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Why I don’t like “Knees out!” in the squat, Part 1

To be totally frank, I’m not a fan of the “knees out” coaching cue in squats. Sure, I use it from time to time with certain athletes and lifters. But I don’t generally like it for 2 reasons. First, I think it actually has the potential to screw people up, depending on their individual joint characteristics. Second, I think that there are many trainers and coaches out there who don’t actually know what the purpose of that cue actually is! (News flash: it’s not to get the knees “out” an arbitrary distance).

Cueing clients is highly individual – some will respond or prefer hearing one thing over another, and as coaches we have pointers we find to work well for a variety of reasons. Not everyone will have the same verbal keys and that’s completely fine. It’s normal. If “knees out” works for your athletes and general fitness clients, keep using it. That said, here’s my beef…

The Mobility Movement

Over the last several years continued attention on the benefits of soft tissue mobility has led to a great fitness movement. It, along with soft tissue work like foam rolling, has helped millions of people learn what physical therapist Kelly Starrett calls basic “body maintenance” abilities to minimize aches and pains and maintain better fluid movement.

Incidentally, I still remember the first time I took my foam roller out of the house to the gym in 2002. People stared at me like I had 3 heads as I rolled around on it prior to my squat days. You couldn’t even find them online; mostly you had to go to a chiropractor or physical therapist’s clinic. Fast forward to today and they’re in every sporting goods store, Walmart, and online retailer. People who know absolutely nothing about fitness might still have a foam roller around their house for self-massage. Oh, and people actually know what you’re doing in the gym, so you don’t get interrupted rudely or stared at by 10 different gym bros. But I digress….

The Downside – “Elastigirl” Doesn’t Need Mobility

The downside of this movement is that we have many people doing mobility work who don’t need more flexibility in the areas they are working. Joint laxity is an important factor that needs to be assessed properly. This is a reason I don’t use tons of static stretching with everybody I train, only people that need it.

This leads directly into the first reason I dislike this “knees out” cue: not everybody is built with the same limb lengths or mobility problems. Someone with the flexibility of Elastigirl is going to push their knees WAY outside of their feet, because they can. The laxity in their connective tissues or joint surfaces allows for it. This is not an effective power producing position, or a low risk position to be in under load. (Starrett squat “caption: To be clear, I am a big fan of a lot of K Star’s work. It’s single-handedly saved a thousands of people from a lot of pain, but this is not a proper squat, no matter what Crossfit folks tells you”).

In fact, getting your knees way outside the base of support dramatically increases shear stress on the ligaments and joint surfaces of the knees, the alignment of the ankles, and interferes with efficient power production at the hips. It negatively affects lower limb force production across the board.  Increased risk of injury and a weaker squat? Sign me up for that, said no person ever.

The reason this verbal phrase became popular, I think, is that knees caving inwards is a more common error in the squat than knees too far out with our largely sedentary population. But, while range of motion is important, we do not want more joint range of motion that we can effectively stabilize! That is an injury waiting to happen. This doesn’t even touch the deeper biomechanical subjects of hip structure, femoral version, tibial torsion, and foot structure, which are much too broad to include here.

Individualize Your Coaching

Every athlete or client you work with will interpret your words in a different way.

Hypermobile athletes will force their knees too far outside the base of support as mentioned. Some people, both hypermobile and not, will actually try to go bow legged. They’ll work so hard to get their knees “out” that you may actually see the medial portion of their foot come off the ground as they shift all of their weight to the outside edge of their feet. This is NOT effective for squatting big weights in the majority of people even if a few can “get away with it” for various reasons. It is most certainly not effective for jumping high, running fast, or creating stability in athletic movements.

For lifters or athletes who are generally very stiff and struggle with mobility at the hips and ankles, the knees out phrase can work well. This is because they are not physically capable of over-correcting. Cues are context dependent. A powerlifter should not get the same cues as a gymnast!

Every athlete or client you have will hear different things in their head in response to the language you use. You can give the exact same phrase to 5 different people and chances are you will get 5 different physical responses. This is why I am such a huge proponent of individualizing what you say to a person you’re coaching. No cue works 100% of the time, and you must be able to change what you’re saying if it’s not getting the response you want, even in people who “should” be responding to it.

More on this in part 2 (stay tuned).

 

FINAL NOTE:

I have a lot of respect for Kelly Starrett. He’s a great thinker and a great coach. He also has a fantastic book, the sole purpose of which is to give people tools to improve their mobility. It’s called “Becoming a Supple Leopard” (now in its 2rd edition) and I recommend reading it. He has done a Herculean job of breaking down the complexities of joint by joint movement into easily digestible parts and giving recipes to improve them.

There are some very important principles left out of the book, but that is unavoidable when distilling an entire system of thought into print, and should not be considered a criticism. Assessing laxity and bony structure is largely missing from the book and from Dr. Starrett’s popular work, because it is intended for a decidedly un-mobile population. I have no doubt he knows how to assess it in his clinic.

With that in mind I still highly recommend his work. If you maintain a little distance and ask “who is this really meant for…and who is it NOT meant for?” you’ll discover some great ideas to help your clients.

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