Everyone has heard the phrase repeatedly, over the past 5 years or so, while squatting, “drive your knees out.” This can be a great cue when used appropriately, however, it has almost become obnoxious with everyone and their mothers yelling this phrase. Don’t get me wrong, I apply the cue myself, but it is highly overused. The cue should NOT be said every single time someone squats, if so, find a new gym.
When watching more experienced, along with world-record breaking, Olympic lifters, such as Ilya Ilyin and his 2014 - 242kg, you often see their knees cave inward in the bottom position, or while driving out of the bottom position. Now, I don’t think this justifies allowing a new lifter to do the same, but I do believe there is a deeper, more neurological justification for why this occurs in moderate to elite lifters.
A Squatting Neurological Plateau
Ideally, we want to see stabilization at the hips and feet to maintain a good lower extremity position with “neutral” alignment between the hips, knees, and feet. Preferably these three areas should line up during any squat variation. There should be little to no movement of the knee outward or inward of this imaginary line.
When a person loads their body with weight to squat, they increase the challenge on their neuromuscular system, to maintain ideal body position throughout the motion. If someone challenges their neuromuscular awareness outside of their current level, decreased movement quality or complete failure will occur. As a result, the brain will digress to a more primitive, stabilizing pattern in order to achieve the task at hand.
There is a valid argument of bone-on-bone, alignment issues (i.e. loss of ankle dorsiflexion). However, you will see individuals perfectly in “neutral” lower extremity alignment, in the bottom position, but as they drive their bodies’ force downward, you can briefly see their knees migrate inward. If there is a problem with boney alignment, it would present during the extreme angle (ass to grass), not during mid-range angles. Another issue with the lack of bone-on-bone range of motion (ROM) dilemma is when unloaded (i.e. body weight squat or ankle ROM testing) there should also be a lack of ankle ROM. However, when tested, passive or low-grade active ROM is not always a limiting factor to the quality of movement. This brings into the equation a more complex understanding, or viewpoint, of motion throughout the squat.
An extreme example of a neurological plateau is seen in stroke victims. Certain areas of the brain become damaged, allowing more primitive, stabilizing patterns to present. Arm, hand, and wrist positions often become altered; you will see this pattern of stabilization in newborns as well (first 28 days of life). The uncompensated parts of the Central Nervous System (CNS) reappear as the best authority to stabilize the body¹; this produces visually altered body positions.
The knees caving inward is the digressed, stabilizing pattern for upward movement. This is why, I believe, the knees will ultimately cave inward while driving out of the bottom of the squat, or through midrange, when a person has hit their neurological plateau.
Video Evidence of a Neurological Plateau
If you watch Ilya Ilyin’sagain, presented by Hook Grip, you will see exactly what I am referring to. Slow motion allows you to witness the movement quality. In the bottom position, Ilya will allow his knees to cave inward, then reset by aligning the knee back into a position between the foot and the hip. As he drives his body downward, you will see his knees start to drift inward. There is no way someone can say this is occurring due to a lack of joint mobility. It is happening throughout his midrange joint mobility, not end range. Therefore he has hit his neurological, squatting plateau.
Here is aof Lydia Valentin from Spain, demonstrating the same movement. She receives and stays slightly more in a genu valgus (knees inward) position; she adducts her knees inward more until she can get her torso to a higher position, to then shift her knees outward. It is at this point, shifting the knees outward, that she is no longer at her neurological plateau.
Advancement in videography allows us to watch these videos in slow-mo, enabling us to better identify movement patterns and quality. Part 2 highlights why and where the drifting of the knees come from.
Kobesova, A., Kolar, P., Developmental kinesiology: Three levels of motor control in the assessment and treatment of the motor system, Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2013.04.002