Ask First Pull Fridays : Should the knees be pushed out in the Olympic squat?

Boyanka Kostova
Boyanka Kostova

Since the creation of First Pull, I have received many e-mails where I have been discussing weightlifting in some form or shape with readers. The discussions have been extremely interesting and this led me to this first edition of ”Ask First Pull Fridays”. Indeed, I think everybody can benefit from these discussions. It goes without saying that I encourage you to send your questions through the contact button. Every Friday, I will answer thoroughly one question. Today’s question came from David who wanted my opinion on the recent  debate about pushing the Knees out in the squat. It is a topic that has gained a lot of coverage lately through Bob Takano. Many things have been said, but I think very important pieces of the puzzle were left out.

Without further ado…Here is the first edition of Ask First Pull Fridays

David sent me this e-mail this week :

”Hi JP,

I have been following First Pull for a while, now. Thanks for the articles, they have helped me a lot. I am a former powerlifter. Like most, I learned to squat to parallel by pushing my knees out. After a few battles with injuries, I wanted to try something new so I switched to weightlifting a few months ago. I had to learn the Olympic squat which came with a few challenges. When squatting deeper, I found that keeping my knees out was very hard.

I don’t know if you are aware of it, but lately there has been a debate as to whether or not you should push the knees out. I read the series published by Takano. Some argued that pushing the knees out is safer while others said that it increases risks of injuries. Every coach I follow on facebook commented on this topic except for you! I would like to know your opinion on this matter. Thanks, David.”

Knees in a neutral plane of movement
Knees in a neutral plane of movement

David brings a very interesting question to the table as to whether or not you should push the knees out in Olympic weightlifting movements. I followed the discussion on this topic from afar and to me, the key points have not been touched or explored. It is a very interesting – but extremely simple- question to which the answer is much more complicated than what it could seem like. When evaluating if the prescription of ”push the knees out ” is right or wrong in Olympic Weightlifting, one has to understand two things and they are connected. The first one is what is it that the person is trying to accomplish (characteristics of the movement) and the second one is who is that person (morphology, prior injuries, biomechanics).

Let’s explore these two points.

1. What is it that the person is trying to accomplish : The Olympic squat is not a Powerlifting squat 

Squats as demonstrated in Starting Strength.
Squats as demonstrated in Starting Strength.

Although it appears like common sense, it has not be stated in the debate. There are fundamental differences between the two types of squats that will influence the way the lifts is executed as well as the nature of the cues we can use to improve our success. In Powerlifting, the lifter who competes in the squat does not have to squat all the way down to the bottom. He only has to have his hip lower than his knee. This change the dynamics of the squats. A common strategy used to perform the squat in powerlifting is to rack the bar low on the shoulders, use a relatively – or very- wide foot stance and push the hip very far back before going down and somewhat leaning forward. This means that the powerlifting squat requires a lot of back and glute strength because of the leverage.

Olympic Squats by Xiaojun. Captured by Hookgrip.
Olympic Squats by Xiaojun. Captured by Hookgrip.

In the Olympic Squat, weightlifters use, most of the time, a hip width stance which is narrow in comparison to the powerlifting squat. Weightlifters squat as low as possible because this is the position where they will receive the bar in the clean and jerk and in the snatch. Keeping a very upright back position is key to the performance of this movement. Although the back and glutes are still being activated (Gluteus maximus is largely recruited below parallel), I think that the Olympic squat puts more focus on the anterior muscle groups such as the quadricep in terms of prime movers (the hip extensor muscles, although recruited, will work to extend the hip later later on rather than early on in the the coming up).

Pushing the knees out appears to be very important in the powerlifting squat because it increase the activation of key hip muscles that limit hip flexion. In other words, the muscles that allow the lifter to push the knees out are the three gluteus (minimus, medius and maximus) and the tensor fascia lata. Interestingly enough, Gluteus maximus is also involved in hip extension. Because vigorous hip extension is of extreme importance at parallel and above in powerlifting to limit hip flexion, the lifter who pushes the knees out will be able to recruit the gluteus maximus muscle better and will thus be better at extending his hip. This basic knowledge of anatomy is important to understand if pushing the knees out in weightlifting is important.

Akkaev, Credit @ Macklem
Akkaev, Credit @ Macklem

In weightlifting, generally the hip and back work mostly isometrically (hence the the vertical back and why back extension is minimal in comparison to the powerlifting squat) at the bottom and the violent extension of the hip happens most of time (some lifters differ) above parallel. Although gluteus maximus is recruited the most in the bottom of the squat, most lifters don’t extend the hip concentrically at the bottom (you have to come up a bit and extend). The knee extensors do most of the work to ”bounce out of the hole”  through elastic energy while the hip extensor helps to keep the lifter upright. Coming out of the hole, the lifter keeps extending the knees while extending his hip.

Now, in the bottom position, a lifter has to be flexed greatly at the hip if he wants his back to stay vertical. This is why I believe the hip extensor muscles are working isometrically in this position. If the lifter pushes the knees out or try to extend his hip too early, he will recruit more of the greatest hip extensor which will limit hip flexion. This means that great depth is hard to achieve (Since you want hip flexion, you need the hip extensors muscles to still allow that) and, when trying to bounce out of the hole, trying to extend the hip too fast may change negatively the leverage of the knee extensors.

In other word, the reason powerlifter push the knees out is to be able to stop at parralel (limit depth) which has to make us reconsider the use of that cue in weightlifting. The knee out cue could useful after parallel where the lifter is trying to actively -rather than isometrically -extend his hip, though. This means that while going down, the lifter wants his leg in a neutral position and while going up, he will want to keep them neutral for most of the way up. By the way, the reality of the Olympic squat and the need to have an upright torso are exactly the  reason why Weightlifters use weightlifting shoes which has an elevated heel.  I included two videos to illustrate those concepts.

Although it is a front squat, the viewer can see that Dabaya’s legs are in a neutral position, his torso is very straight and, once he bounce out of the hole to reach parallel, he extends his hip.

Marilou Prévost-Dozois, an incredible lifter from Quebec (Canada), shows the two phase technique I explained above. The legs are straight at the bottom of the clean (they do come slightly in, but I would argue that it’s a neutral position) and once she reaches parallel, she pushes the knee out to violently extend her hip while continuing the extension of her knees.

 2. Who is that person (morphology, prior injuries, biomechanics) : Using the same cues for everybody is the fastest road to injuries and lack of progress

Sagir, front squatting with knees not pushed out, at least in the powerlifting sense. Credit : Macklem
Sagir, front squatting with knees not pushed out, at least in the powerlifting sense. Credit : Macklem

It goes without saying that you cannot give the same recommendations to everybody which was done in the debate. We just saw that biomechanically pushing the knees out does not seem to be the best strategy for the weightlifter. In my opinion, you have to treat everybody that comes in your gym as unique because 1) his mechanics are unique (morphology) 2) his past experiences change the way he moves 3) he might have injuries or have been injured 4) his mobility is unique 5) like everybody, he has strength and weaknesses that change his movement patterns. I do not plan to cover all of this in details but I have to touch on a few topics that should have been discussed.

2.1 Knee valgus and knee varus

1410675060_030c4cd79b_oI want to touch on this briefly. Knee valgus is when the knee tracks in. It can exists structurally or artificially. Indeed, if the bones of leg have a deformity, then the knee may be tracking medially because of the way the structures are made. On the other hand, it can exists artificially which means muscles – and recruitment of muscles- make the knee track in. In other words, it can be due to weak hips (especially gluteus maximus), poor recruitment of the VMO of the Quadricep and weak medial hamstrings ( both semis : semimembranosus and semitendinosus). In weightlifting it can also be due to the body trying to find the path of least resistance.

If you shut down somewhat the gluteus medius at the bottom of the squat which happens as the leverage are not great for it, the knee tracks in a bit (See Marilou’s video). The moment the hip rotates in, the gluteus medius can regain his role has a hip abductor. If the knee valgus is extreme, as in the lifter has no control over his legs at all (they track in severely), then trying to push the knees out is a good option as it helps to active the hip abductors and extensors which prevent the excessive valgus. A better approach would still be to work on the real weaknesses that cause it to happen. 

It is important to consider the biomechanics of the lifter before cueing him (especially if he has valgus or varum knees)
It is important to consider the biomechanics of the lifter before cueing him (especially if he has valgus or varum knees)

Knee varus is the opposite of knee valgus. Knee Varus  is when the legs have a deformity that make the knee go outward of its natural position. Because of the way the structures are made, pushing the knees out is probably the last thing you want to do. In knee valgus, a lot of pressure is put on the lateral side of the knee whereas in the knee varum, a lot of pressure is being put on the medial part of the knee. Pushing the knees out, in the case of knee varum, will put even more stress on the medial part of the knee. So pushing the knees out does not seem like it is the right cue for the cause.

2.2 Foot, hip, and overall muscular development

Very quickly, ”artificial” varus and valgus can sometimes be due to foot position. If a lifter has a collapse foot arch, the knee will track in more easily. If a lifter has a big arch (most of his weight is on the lateral part of his midfoot), most of the time the knee will track out. Overall glute development and strength is extremely important. If glute strength is high enough, the lifter does not have to compensate by pushing the knees out excessively which is important for weightlifters (see #1). We want the knees to stay in a neutral position as it reduces knee stress but is also better mechanically for the Olympic squat.

3.  Final Word

Steiner
Steiner

As always, a problem has to be looked in its context in order for the solution to be specific and really address what really needs to be addressed. Cues can’t be given in a generic way without at least considering the nature of the sport and the anatomy. Pushing the knees out could be beneficial in some instance (after parallel where the hip is actively extending) and if the knees track in severely. If you find that you really have to push the knees out to succeed, I would suggest looking at the overall development and strength of your glutes and hamstrings (and mobility). Addressing the problem specifically is always better.

So this is it, I hope you enjoyed the first edition of ”Ask First Pull Fridays”.

One comment

  • I’ve never really used the ‘knees out’ cue. Still, very enlightening.

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