Whether squatting or lunging, athletes are told ad nauseam never to let their knees go over toes under the assumption it added undue pressure to the joints. But as Ben Patrick, founder of Athletic Truth Group, came to find, that very pressure bolsters the knees, increasing strength for protection and longevity. Training that emphasizes this range of motion saved Patrick from surgeries and reliance on painkillers, and he’s since taken to Instagram to share his breadth of knowledge.
“Knees over toes was a broadly misunderstood subject and my dedication to making it safe and simple has arguably resulted in the most knee success stories—ever,” Patrick says, with the likes of Henry Cavill and Sam Heughan among his staunch supporters.
“Understanding knees over toes training rescued me from painkiller addiction and surgeries,” he adds. “These exercises allow your body to handle pressure at your own level, thereby increasing strength for protection as well as nutrient delivery to make your knees last longer.”
Here’s your plan for pain-free knees for years to come.
Knees Over Toes Exercises: The 10 Commandments of Healthy Joints
These 10 exercises can be scaled to all abilities. Do each at least once per week, adding to body part-specific or full-body routines for a balanced program—and pain-free knees.
1. Backward Sled Pull
Load a sled with moderate-to-heavy resistance. Attach upper-body straps and pull them taut with arms straight. Walk backwards, “reaching” lead foot back, planting the ball of foot, then driving through to propel each step. Start slowly, then gradually increase speed so you’re maximally exerting yourself by the end. 1 x 10 min.
2. Forward Sled Push
Going forward with the sled puts your knees even farther over toes, strengthening your feet and lower legs to a greater degree. Place hands on high poles, hips hinged forward slightly. With back straight and core engaged, drive through balls of feet and push sled with small, slow steps at first—then gradually get faster. 1 x 5 min.
3. Poliquin Stepup
Place a wedge on top of a step or weight plate 4 to 6 inches off ground. Beginners, start out assisted, holding ledge; intermediate, go unassisted with bodyweight; advanced, hold dumbbells. Place right foot on wedge with left leg hanging off platform, foot flexed (shown). Bend right knee to lower left leg, tapping heel to ground, then drive up to start. 3 to 6 sets x 15 to 25 reps per side
4. ATG Split Squat
Place left foot on wedge atop weight plate and step right foot far back into exaggerated split-squat position, heel lifted. Keep chest tall and back straight as you bend left knee to lower into a deep split squat. The goal: get back of hamstring to touch calf for full range of motion (shown). Switch sides on each set. 4 to 8 sets x 6 to 8 reps per side
5. Dumbbell VMO Squat
Stand slightly wider than hips with feet on wedges or plates to elevate heels. Slowly lower, knees generating outward force until in a deep squat, hamstrings touching calves (shown). Pause at the bottom, then drive up. You’ll feel this in inner thighs and VMO (teardrop shaped quad muscle). Add weight to progress. 3 to 6 sets x 15 to 20 reps
6. Tibialis Raise
The first line of defense against knee pain is the tibialis anterior. It runs under the knee and acts as the lower body’s decelerator. Sit on a flat bench with ankles over edge in a tib bar (or set up in a tibia dorsi calf machine). Hold onto the sides of the bench and flex feet toward ceiling to raise, then extend toes back to start (shown). 3 to 4 sets x 15 to 20 reps
7. Nordic Hamstring Curl
Start on knees with a pad underneath for cushion and have someone hold your ankles to the floor (or anchor with fixed equipment). Tuck chin and pelvis, maintaining straight line from head to knees as you fire up core, glutes and hamstrings, then slowly lower to the ground like a lever—trying not to break form. Use your hands to catch yourself when your hamstrings can’t hold any longer (shown). Engage glutes and hamstrings (and push off ground) to return. 3 to 4 sets x 5 to 10 reps
8. Hip Flexor Lift
Attach a light dumbbell to a ratchet-based shoe attachment, then fix to your right foot while left is on a weight plate. Flex right foot, then drive knee up until parallel to hips (shown). Use hands to counterbalance (opposite arm swings, like a sprinter), then slowly lower to start. 3 to 4 sets x 20 reps per side
9. Rear-Foot-Elevated Hip Flexor Stretch
Place a pad parallel to a flat bench. Stand in front of pad and bend left knee, placing top of foot on bench. (You can also do on couch at home.) Lower knee to pad, then contract quad and glute muscles to exert strength in static position. Tack on at the end of leg days. 1 x 1 min. per side
10. Incline Pigeon Pose
Set a bench to a 45-degree incline. Place bottom of left foot on the “seat” of the bench, where it hinges, with your shin and knee resting on the “back” of the bench. Hold on for support as you step right foot back, then remove hands and lean into the bench until you feel a stretch through glutes, hips and IT band. Keep knee against bench and foot flexed. 1 x 1 min. per side