The truth, history and more context for the Knees Over the Toes phenomenon. There is more to this than meets the eye.
Did you know that in the last several decades placing your knees over toes was considered dangerous among many experts and exercise scientists?
Most people who have trained for a long time still remember the cues of not placing the knees over the toes in the squat or any other exercise because you would "destroy your knees".
There is a drop of truth in the cautionary tale because putting knees over toes does place pressure on your knees. If your quadriceps aren't strong enough, you may feel knee discomfort and even hurt your knees.
The problem is that avoiding your weaknesses is never the solution. Our motto: "Weakness is potential in disguise." applies here as well.
Avoid your weaknesses and eventually the weaknesses will catch up with you and then it's usually too late.
In the last few years there has been a major shift in the mainstream understanding of exercising and doing knees over the toes (KOT) exercises has become a hyped phenomenon.
It's even considered something special that will save your knees and unleash your potential.
We are happy to say that it indeed will... but that's not the whole story.
Knees Over the Toes is a Natural Articulation of the Joint
Due to our background in movement, we never considered a natural joint articulation to be something damaging or dangerous.
In dance, martial arts, sports and even walking up or down the stairs, your knees will naturally go over the toes.
The exercises that are common today such as the ATG split squat, nordic curl and the reverse nordic curl we were already doing back in 2016 and many of them far before that.
Around this time, a famous strength coach Charles Poliquin (1961-2018) was also trying to convince the masses that training KOT exercises is a safe and natural phenomenon.
Poliquin we have mentioned many times in our blog over the years and although we don't agree on everything, he was well ahead of his time on many things including this one.
The problem with avoiding knees over toes exercises is that not only your quadriceps will get underdeveloped but so will your ankles and tibialis anterior muscles.
Interestingly, Poliquin was also one of the first coaches who recommended training the Tibialis Anterior and ankles with various exercises. He was among the first to promote the special machines for training the tibialis anterior.
The popular exercise you see today called the ATG split squat we used to call the "Leaning Bulgarian Split Squat" and "Leaning Toe Split Squat". We have several videos back from 2017 featuring these exercises (another video here).
Reverse nordic curl has also been part of Movement 20XX Method since the early days. It does strengthen the knee joint and quadriceps in a fantastic manner.
The nordic curl I personally used to do a lot between 2011-2015. I was able to get full or nearly full nordic curls at this time. I haven't done the Nordic Curl for years and do not plan on returning because we've discovered better ways for developing the lower body.
Although I haven't personally reached the same level of movement ability as Eero has, I have never had trouble building raw strength and getting strong in general.
The History of Knee Past the Toes Exercises
Back in the day, we used to study everything we could get hands on and devoured all material available on ancient methods and old school bodybuilding.
We quickly discovered that avoiding knees over the toes exercises was a modern phenomenon. In the past, these exercises were the norm and not the exception... and no one complained about knee pain.
The notorious back squat was originally called the "Deep knee bend on toes". Back in the day, squat racks didn't exist so people lifted far lighter weights (or most people did) and as a result doing barbell back squats on your toes was the original back squat.
In India, Hindu Squat (basically a dynamic toe squat) was the most popular squatting variation... ever. This squat probably has the history of hundreds if not thousands of years. Toe Squat has been part of Movement 20XX Method since the beginning.
If you look at Shaolin Kung Fu, it has various stances and exercises where the knees go over the toes such as the famous Horse Stance and even the Tiger Stance of Shaolin.
We got the inspiration for our Leaning Bulgarian Split Squat (nowadays commonly called the ATG Split Squat) from the actual Bulgarian Split Squat which originated from the Bulgarian Weightlifting team back in 1980s.
In the 1980s the Bulgarian Split Squat was a big deal because the Bulgarian team favored the ATG Split Squat over the conventional back squat in their training regimen.
In other words, is there anything new?
What actually became new was the modern mind's limitation on understanding the human body.
The modern hype we see now around Knees Over the Toes Exercises is just returning to the roots of strength training, something that among many circles (Kung Fu, a few strength coaches and movement circles) was never lost to begin with.
The Next Modality & The Principle of Quality
Exercises where the knees go over toes are good and they are safe as long as you use proper resistance, proper body mechanics and proper range of motion for your level of fitness.
Although we have done many exercises such as the Leaning Toe Split Squat with lots of range of motion, we want to emphasize that you don't need to go to the extremes to properly train your legs or any part of your body.
What we discovered with Athlete 20XX Method back in 2018 was that the quality of your training trumps literally everything. It trumps the range of motion and it trumps the amount of resistance that you are using.
What matters is that what ever exercises you do, you do properly with control, focus and proper mechanics.
You can get rid of knee pain and build amazingly strong legs by doing light isometric holds alone. This is just to illustrate that the principle of quality is that powerful.
Moreover, stationary knees over toes movements such as the toe squats and ATG split squats are only the beginning and not the highest form of training.
The next step is to perform dynamic knees over toes movements where you shift your bodyweight from one leg to another. You will be training your KOT strength, stability and mobility in a more advanced fashion.
These movements include animal movements such as the duck walk, bunny hops and monkey walk just to name a few. The names may sound funny but the exercises are serious forms of strength training.
These movements offer a far more complex way to develop the same articulation with a better improvement in athletic ability. Your entire lower body will also become more mobile and elastic.
In the end, we are all looking for the same thing: bulletproofing the joints while maximizing our performance and growth.
The overall lesson here is to never underestimate the knowledge of our predecessors. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.