Whether you’re a gym rat with years of experience squatting under a barbell, or a novice who occasionally performs a workout in the comfort of your own home, you most likely share some of the same questions. Most of those questions are likely met with a different answer each time you’ve asked: “Should my knees ever pass my toes when I squat?” … “How wide should my stance be when I squat?”…“Is a front squat or back squat better for my knees?” There is no better resource than evidence-based research articles to separate the anecdotal opinion from scientific outcome. Our goal is to direct you to evidence-based answers to each of these questions.
Let’s start with understanding that the sum amount of force through your body during a squat – whether weighted or not – is going to be distributed throughout the joints of your body. Squat form determines whether those forces will be shared evenly throughout the knees, hips and spine, or if one segment of the body will take the brunt of that force.
The cue that we have all heard and have even voiced to our clients and patients when squatting is “don’t ever let your knees pass your toes”. Upon review of the article Effect of Knee Position on Hip and Knee Torques During the Barbell Squat; findings reveal that a restricted motion of the knees tracking beyond the athlete’s toe position does in fact decrease stress to the knee joints, but results in an increase of forward trunk lean causing increased lumbar and hip stress. Understanding that decreasing the force from the knees causes a direct increase in force through the hips and lumbar spine gives us the advantage of choosing which is best for each individual athlete. In an athlete with a history of knee pain or surgery, we may want to restrict forward knee position. Whereas with an athlete with a history of hip or lumbar injury, we need to open up the travel of the knees over the toes. The final analysis of this evidence based study states, “To optimize the forces at all involved joints, it may be advantageous to permit the knees to move slightly past the toes when in a parallel squat position.”
When determining how wide our squat stance should be, the answer we all like to hear is actually acceptable this time – do what feels good. Though, theoretically, we all have the same anatomy, each of us has a unique makeup of bone lengths and joint angle differences that ultimately lead to a tailored approach of stance width. Since getting stronger is the goal for both the trained power lifter as well as the novice squatter under the barbell for the first time, the most important measure of stance position throughout the squat is the effectiveness of muscle activation. The article The Effect of Stance Width on the Electromyographical Activity of Eight Superficial Thigh Muscles during Back Squat with Different Bar Loads, reveals the evidence of an increase in Gluteus Maximus activation with a wider stance, while all anterior thigh muscle activation remains the same with both narrow and wide stance width. The variable of increased weight on the bar resulted in increased activation of all muscles of the thigh.
Last, but not least, is the debate of when and why to choose the front squat versus the back squat. Again, we point to the evidence based research for the best answer here. The article, A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals gives us the breakdown of muscle recruitment, as well as the comparison of compression forces on the knee joints for both lifts. The findings from this study reveal the front squat to be the best in show. Why? According to their research, during the front squat, electromyography of thigh muscle recruitment was equal to that of the back squat with significantly decreased compressive forces through the knee joint. The study concludes by stating “The results suggest that front squats may be advantageous compared with back squats for individuals with knee problems such as meniscus tears, and for long-term joint health”.
In summary, the squat is an approachable, functional way to get stronger. Now that we have the answers from evidence-based studies to know both how to squat and how to teach others to squat, we have no limits to seeing the best strength gains in our fitness journey. Knowledge is power. Here’s to using it to get stronger!