When you think of squatting, one of the first cues that pops into your head might be “knees out.” No doubt your coaches have used it in training repeatedly. And seeing elite athletes push their knees out when squatting ridiculous amounts of weight has likely provided supported the thought that it’s the correct way to squat.
Or is it?
There’s been growing debate over whether lifters should use the cue “knees out”, or instead keep their “knees in” when squatting. Renowned Olympic Weightlifting coach Bob Takano, elite Powerlifter Dan Green and several Olympic Weightlifters have advocated the benefits of bringing the knees in briefly when coming out of the hole (i.e. the bottom position) of a squat. To clarify: These individuals aren’t suggesting that you perform a full squat with your knees coming in throughout the entire range of motion—they’re recommending bringing the knees in just a bit when coming out of the hole.
So, is there value in actively pushing the knees in during a squat? Before we look at the argument for this technique, let’s take a closer look at what pushing the knees out really means.
As Kelly Starrett explains, “knees out” is not a style of squatting. It is a cue to minimize valgus torque during the squat. Valgus torque, also know as valgus collapse or medial knee displacement, is essentially when your knees cave inward as you come down in a squat or landing. It is characterized by hip adduction (movement toward the midline of your body) and internal hip rotation when your hips are in a flexed position. Valgus collapse may occur as a result of having weak hips, tight ankles, impaired quad function, and impaired hamstrings.
When you squat, your knees will naturally start to push out to the side if you have good mobility and are able to generate strong torque from the hips. Having good mobility is key to achieving depth in the squat and maintaining a good position throughout the lift. Once again, those advocating “knees out” would emphasize that it is not a style of squatting but a cue to help activate the muscles necessary to set the pelvis and lumbar spine in a more neutral and stable position. This is useful for people who experience valgus torque at the bottom of the squat, but should not disguise an athlete’s inability to get into the right position.
Just as “knees out” isn’t a style of squatting, the cue “knees in” doesn’t mean that you will be pulling your knees inward during the entire squat. “Knees in” is a coaching cue meant to help an athlete get out of the hole quickly and powerfully. “Knees in” is a subtle movement that only needs to occur when driving out of the bottom of the squat. When a lifter hits the bottom position in a squat, their knees are typically in a wide position to the sides. What coaches and athletes such as Green and Takano advise is for the lifter to briefly bring their knees inward so that they line up with the feet as they begin their ascent out of the hole, before pushing them out to the sides as they stand to extension.
Green suggests the cue “knees in” allows lifters to generate more speed and leg drive when coming out of the hole. Based on the evidence and results from elite-level Olympic lifters who use it (such as Long Quinqquan, Chinese weightlifter and two-time Olympic champion), it’s easy to understand why the cue “knees in” has a strong following.
Final Point Being Made
There is an argument that actively forcing the knees out in the squat is going against the body’s natural movement patterns—that is to say that since the knees begin to move in during the concentric phase of a squat (especially heavy ones), we should not fight our bodies’ natural tendency and let the knees come in, if only briefly. In an email published on lift.net a few years ago, Dr. Brendan Murray, a team doctor and co-Chair of the Medical Board for the U.S.A. Olympic Weightlifting Team expressed his concerns after seeing an increase of injuries to athletes that squatted with “their knees out.”
“I have been seeing cross fit [his spelling] athletes for a while. One thing I have been battling for the past two years is the technique of pushing the knees out while squatting. That technique from an injury standpoint creates significant stress on the knee, hips and low back. What I see is many of these athletes don’t have good control or flexibility so they compensate by altering the technique to give the perception they are going deeper,” says Murray.
However, we must remember that Starrett and his team at San Francisco CrossFit expressively said that the “knees out cue” was intended to help athletes (with good mobility) avoid valgus collapse and get the right muscles firing to help with posture and more stable positioning.
Diane Fu, Strength & Conditioning Coach at San Francisco CrossFit and Head Coach at FuBarbell sought to clarify their position (also available on lift.net):
“We are not advocating a cure, but are hedging against the oftentimes valgus knee and collapsed foot positions we see in the community. Knees out for the sake of driving the knees out is not purposeful. We are teaching athletes how to create a stable platform in which to drive and create movement. – Diane Fu, Coach San Francisco CrossFit”
As you can tell, there has been—and continues to be—some debate about these two cues from prominent figures across multiple sports and disciplines. The ‘knees out’ cue is one of the oldest cues in lifting, and one that likely won’t go away anytime soon. Whether or not ‘knees in’ begin to attract more of a following, only time will tell. The argument, I would say, is there.