“Oh my god. What was that? I heard a pop! Is that normal?!” she gasped.
I explained, “that’s just the joints in your knees farting. You’re going to be fine as long as it doesn’t hurt.”
This was my third session training the MD, who I will call Judy. We were taking her through her first set of Barbell Squats, going full depth and knees past her toes. She heard unfamiliar pops and I assured her that was normal and actually beneficial. It was the first indication of her fear of squats and knees exploding.
Judy was a successful Indian woman in her 40’s. She was an Interventional Radiologist in the UC medical system. Judy had knowledge of human anatomy, but admitted that she was taught almost nothing about nutrition and human movement in medical school, confirming what I always suspected about the current healthcare system. I was glad to have her in my care so I could bust some myths that were keeping her from better flexibility and strength.
When Judy approached me about personal training at the gym, she said she had observed me doing full depth squats with seniors over 60, and asked me how could I do something so risky with seniors despite published research and fitness folklore that says, “squatting with your toes past the knees is dangerous.”
Even the average physical therapist, fitness professionals, and people we are supposed to trust with caring for our bodies say, “no squats past parallel or knees past toes.”
How I busted the myth and took action
In some ways it makes sense why people would believe aging simply makes the knees “bad”. I would buy that. But when I started to research while I learned Olympic-lifting, I discovered that knee and hip problems weren’t really an issue until the advent of two things:
- Sitting a lot during the day
- The shape of chairs.
Sitting isn’t a problem, toddlers do it all the time. So what happens to us that makes sitting a problem later? We started putting children in chairs at school to train to be factory workers who sit in chairs for long chunks of the day without moving.
One aspect of the problem began with people sitting in chairs for factory work in the early 1900’s. Gradually, people lost the ability to bend their knees without feeling “pain”. This pain generally comes from not bending the knees regularly, and these people were the participants in these studies! Their knees were not used to being at anything other than a 90 degree angle – similar to how our bodies look when we sit in a chair.
And that’s why we are taught to squat that way in modern Personal Training certification books. The studies for this evidence were conducted on people who sat on chairs. So the myth of not squatting knees past the toes originates from a negative adaptation we created for ourselves. And now this is common knowledge discussed by the average person.
Social Proof and Eating My Own Medicine
Even after getting my Personal Training certification, my real life experiences of squatting conflicted with the research literature and the methods of my co-workers in the commercial gym I worked at.
I began to see this myth busted when I training in Olympic Weightlifting, which was an underground sport until CrossFit made it popular again. CrossFit was the first experience I had squatting with weight or my knees passing my toes. Even though I had youth on my side, I saw it with my own eyes and it blew my mind. I saw adults over 40 years old ALL doing some form of a squat. Squats with kettebells, barbells overhead, or even just their own weight.
In fact, I began to research Olympic-style Weightlifters from the 1900’s that squatted with knees past toes before the advent of chairs. It was normal for people to squat or “deep knee bend” with weights and they did this to maintain healthy knees for leaping and bounding.
The “Deep Knee Bend” featured as a part of the “Bodybuilding and Muscle Developing Exercises” pamphlet issued by the Milo Bar-Bell Company in 1915 (7). Used with permission from the H.J. Luther Stark Center Ottley R. Coulter Collection.
What’s interesting is that although common folklore says “oh man, weightlifting looks dangerous”, it is statistically the lowest injury rate of any sport available. Much lower than soccer, basketball, and football – which all report ACL tears as the norm. (See footnotes.)
Squatting made my knees feel better than ever. And my knees never exploded and I never had surgery. I have never iced my knees either.
In fact, I could do extreme things with my knees and I wouldn’t even flinch because I had prepared them for odd positions ahead of time – and I did this by gradually loading myself with weights. And I’m not special, in terms of body mechanics. I did all this with slow-progressions in my training.
When I started exploring training methods outside the Weightlifting world in 2017, I came across the Split Squat. I never thought about them much, until I came across this version of the Escalator Split Squat. If you recall my desire to do the Front Splits and getting bendy, apparently this movement was a basic one that could help with that.
The Escalator Split Squat is a halfway point in challenging the biggest fitness myth that just won’t die.
But here’s the payoff. Your knees will not explode. They will be best friends with your ankles and hips.
It will make your hips more flexible if you’ve been sitting for long periods of time. It will also strengthen your knees to be able to handle odd positions you will encounter in life like during basketball or hiking. It will even help your balance in yoga poses.
All in one movement. Yeah, it’s that simple and effective.
It is meant to harmonize the ankles, knees, and hips so you can run wild like a kid in the grass. You can ski without feeling like something is going to snap suddenly and leave you stranded. So you can move without doubt and trust that your body can handle shifting shapes.
When you give this a try your knees and hips will thank you. It might even help you finally figure out what those low-back pains are telling you as well. That’s also what the Pigeon Squat will do for you.
More next time on the Pigeon Squat,
P.S. Tell me about your relationship with your knees. How well do you guys get along now, and what do you want for your future?