Please Stop With the Knees Forward Nonsense

By Zane Geeting

This year marks my 16th year competing in powerlifting, and something that we’ve known forever, that we inherited from the old timers, is that you don’t track your knees forward on the competition squat unless you want to squat less, or get hurt. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t some exceptions to the rule; people with short femurs and massive, strong knee joints. It’s also not to say that there isn’t room in your program to do some close stance, high bar squatting to bring up a weak area. Just that it’s foolish and dangerous for most when performing a max effort squat.

This new phenomenon started by a few genetically gifted squatters and regurgitated endlessly by people who can’t squat double bodyweight drives me up a wall. It’s the new, “look down when you squat and pull,” or “let your hips rise first.” We know it’s B.S. for 99% of lifters, but it’s the new hot trend. Now, let’s not get confused here, I’m not saying a raw squatter shouldn’t let their knees come forward at all, I’m saying that the verbal, or mental cue of pushing the knees forward is absurd, and here’s why:

The first problem that we’re going to cover here is the strengths and weaknesses of lifters and athletes. While all people are different, one thing that we see as coaches and trainers is that the vast majority of athletes, beginner to intermediate lifters, is that they are quite quad dominant. Clearly these athletes need to increase glute and hamstring strength by both sitting back into the squat, and through direct accessory work to bring up weak areas as we often cover with the 10/20/Life principles. Doing these things will make for a more balanced and stronger athlete/lifter.

The next thing is muscular involvement in the squat. A quick look at biomechanics will show us that most people are going to benefit from sitting back and opening the knees while squatting because it will engage more muscles into the compound movement. Simply sitting straight down and pushing the knees forward decreases the involvement of the hips and hamstrings immensely. Again, as I said above, this will vary from person to person and may not be the case for people with very short femurs (who are going to squat well regardless, by the way). But again, in the majority of cases, the trainee is going to be stronger by breaking back at the hips and opening the knees.

Finally, let’s talk about the risk of injury. I’ve seen way more blown knees than I care to remember in powerlifting. If you’ve been around a while, you’ve seen it too. A guy is squatting, his knee kicks forward or in, and his quad tendon, or the ligaments in his knee rupture, and he hits the deck. This winds up ending careers, or at the very least taking many months to recover from. When we push the knee forward, especially past the toes as we see a lot of inexperienced lifters doing, there is a tremendous amount of stress put on the joint as it bends to a further degree and gets pushed further away from the bar. As I talked about earlier, if you’ve got big, strong, healthy knees, you may be able to get away with this, but I would argue that it still isn’t optimal because of the previous point. In a sport where injury is already very prevalent I feel that it is our duty to try to decrease the instance of injury through proper movement.

To wrap things up I’d like to point out the fact that many of the guys using this cue of “knees forward” are very advanced athletes who already have a ton of overall leg and hip development, they’ve found that they are still stronger in the quads, and they’ve chosen to rely on that in order to move the most weight possible. After all, that is what powerlifting is all about – moving the most weight possible. But, this still relies on the fact that these are the same people who have short femurs, big knees, and tremendous musculature of the lower body. In no way do I feel it is advantageous to the average lifter to ever purposely push the knees forward, rather they should be opening the knees, which protects both the hip and knee joint, and allows for more muscle activation across the entire lower body. In most cases the knee is going to naturally track forward a bit anyways, unless the athlete is sitting way too far back which is another problem in and of itself. As the lifter progresses, they will probably find things that work better for them, this may be going wider and opening more to take advantage of more hip strength, it may be to go narrower and let the knees come forward some, thus using their stronger quads, it may even be to sit way back and use a ton of lower back like a hybrid squat/good morning. Certainly we wouldn’t advise that last scenario for the average lifter, but some have shown it to work over time. The whole point here is that you will generally have the best result by breaking back at the hips, holding the chest high, and opening the knees to descend, this allows for a shorter range of motion on the lift and the joints, as well as more muscles to be drawn into the lift, thus resulting in more weight moved.

So please, stop the “knees forward” nonsense. Or be honest and tell me how your knees feel the day after you squat, or every day of your life for that matter. I know, I used to do it.

Want more on how to attack your weak points?  Pick up a copy of the new softback 2nd Edition of 10/20/Life.

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Zane Geeting

Zane Geeting is a pro multi-ply powerlifter with best lifts of a 935 squat, 625 bench, and 765 deadlift. He is coming back to competitive PL after a year and a half layoff that was a result of several serious injuries including a severe rupture of the right pec that could not be repaired. Zane has an extremely busy schedule that would make most people quit before Friday. He works 55+ hours a week as a finance manager. As a renaissance man, he is also currently restoring a 140 year-old farmhouse and maintaining a hobby farm. Despite all this, Zane still finds time to train 2-3 times per week, as well as coach other lifters.  
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