A Better Way to Cue “Knees Out” in a Squat

Today’s post is from Derrick Blanton, a regular contributor to my blog. Derrick is constantly pondering biomechanical topics and thinking up effective cues. Here he describes what he feels is a better way to achieve proper knee position in a squat – focusing on loading the lateral heels.

My two assistants and I experimented with this and found that it is indeed highly difficult if not impossible (Andrew was barely able to, but Joey and I could not) to achieve medial knee displacement (inward knee caving) at the bottom of a squat while loading up the lateral edge of the heel, as long as our feet weren’t pointed inward. I’m assuming that this applies to the vast majority of lifters. We were able to cave inwards while still loading the lateral heal half-way up in the squat, but not at the bottom. 

I’m still a “knees-out” guy, but I really like this “drive the lateral heel” cue as well. Try it and see what you think! 

A Better Way to Cue “Knees Out” in a Squat

By Derrick Blanton

The SQ has never been a natural movement pattern for me, and I’ve basically tried every cue ever written to make it click. Thus the latest round of spirited disagreements regarding this concept of “torque” and proper knee position has captured my attention!

Bret’s Note: Below is a List of Current Articles and Videos I’ve Compiled Pertaining to this Debate

Raw Powerlifter Dan Green

Chinese Olympic Weightlifting Team

Olympic Weightlifting Coach Bob Takano Debates

Physical Therapist Kelly Starrett

Another Kelly Starrett Interview

Physical Therapist Quinn Henoch

Chriopractor Conrad Stalheim

Olympic Weightlifting Coach Jean-Patrick Millette 

Squat

The controversial cues in question generally run along these lines: “Screw the hips into the socket!” “Shove the knees out!” “Create maximal torque through the system!”

Unfortunately, it seems that many folks are overzealously applying these ideas and some are even ending up injured.

Cueing movement is a tricky proposition! Tossing out one size fits all prescriptions virtually guarantees problems for someone learning the exercise, due to confusion or individual biomechanics.

So with that in mind, I’d like to toss out a one size fits all prescription.

Ha ha, just kidding! But seriously, it doesn’t have to be this hard. What if there was a better cue to stabilize the hip and align the knees? I believe there is!

“Drive the lateral heel.”

That’s all you got, smart guy?

No esoteric discussions about torque, no complex theories, no Kool-Aid to drink?

Yes, that’s it, fellow squatter! Just keep a steady and constant force through the lateral (outside) heel, right about where it merges into your arch. Do so as you squat down into the hole, even harder at the eccentric/concentric transition, and all the way back up again.

This action at the lateral heel will automatically engage the stabilizing muscles of the lateral hip, and align the knee properly.

No caving in, and no ridiculous bowing out. It’s magic!

“Does this same cue apply if I squat toes straight ahead, toes flared out, feet at hip width, feet at shoulder width, or feet at sumo width?”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Drive the lateral heel!

Regardless of the squat stance that you select, you will have a very hard time getting the knees to buckle inwards into valgus if the lateral and posterior foot is forcefully grounded. It’s simple, weight bearing geometry.

(OK, sure if Terry Tate, Office Linebacker comes roaring in and takes out the side of your knees while you are squatting, then I stand corrected! Doggone it, stay with me here!)

Because the SQ’s kinetic chain is closed at the ground, the knee will general cave in with a corresponding overpronation of the ankle and foot. Forcefully preventing this action with lateral pressure from the hip through the floor, makes valgus collapse darn near impossible, assuming your feet aren’t pointing inwards.

We are talking about forceful alignment, not rotary torque. Trust me, the rotary torque will happen all by itself if you just direct the force, and perform the movement.

The “Foot Feedback” Technique

In about 12-seconds, you can form a clear mind-muscle connection with your lateral hip in squatting action. Position small plates under your feet so that they cut across the outside of the heel. The plates are not there to elevate the heel and buy ROM, but rather to create a sensory map of where to direct force.

Only the outside half of your heel should be on the plate. This creates a tactile feedback loop and provides the CNS with hard data proprioception. Let the CNS earn its money and sort out how much “torque” and abduction you need for the job.

Meanwhile you just focus your attention on smashing that plate!

Now, enjoy the amazing sensation of your knees cleanly tracking on a line with the hip and foot. You’re welcome!

I call this a “foot feedback” technique, and I suggest you learn it barefoot. You are now literally feeling your way through the movement, like a baby rising to stand for the very first time. (OK, that was a little dramatic…sorry!)

This idea is a bit similar to pull from the pinkie on pull-ups, or push through the outside heel of the hand for push ups. When you exert force through a point of contact on a closed chain lift, it streamlines the necessary forces of stabilization. Less “thinking” required.

So at the risk of being another “one size fits all” guy, I do think this may be a useful cue for a broader spectrum of hip types and squat styles.

Squat 2

Here’s Bret’s client Erin. She takes a very narrow stance, and still squats all the way to the floor.

I would probably shred my labrum if I were to force a deep squat from that stance. My hip capsule just doesn’t roll like that…literally!

We all have different hip capsules, as Stu McGill has patiently tried to explain.

Thus, to get rock bottom, I have to widen my stance to just outside shoulder width, and flare my toes about 20-degrees. What once was a nasty collision course of bone vs. capsule, is now a smooth elevator ride down!

The point is that either and any type of squat stance still benefits from driving through the lateral heel, and ensuring stable knee tracking alignment.

OK, enough rationale. The proof is in the pudding, so give this a whirl barefoot on small plates with body weight only, and if it is not immediately helpful, as in…

“Holy Hammer of Zeus! That Derrick Blanton dude is some kind of deranged, squat cueing genius!!! Wow, that feels better…how do I send him money?!”…

then this cue was not a keeper for you, and I’m sorry for taking 12-seconds of your life that you will never get back.

(Plus you can always fall back on, “Shove the knees out”! )

Give it a try and let me know what you think!

38 Comments

  • This makes perfect sense, but I have a feeling I’d need to elaborate in order for my clients to “get it” after cueing it. It is really interesting to see which type of cueing – internal or external works better for clients to understand good form, though!

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Paige, good point. I really had to sort of “come up with a name”, as it’s not so much of an auditory, mental learning device, as a tactile cue. We really want to bypass the over-thinking brain, and go straight to the CNS.

      Here’s how I do it:

      Start from the bottom.

      Find the most comfortable bottom SQ position, with regard to width and flareout, with good spinal extension.

      Slide 2.5# plates under the outside half of the bare heel.

      Instruct client to “smash the plate” as they SQ back up.

      Voila!

  • wickets says:

    thanks for sharing your knowledge….very much appreciated

  • David says:

    Hi Bret,

    Great follow up to the “knees out” discussion. I’m a KStarr fan as well (I’ve read his book and have been steadily following MWod for well over a year now), but I agree that some of his stuff can be overemphasized and overcooked.

    However, I’m thinking about Mike Robertson’s cue for keeping a “tripod foot” for stable foot position. Although I haven’t had a chance to test, how does this “lateral heel” cue affect a trainee’s ability to achieve tripod foot? I know a squat should ultimately emphasize a drive through the heels, but I imagine that you’d want at least some weight on the ball of your foot as well, and the “lateral heel” cue might shift too much weight away from the opposite corner of your foot if overemphasized?

    Just a thought. Maybe it’s nothing, but I’m just thinking out loud. Love your stuff, as usual.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      David, the tripod foot is a good example, (love MR), and this is why a tripod has a bubble leveling device. So if a valgus force is driving the tripod to one side, you need an opposing force to keep it level and flat.

      To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that you roll the foot up on one side, ha ha!!

      It’s a matter of emphasis, a subtle shift. Loading 2cm medial or lateral on the foot can morph into knee inches coming inside as the lever of your leg increases. Like the mouth of an angle that gets wider and wider, even as the degree of angle never changes.

      If you look at your footprint with good arch, for example right out of the shower on a towel, you will see the way the arch cuts across the outside of the heel.

      This “foot feedback” works on the forefoot and quads as well, depending on where you need help. My left knee/quad is a longtime problem, and I’m finding that by increasing pressure through the forefoot on that side, that my quad is more stably engaged.

      • David says:

        Thanks for the thoughts! I really like the idea that a subtle shift from the bottom will lead to a great impact towards the knees. The “angle” analogy was helpful.

        Thanks – I will test out this tonight when I do front squats.

        David.

  • Antonio Sosa says:

    Good article Derrick!
      I’m acl operated and thus get much better rom on my hip-knee-ankle.

    Thank Share with us.

  • EngProfNot says:

    You don’t have to publish this – I just hate typos. I’m pretty sure that the last word in the first paragraph is supposed to be “heels”.

    Keep up the good work! I come to this site to learn a thing or two, and I’m rarely disappointed!

  • Ryan says:

    I always liked the way Ed Coan described it: “open up your groin”. It is different than pushing your knees out.

    From here: http://www.strength-oldschool.com/topic/254-interview-with-powerlifting-legend-ed-coan/

    • Bret says:

      What’s interesting is that these are all internal cues (knees out, load the lateral heel, open up the groin, etc.). Internal cues reign superior to external for fixing technique in my opinion, though I haven’t seen good research on this component of the topic.

      • IA says:

        If memory serves, I think Boris of Squat Rx cues to externally rotate/push the knees out starting from the hips. His reasoning was that it prevents you from pushing the knees out too much.

    • Srai says:

      I am intrigued by that advice – the “open up your groin” by Ed Coan – what does that mean? Do we have to squeeze glutes and keep them tight so as to let the pelvis be as wide as possible?

  • Roy Reichle says:

    In addition to “push through your heels,” I have had clients “push out with their feet, like trying to tear a piece of paper.” I’ve gone so far as to put a large sheet of newspaper under their feet and had them push out to get the feel of it. Unloaded of course. The thing is, when pushing out like that, one does tend to also push down and out with the outer heel, which as we now know, keeps the knees on track. Love the info and the cuing help. Everything helps!

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Hey Roy, I’ve also heard that variation as, “spread the floor”. Funny how there are so many different cues to get the “side ass” as Mark Bell calls it, turned on. Good stuff!

  • Zak says:

    Derrick,

    Your articles on this site have been consistently good work, high quality and useful information. I am really interested in the idea of helping to facilitate motor learning, as I think it is a key component to both physical therapy and personal training. It is MOVEMENT training, which is something we all need a little more of. You hit the nail on the head when you said that one must bypass the thinking brain and go straight to the CNS. Whenever I try too much in a movement, as in trying to control it too much, it invariably does not go well. When I can maintain a sense of awareness and just focus on one or two cues of movement, I think it goes better. That is just my experience anyways.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Zak, thanks so much!

      The movement process is a fantastic, compelling mystery to me. Every muscle in the body must coordinate. This is more than the brain can handle. The brain is like a CEO, it can’t micromanage the workers on the line too much, and still be effective overall.

      Why does bracing the abs prevent the spine from flexing, when the action of the abs is to flex the spine, for example? Does this contradictory effect apply to other tug of wars throughout the body?

      Ha ha! Yes, I sit around and ponder these things!

      I always use the example of: could you run through the muscular actions of tying your shoes? How much would that slow you down to try to consciously go through each separate step.

      So I like modeling, video feedback, and tactile feedback as additional tools in the kit. More than Bret, I like external cues, but the best cue is the one that works. Period.

      Thank you again, Zak!

  • ABHISHEK says:

    Hi Bret, thanks for posting such an amazing cue,simple and straight.I have read in an article of ida rolf that psoas is not really an external rotator,i feel lot of pain in my hip flexors when i do kelly starett style back squats but nothing happens when i just let my knees track the toes,whether straight or slightly pointing out,please have a look in this article http://www.somatics.de/artikel/for-professionals/2-article

  • Riyadh says:

    Hey bret,
    I have a question can I do hip thrust twice daily for example doing 2 sets in the morning and another two sets in the evening to get faster results.

    Thank you.

  • Marcus Beasley says:

    How long are you guys just gonna keep talking about this subject. I find that the solution is to drop the weight and allow you hip abductors to catch up. Dropping the weight seems to magically cure a lot of form faults.

  • I really liked this cue. I’ve been having some knee pain lately (since wearing boots at my full time job) and just by loading the outside of my foot it seemed to really change the feeling of it. I noticed a difference between the knee over the toe cue and loading of outside of the foot. Great tip, weather or not it really matters it’s good to have a few different cue’s in our toolbox.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Hi Jake, glad it helped!

      That different “feel” is really the key with any cue, it’s a different coordination, possibly a different sequence, possibly just adjusting the volume, etc.

      And totally agree: Cueing options = very important.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  • Demetrius says:

    Wow. This is exactly what I’ve been feeling when squatting in barefoot shoes and thinking “knees out”. Thanks for validating this as a cue, I wasn’t sure if it was “normal” to feel it so much on my outer heel but it makes much more sense. By the way, for those of us with a Mortons toe, the “tripod foot” cue is misleading, as our shorter first metatarsal makes tripoding with that bone impossible. With a relatively longer 2nd metatarsal, This cue makes much more sense for us as we’re keeping the weight on the outside of the foot and avoiding the wobble between the 1st metatarsal and the outside which used to lead to me having occasional knee caving.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Very interesting perspective, Demetrius.

      Here’s another wrinkle on the tripod foot. Back when I was diligently trying to keep the feet straight, I started getting a nasty bone bruise at the lateral ball of the foot as my foot would try to turn on the ground to match the action at the hip. (My hips are pretty varus.)

      Turn the feet about a bit, and widen the stance, and all better. Plus a more “tripod-like” foot.

      I know Rippetoe would advocate a pretty aggressive toe flare, and another guy I really like, Dr. Andreo Spina had a nice video showing how you allow for subtalar pronation of the foot.

      So you just revealed yet another way that this one size fits all cueing can really get dicey. This is why I said that if it immediately doesn’t feel better than toss this cue out the window!

  • Connie says:

    That actually really helps. I’ve had 5 knee surgeries from sports injuries and have a lot of arthritis in both knees. While it doesn’t usually hurt to squat anymore, it usually sounds like a bowl of rice krispies, no matter what alignment I’ve tried, and even if I don’t go very deep at all. That cue produced the first perfectly silent full squat I’ve done in like 10 years. Excited to try it in the gym!

  • Karim says:

    I like anything that simplifies teaching the squat and this does seam to shortcut queuing for correct knee placement.

  • justin says:

    I do the lateral heel cue when people don’t understand “push your knees out.” Some people think pushing your knees out means externally rotating the feet.

  • Donny says:

    Loads of great discussion which helps put a few new cues in my toolbox, keeping it simple with less to think about could really help with my form in the hole.

    Cheers much appreciated

  • Alison Swift says:

    This helped me alot as I’m constantly struggling with tight calves and quads, therefore, tight, painful knees with below parallel squats. (I know, stretch, stretch, stretch. And it is helping.) The “knees out cue, doesn’t seem to help me much and turns off inner leg and create too much torque on my knee. Letting my knee stay more natural (I was probably pushing it out too much anyways. “KNEES OUT!”) and pushing through the lateral heel is giving me a great feeling of use of the glutes and hams and inner thighs as I feel my legs create an arch of power upward. Definitely felt right and stronger. And my feet actually felt grounded. Nice! Thanks!

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Hi Allison, you are describing my experiences exactly, down to the tight calves and quads! (Stretching helps a ton, and so does aggressive SMR, and I don’t mean a foam roller, either!)

      The “Shove the knees out” cue didn’t work so well for me either. How far? You mean concentrically use my glute to abduct, while I simultaneously need it to be eccentrically lengthening to squat down? (Shove is a very active, concentric command, maybe it should be “allow the knees out?” Anyone? No…OK 🙂

      The “screw your hips into the socket” worked better, but I was still ending up in the hole with my knees too far outside the feet, and the medial knee pain to show for it.

      Plus it always felt like I was trying to run two different lifts at the same time, a leg press and a clamshell all in one, diverting too much attention from just squatting the weight. So this one feels just more straight up and down, less thinking.

      Thanks, Allison!

  • Dave Seng says:

    This cue has probably saved me from breaking myself. It has resolved issues I’ve had in the past with my knees wanting to fall in, and a weird feeling I was having in my low back. Also, my squats feel way more stable and not so scary. Thank you so much for this article.

  • Benjamin Cordes says:

    Hello I just wanted to that I tried out your cue right after reading this article and helped me immediately. A much superior cue to “pushing the knees out” which hurts my knees. I also feel like it helps my overall stability and movement when i squat. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Ellen says:

    I can’t see the video… It says the YouTube account was removed?

    Any tips for people with flat feet? Should I just try it in shoes with very thin soles? Shoes yes, not barefoot, otherwise there’s no way to have my feet supported by my orthopedic soles…

  • Ola says:

    Can this be done with Oly shoes? Do You have än image of the excersice because i do not fullt understand. Thanks!

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