most protected”.

According to Age UK, falls are the most common cause of injury related deaths in people over the age of 75. Given that you can’t take a step backwards or walk down the stairs without your knees going over your toes, creating stability and strength in that movement pattern will support your body even into old age. 

How to train with knees over toes

Let’s get one thing straight: jumping straight into a deep squat or lunge with your knees way over your toes may not be the best idea if you’ve never done it and don’t know what sensations you should be feeling. 

“There’s a difference between an exercise not being good and an exercise not being good for you,” says Pennie. “I think a lot of people hurt their knees by doing things that they’re not ready for and then blame the exercise when, in reality, the issue is that they hadn’t built the capacity to do the thing that they were trying to do.”

While most people have probably trained with their knees over their toes at some point, it may have only been without realising or to a limited depth. “For example, you can’t squat without your knees going past your toes, so it is already incorporated in some of your movements and doesn’t have to be a completely different training style,” says Pennie. 

The two best knees-over-toes exercises

Split squats

“In a normal split squat, your knees are going way past your toes and you’re aiming for full flexion of your front knee while keeping your hips aligned,” says Pennie. “The more forwards your knees are, the more you’re going to be strengthening your knees, hip flexors and quads. If you’re more upright and straight, you end up working more glute. You probably want to do a mix of both in your sessions.”

For a beginner, perform the exercise bodyweight and elevate your front foot by placing it on a step, bench or plate. For those who are more advanced, you can use a barbell and keep both feet on the floor.

How to do a split squat

  1. For the knees-over-toes split squat variation, stand with your feet hip-width apart and take a big step forwards with one foot. It should be a little wider than your usual split squat position. 
  2. Slowly bend your front knee and lower your back leg towards the ground. Remember – the further forward you lean, the more this will work your knees, but only move through your available range. 
  3. Squeeze your back glute to keep the back leg as straight as possible while in the end position. 
  4. Press through your front foot to stand back up. 

Sissy squat

“In a normal sissy squat, you keep your hips locked and take your knees forwards to the floor, then stand back up. That’s quite an advanced move and you need to have really strong, knees to be able to do that. To modify it, you can lower the knees onto a box or a step and then slowly, slowly, slowly build your capacity. when you can do 10 at the starting height, lower it a little bit, and repeat the process. For those who are advanced, you can add load to the move with dumbbells or barbells,” says Pennie. 

How to do a sissy squat

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and feet either flat on the floor or heels raised on a small platform.
  2. Begin bending your knees but, rather than lowering your hips as in a standard squat, let your body lean slightly back and keep your hips still. 
  3. Allow your heels to lift off of the floor as you lower as far as you can, letting your knees tap onto the box, bench or floor. 
  4. Press back to standing. 

Check out more of the SWTC How-To videos for plenty of strength training ideas.

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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