Functional movements like squatting and deadlifting get a bad rap in today’s fitness world. We hear things like “Don’t bring your knees over your toes” and “Squatting below 90 degrees is harmful to your knees”. However, the truth is that if you have healthy and strong joints, none of the above are true.
You want to know when squats become “bad” for your knees?
When your ankles or hips are immobile or weak. Wait…what? What do my ankles and hips have to do with my squat? I thought squatting was about strengthening around the knee???
What if I told you that working on your hip and ankle would significantly help your squat, improve your strength and reduce the risk of injury?
In this article we will focus specifically on how ankle mobility will affect your squat. Stay tuned for more information in a future post about hip mobility.
The knee is a hinge joint that lies between the ankle (another hinge joint) and the hip (a ball and socket joint). It can only perform optimally when the ankle and hip have adequate functional mobility. What we mean by functional mobility is the usable range of motion that exists in a joint. In other words, the amount of mobility a joint has that it can absorb forces through (see BLOG on Flexibility vs Mobility).
When we look at the squat, the ankle requires a significant amount of dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion allows the tibia (the shin bone) to move forward over the foot. If we don’t have it, we have to compensate. If the tibia does not move forward over the foot and gets stuck in a vertical position, it will usually cause the top of our body to lean forward to make up for the lack of mobility in the ankle when squatting. This is particularly apparent in front squats and overhead squats. You see this when clients have a large forward lean when doing any sort of lower body exercise causing increase flexion in the hips.
When our tibia is stuck in a vertical position and our chest leans forward, it also decreases our ability to create force through the hips to drive heavy loads upwards. To truly be efficient and effective in increasing strength in the squat force should be applied straight up and down rather than backwards, forwards, and then, eventually, up.
So how does lack of ankle mobility also negatively affect the knee? Well…the body will always move through the path of least resistance. So, if your body does not get range of motion from one joint it will look elsewhere to make up for it. Basically, if you lock up a joint that should be mobile, the body will look elsewhere to create that range-of-motion. Research has shown that a lack of ankle mobility can increase rotational torque at the knee. If you are increasing rotational forces in the knee during squatting guess what happens at the knee? Instead of strengthening around the joint you are actually shredding your meniscus instead. YUCK!
So, what is the take-home message here? Squatting is not inherently bad for your knees. Squatting with poor ankle mobility is bad for your knees. If you experience knee pain when squatting and have only been treating your knees, try instead to look above at the hips or below at the ankles. Before eliminating squatting from your fitness routine get evaluated to determine if poor ankle mobility or weak hip stabilizers are the true culprit. Assess don’t Guess!
For more information on how to schedule an assessment with one of our movement specialists email us at [email protected]
Christa Gurka, MSPT, PMA®-CPT