Why I don’t like “Knees out!” in the squat, Part 2

In Part 1 I talked about how an athlete’s mobility makes them respond to the “knees out” squat command differently, some of the complications that creates, and why it matters. I’d like to dig a little bit deeper into another reason I’m not a huge fan of using this phrase as a primary instruction.

Downside #2 – Not Knowing Your Purpose

The second reason I don’t like using “knees out” is closely related to the last point form part 1: many trainers don’t actually know what physical response they are looking for, and are simply using cues they’ve heard before. The goal of using the knees out command is to get  tension into the hips and to use the abductors to stabilize the knee over the base of support.

Now, before I hear too many protests, let me say this. Yes, we do indeed squat between our legs, not on top of them. In that sense, yes the knees need to be “out” from the mid-line of the body. And yes, there is some significant variation from person to person. That’s not what I am talking about here. If the knees are wildly outside the base of support (the feet), you lose power. You might be generating muscular torque, but the body limits power when joint integrity is compromised.

You have to know not just where the knees are visually in space – are they in the right spot? – but WHY they’re positioned there. A hypermobile athlete may be able to get their knees all the way outside their feet without actually using the hips the way we want. Not only would they be in a bad position, they wouldn’t even be using the right muscles to get there.

You need to be able to tell if the right muscles are firing in the right sequence and at the right time. If the lateral hip musculature does not fire effectively and powerfully, we lose stability down the chain.

This mechanical function is independent of personal coaching preferences. It doesn’t matter whether you allow the athlete’s toes to point out or keep them straight, or whether you squat wider or narrow stance. It doesn’t matter if you front or back squat, or leg press. Mechanics is independent of whether you like box squats or free squats, or whether you like Olympic style lifting more than powerlifting or gymnastics more than lifting. In order to effectively develop muscular strength and power we have to have effective mechanical linkages, full stop. Determining – practically – how an athlete best achieves that power linkage is the task we need to accomplish.

Knowing Your Mechanics Matters

If you don’t know what you want to achieve mechanically with your athlete – and WHY – you can’t possibly know how to best cue your athlete. Many trainers out there mean well but don’t look at the underlying mechanics of the exercise they are using, or the person they are coaching. Of course we don’t want to see knock-kneed legs or heels coming off the ground. But beyond the obviously BAD things, there are more important questions: what’s the ideal position in this individual? Most importantly, WHY are we looking for this position, specifically?

There are a number of ways to squat correctly depending on the specific goal in mind and the physical proportions of the athlete, along with their known weak points or physical structures. For example, someone with femoral anteversion is going to need significantly more focus on glute and VMO strength than a normal athlete to balance forces at the knee and hip (See here). They may also need work on abductor length deficiencies from overuse. They will also need extra oblique work to help control pelvic position. Athletes like this may also need a different squat stance than normal.

Athletes with the opposite issue (significant retroversion) may need an entirely different set of adjustments. The key to finding out what works best for someone is simple. Develop your ability to see the firing patterns an athlete is using. See what recruitment sequence they are using, and whether their mechanics are efficient.

Effective Coaching

As coaches, it’s our job to

  1. Understand each person’s unique physical characteristics and how that affects training needs
  2. Know what we want to see and why we want to see it in each individual case
  3. Be able to change our verbal or physical cues in order for the athlete to respond physically

Having a basic understanding of functional anatomy and knowing how to assess clients’ physical structures is critical. You don’t need to be a physical therapist, but you need to understand how to interpret your athlete’s movements. Getting people better while keeping them healthy takes more than canned programs and one-size-fits-all verbal pointers.

The first step to effective verbal coaching is to know what you’re dealing with physically. The next step is to know what you want to see and what that person is physically capable of. The final ingredient is verbal instruction. Many coaches are unwittingly working backwards from stock verbal instructions, and wondering why people aren’t “getting it”.

Final Thoughts

Yes, it’s more time consuming. Yes, if you have 30 athletes in your gym at once it’s going to limit what you can practically do in some ways (but not all!). Having a good assessment procedure is essential to streamlining how you approach differences between people in a chaotic environment. It can make the process of coaching groups much easier to manage.

After that, you need to know what you’re after in the exercise and how various joint differences may affect best practices. The final ingredient is having a diverse mental “library” of verbal instructions to quickly change a client’s response. Always be looking for new effective ones. Don’t rely on one favorite cue – understand how the athlete is built and how they need to get into a position first. THEN look for the best cue to get them there.

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