How many times have you heard a coach yell, “Knees out!” while you are on your last rep of a heavy set of back squats? Or, have you ever glanced over at your buddy as he’s standing up a heavy clean and cringed because his knee caps are almost touching? If you’re a competitive athlete, you will probably do just about anything to get those extra few pounds on your lifts, but this mindset to push your body to its max capacity can often lead you to develop bad habits, such as letting your knees cave when you squat. It is important to reinforce good movement patterns – from the warm-up phase to the heaviest sets or lifts – in order to reduce the likelihood of injury and increase your overall efficiency.
The main reason athletes allow their knees to cave during a heavy squat is actually due to a timing issue. Athletes are unable to turn on their lateral glute muscles (gluteus medius – see image below) at the right time, and keep them engaged, in order to maintain proper knee alignment and keep them pressed out over their toes. In order to learn how to properly engage these muscles, the coach may cue the athlete to press their knees out. Sometimes an athlete can turn their knees out too much, causing their feet to roll to the outside and putting them off balance. To avoid this, the athlete should keep their feet firmly planted on the ground maintaining three points of contact: the big toe, the pinky toe, and the heel.
In order to get the most out of your glutes when you squat, it is important to warm them up properly. Here are a couple of exercises that you can use in your warm-up routine to help you learn how to activate your glute muscles properly:
Place a mini band around your ankles and stand about shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance (quarter squat, toes forward, knees pressed out). Start taking steps sideways, maintaining this athletic stance and keeping the tension on the band. Focus on forcing the hips back and initiating each step with your hip/glutes, and then control each following step by pushing weight into the hips.
Place a mini band right above your knees. Initiate the squat by setting your hips back slightly and then descend straight down, keeping your knees pressed out so that tension remains on the band. As you stand back up, continue to press your knees out, with feet planted firmly on the ground, keeping tension in the band.