Squat Touchdowns: the Only Exercise Your Knees Need?
Knee stability is nearly entirely dependent on the mobility and strength of the ankles and hips. While we covered ankle mobility last week and will cover hip mobility next week, today we’ll discuss the three reasons why squat touchdowns can be the best fool-proof way to bullet-proof your knees.
Reason 1: Targeting the VMO
The quads are made up of four muscle bellies, the innermost being the VMO, or vastus medialis oblique. Strengthening of this specific muscle has been shown across studies to be associated with reductions in knee pain, and exercises where one leg is working at a time disproportionately target the VMO. While this could bode well for exercises such as split squats, lunges, or single-leg leg press, there are two more reasons why touch down squats may prove superior for most of the population.
Reason 2: Hard to Hide Mistakes
Another potential cause of knee pain can be the overburdening of the knee joint due to a lack of contribution from the hip muscles. Some key signs that this could be the case during a squat touchdown include the knee caving inward, the knee going far past the toe while the hip angle doesn’t change much, and a lack of feeling of engagement in the hip muscles while performing the exercise.
Sometimes, something as simple as a cue from a supervising coach can be enough for someone to begin putting more of their weight into the hip. However, if this cognitive cue isn’t enough to create this change, this may be a sign that you should spend some time on targeted hip activation and/or strengthening.
Unilateral exercises in free space are the easiest exercises to help recognize these issues. While this still includes split squats and lunges as exercises that would appear viable for progressing knee stability and addressing knee pain, there’s one last trait that makes squat touch-downs my personal favorite for those purposes.
Reason 3: Easy to Progress and Regress
Touchdown squats aren’t typically progressed the same way that lunges and split squats should be, with additional weight and reps. Generally speaking, reps should be kept high (between 10 and 20 per leg) and the exercise should be left unweighted. To progress a touchdown squat, the main metric considered should be distance traveled per repetition, or the height of the apparatus being used. This means that progress is directly linked to the tolerable range-of motion of knee flexion, as well as the strength and mobility of the hip in increasingly difficult positions.
If the weight of a single-leg squat at the height of a few inches can’t be tolerated, the single-leg leg press becomes a very viable alternative. This is due to the ability to weigh the leg press at a resistance much lighter than the weight of the body, and like the touchdowns the force on the leg is a compressive force (as opposed to the shear force provided by a leg extension). However, without the additional benefits provided by the touchdown squats, I recommend accompanying the leg press with targeted hip strengthening, such as the banded clamshell.
Knee stability is one key aspect of movement that helps promote both progress and longevity in fitness. This series will continue to follow Michael Boyle’s Joint-by-Joint approach, with hip mobility being the focus of next week’s article. If you want individualized guidance and accountability for your health and fitness, sign up here to schedule a Free Initial Session with one of our highly qualified personal trainers.