The world of exercise has long been riddled with fitness myths, misconceptions, misperceptions and biased information. While much information is sound and well intentioned, some of it is designed to attract us to buy things, whether good for us or not. Collectively, sound information mixes with the “fluff” to make up a convoluted mass of confusion and contradictions. Or, it turns into a black-or-white viewpoint, which grossly oversimplifies a complex subject. As if that’s not enough, a version of the “telephone game” is often thrown in. Information passes from person to person, often changing along the way, and the original intent and rationale gets lost in translation. As a result, a person may blindly follow without ever inquiring about objective reasoning. We are taught guidelines, and they are interpreted as rules. Whatever or whomever we learned from first is often perceived as “right.” We tend to listen to and follow the masses because “if everyone is doing it this way, it must be right….Right?”
This kind of thinking would have some still believing the earth is flat…
Breaking Down Lunges and Squats
Lunges and squats are great examples of this kind of thinking. Most people tend to do lunges to strengthen the lower body with a desire to strengthen (or shape) the gluteus maximus (butt muscles) and the quadriceps (thigh muscles). However, the most commonly recommended technique (often presented as the “right” way to do a lunge) has your upper body vertical, with your forward leg at a 90/90/90 degree position (90 degrees at the hip, knee and ankle), with the thigh of the back leg in line with your upper body and your knee directly underneath you (Figure 1). As you descend and ascend from this position, your back leg (primarily the quadriceps of that leg) will do most of the work because it is supporting most of your body’s weight. This may be fine if you want to target your quadriceps, but considering the most popular reason for lunges is to train the glutes, you’ll be training with a far less effective technique. With a slight lean forward and slight shift forward of the front knee, you can redistribute weight from the back leg to the forward leg (Figure 2).
Incidentally, Figure 2 is a technique considered “wrong” by many. However, this position relies on the forward leg to do more work and requires the gluteus maximus, quadriceps and even the calf muscle of the front leg to perform the exercise. It also happens to be the functional position you use when walking up stairs, especially if you skip steps.
This provides two options for lunging. Neither option is wrong. Both can be considered right, but for different reasons. It is in the differences that we can identify risks with the benefits and match them accordingly to our program.
Your Knees CAN Go Past Your Toes
If you have cringed at Figure 2 above, you have likely fallen prey to one of the biggest culprits in the right/wrong circle—the common cue for squats and lunges that suggests your knees should NEVER go past your toes. It is theorized that bad things will happen to your knees if they do. In fact, many take it even further by suggesting that your knees are not supposed to move forward at all and should stay over your ankle, which is usually accomplished through the cue to “squat with your weight on your heels.”
This is one of the most commonly cited guidelines in exercise, with little to no evidence to support the claim. This is not to say that some people who have unhealthy knees shouldn’t consider adhering to this guideline. But the reality is we do not go through life at 90-degree angles, and your knees do and should go past your toes every day. Observe the next time you walk up and down stairs. They certainly won’t stay over your ankles; in fact, they may pass your toes, especially if your thighbones are long and your feet are small. Therefore, if we are doing it, we can create training strategies to ensure that we are doing it well.
With more complex and global movements, especially those performed on our feet, movement at one part of the body requires movement at other parts to balance and/or counterbalance. When squatting, for example, shifting the weight to your heels will place your hips further back and will instinctively pitch your torso forward as a counterbalance. This shift will place more stress onto the lower back, but this is not necessarily bad—just something to be aware of. Conversely, when you squat with weight on the balls of the feet, your torso will be closer to vertical, reducing the stress at your back, but placing more stress on the knees. No matter what we do, there will be a transfer and a trade off. But neither of these positions and stresses are inherently bad for healthy joints—just different.
If you are interested in observing a fundamentally sound squat, place some Cheerios on the floor in front of a two-year-old child and observe the magic. You will see a perfect squat. This doesn’t make it the only squat, but it is fundamentally sound. So what are the toddlers of the world teaching us? How to balance our movements.
Toddlers typically have their weight evenly distributed on the three prominent contact points of the feet—the heels, inner balls and outer balls of the feet. Weight distributed on three points in a triangular shape such as this becomes like a tripod. If you can squat like this, the force distribution throughout the lower body will be more even and your knees will go exactly where they are supposed to go. If you cannot squat like this, it may be important to explore strategies to improve this movement, as these inefficiencies may place your knees and or other parts of your body at higher risks when training.
Ultimately, we want to look at much more than the knee when choosing the most appropriate techniques for squats and lunges. Focusing only on the knees can make us miss other key factors. It is not uncommon for people to worry about their knee-to-toe relationship, yet ignore important variables, such as adequate warm-ups, sensible progression strategies, appropriate resistance and overall good exercise form, all of which can contribute greatly to injury-risk management for the knees and other parts of the body. In other words, don’t be so quick to blame an injured knee for what it did over the toes when there are so many other variables that are more likely to influence risks.
So What’s Right and What’s Wrong?
From this discussion, it should be clear that there is not always one right way. To be more informed, explore the benefits, weigh them against the risks, and then check the math to see if your are getting what you aimed for. If the math doesn’t seem to be adding up, find another option. But simply doing what you have been doing just because that is the way it has always been done is a great way avoid progress.
Chris McGrath, M.S., is the founder of Movement First, a New York City-based, health and fitness education, consulting and training organization. With more than 20 years of fitness and coaching experience, McGrath specializes in a variety of training modalities including sports performance, injury prevention, post-rehabilitation and lifestyle/wellness coaching. McGrath is a Senior Fitness Consultant to the American Council on Exercise and has established himself as an international fitness expert.
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