Recently I was introduced to Conrad Stalheim’s article, “ Moderating the Knees In Versus Knees Out Squat Debate ” summarizing an ongoing debate about knee position during the squat. This article does a great job introducing the topic and led me to the right links so that I could educate myself without getting lost (too much) in the personal tirades that are so often a part of an impassioned debate.
Because I’m an uber-geek, I had to weigh in on this awesome discussion. Though I think any professional discussion about human movement is an awesome one, this one gets me particularly geeked out. I want to start by saying that I am not a Crossfitter or an Olympic Lifter or a Power Lifter. I am not actually an ‘-er’ of any type . I love exercise and lifting heavy things. I love the intricacies of human movement and I specialize in applying those loves to athletes and active people who have chronic injuries preventing them from exercise or sport. I am highly rewarded by seeing my clients achieve movement or return to sport without pain.
I watched Kelly Starrett’s video series with Diane Fu and Roop Siota to establish an understanding of their coaching technique. I also read through Bob Takano’s blog series (referenced in Quin Henock’s article ) to fully understand his input and that of the other professionals he involves in the discussion. Of course, I also read Bob Green’s article which seems to have been thrown in the mix though it wasn’t part of the initial discussion.
The squat is not about the knees
Let’s take for instance the woman who has scar tissue thanks to multiple C-sections or the man who has scar tissue post hernia repair. Asking for these athletes to push their knees out will simply pull against that adhesion and cause for an abnormal response elsewhere in the chain. It is like tugging on a skirt that is too short in hopes of covering your butt. You are likely to cover the rounded bottom, only to expose the crack. By pushing knees out, you haven’t lengthened the tissue.
Can you lengthen tissue to improve your squat simply by doing squats? You bet. This is an excellent method of improving your functional range of motion while improving strength and stability.
Two rules for using squats to improve mobility and strength
Position Creates Power
Instead, throughout the decent, relative internal rotation at the hip must occur which allows for the transverse fibers of the gluts and adductor magnus to stretch in the same manner that the sagittal fibers stretch during hip flexion. This is not knee valgus. When executed properly, the knee will track over the foot. From here, you have efficiently loaded your hip complex (like stretching a rubber band) and it is prepped for explosion.
Why ‘push into the floor’? Your butt and your feet talk to each other. It is the tensional changes of the fascia in the foot that communicate to the hip complex proprioceptively. This communication calls for eccentric muscle firing providing a stable and mobile environment where the muscles of the hip complex can work synergistically to allow coordinated movement. Next time you have a relatively athletic person doing squats and there is some knee buckling, try the ‘push into the floor’ or ‘push through the floor’ cue and see what happens.
Knee movement is possible and important in knee flexion. This concept of ‘locking’ the knees while in flexion to create stability and to protect from injury will cause injury.
In researching knee mechanics in order to better design an efficient prosthetic leg, Kamran Shamaei & Aaron M. Dollar*, find the normal rotation of the joint ranging from 2-23 degrees. That is a lot of rotation at a joint we call a ‘hinge’. Michol Dalcourt offers great visuals in his video describing this motion.
On to Dan Green’s initial point about knees in.
What I see in his video and that of Long Qingquan (and many others I’ve found) is a highly trained athlete using a highly skilled technique to generate improved performance. It is clear to me that the move improves Qingquan’s performance. (Man, I love watching this stuff!) It is also clear to me that his performance is far and above the caliber of most people in the world and the movement he is performing is highly specialized.
Training Olympic Lifters or Power Lifters to be better at their sport is not my job. It is my job to get them back to sport when they are injured. In my job, I will often examine form or movement during the sport to see if there are techniques that are contributing to the injury. What I see here wouldn’t raise major red flags for me. Why? What I note is that the feet are flat without any apparent inversion or eversion at the calcaneus. In a still photo, the knee comes into a position that I might describe as valgus, but in movement I wouldn’t describe it as such. It closer simulates adduction, where the normal range of motion is being taken advantage of to allow for additional pre-stress of the hip complex, thereby allowing for maximization of ground reaction force. Each of us is different and to anyone teaching or employing this technique, I would advise a close listen to the feel of the move and, as always, executing the move within effortless range of motion. In watching Green and Qingquan, the amount of movement each utilizes is very different. Not a novice move, this is something taught after skill and coordination have been mastered. Everyone I’ve watched execute this move are in proper hip flexion, foot position, and have more than 90 degrees of knee flexion. If I saw someone using it as a cheat, that would be a huge red flag for me.
What about Tensegrity?
My perspective on the squat
As someone who first experienced knee pain at the age of 16 thanks to chondromalacia and now can execute a deep overhead squat without pain, I am a firm believer in the squat. I love the saying, “Shut up and Squat.” Just make sure you have the mobility and motor control to do it right.
(Aside. Those of you with Mel Siff’s 6th edition of Supertraining – 2003, check out the pictures of Mel in the front. At the bottom of his snatch, he appears to be “knees-in”. These pictures were taken in the 70’s. I met him in 2003 and he was still doing ass-to- heels snatches without knee pain. More food for thought. )
*Shamaei, Kamran & Dollar, Aaron M.; “On the Mechanics of the Knee during the Stance Phase of the Gait” 2011 IEEE International Conference on Rehabilitation Robotics, Rehab Week