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The Geek Squat

There has been much debate on proper squat techniques. Is it proper to maintain a vertical shin and prevent the knees from going beyond the toes? Is it better to squat and allow the knee to go beyond the toes? The purpose of this blog is to shed some light on the debate and provide the rationale for proper squat technique.

Early studies state that squatting with external loads causes undue stress and damage to soft tissue at the knee joint. This precipitated many experts to change squat mechanics. A vertical shin angle prevents excessive knee flexion, thus limiting the stress placed at the knee joint. In addition, many state that maintaining a vertical shin angle allows for enhanced strengthening of the posterior chain e.g. hamstrings, gluteals, spinal erectors).

I agree it is important to protect the knees. However, the lower back is more important, in my opinion. Low-back pain is one of the major forms of musculoskeletal degeneration seen in the adult population, affecting nearly 80% of all adults (1). It has been estimated that the annual costs attributable to low-back pain in the United States are greater than $26 billion (2). In addition, 6 to 15% of athletes experience low-back pain in a given year (3, 4). The body is an interconnected chain, and compensation or dysfunction in the LPHC region can lead to dysfunctions in other areas of the body (5). So why do we squat only to protect the knees without considering implications on the low-back?

Proper squat mechanics requires equal flexion at the ankle and hips during the descent of the squat. When this occurs, forces will be disturbed optimally throughout the kinetic chain. To determine if your client has equal flexion at the hips and ankle, view your client’s squat from the side. Their torso and tibia should be parallel to each other at the bottom position of the squat.  Have you ever noticed how a baby squats?

Fry et al. (2003) examined the hip and knee torque forces of variations of parallel squats and concluded appropriate joint loading during this exercise may require the knees to move slightly past the toes. Restricting squats (i.e keeping the knee behind the toes) creates an excessive forward lean of the torso and subsequent increased torque loads at the low back and hip (6). Maintaining a vertical shank did not yield change knee torque significantly (6).

Torque is a measure of rotational force about an axis of rotation.  Simply put torque is a product of force and lever length from the axis of rotation to point of force of application (Τ = r x F) where Τ is linear torque, r is the displacement vector and F is force.

You can clearly see that squatting with a vertical shin reduces stress placed on the knee. However, at what cost? Do we really want to place an increased load at the lower back, when it is so prone to injury? The most important thing to consider is overall exercise technique. Make sure the client squats with ideal posture and with equal flexion at the ankle and hips. When this occurs forces will be disturbed optimally throughout the kinetic chain.


  1. Walker BF, Muller R, Grant WD. Low back pain in Australian adults: prevalence and associated disability. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2004;27:238–44
  2. Luo X, Pietrobon R, Sun SX, Liu GG, Hey L. Estimates and patterns of direct health care expenditures among individuals with back pain in the United States. Spine 2004;29:79–86.
  3. Nadler SF, Malanga GA, DePrince M, Stitik TP, Feinberg JH. The relationship between lower extremity injury, low back pain, and hip muscle strength in male and female collegiate athletes. Clin J Sport Med 2000;10:89–97.
  4. Nadler SF, Malanga GA, Feinberg JH, Rubanni M, Moley P, Foye P. Functional performance deficits in athletes with previous lower extremity injury. Clin J Sport Med 2002;12:73–8.
  5. Powers CM. The influence of altered lower-extremity kinematics on patellofemoral joint dysfunction: a theoretical perspective. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2003;33(11):639–46.
  6. Fry, A.C., J.C. Smith, and B.K. Schilling. Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. J. Strength Cond. Res. 200317(4):629–633. 
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The Author

Joshua J Stone, MA, ATC, NASM-CPT, CES, PES

Joshua J Stone, MA, ATC, NASM-CPT, CES, PES

Josh is an experienced practitioner, author, and editor who has worked in fields of sports medicine, sports conditioning, and fitness for nearly 20 years. Josh holds a BS in Movement Studies Exercise Science from East Stroudsburg University and an MA in Kinesiology from San Jose State University. Josh is also Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has earned many advanced specializations with NASM.
As a member of the NASM family, we were saddened to hear of Joshua’s passing in 2019 to lung cancer. To honor Joshua’s strength and to fund lung cancer research, donations can be made at www.supportalcf.org/egfr-resisters/StoneStrong.

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