by Geoff Rand
This will be the first in a recurring series of articles detailing $h!t our coaches say in the Box. Coaches give us verbal cues to help put us in a proper position or avoid an improper one. In CrossFit, we are dealing with dynamic movements, often under load. It would be impractical to quickly say to an athlete, “You’re leaning too far forward in your squats which is putting undue stress on your lumbar spine and coming up on your toes which is torqueing your knees.” First, the movement would be over before you got all that out, and second, that’s a lot to digest while you’re oxygen deprived and not thinking totally clearly. Not to mention, you could potentially do a lot of damage to yourself before that correction was heard, understood, and implemented.
The cue is a quick statement that elicits an immediate correction from an athlete. So, the cue for the above faults would be “Keep your chest up; sit back, keeping weight in your heels.” Sometimes our coaches may yell. Don’t take it personally. The music is loud, and sometimes they notice a fault from across the room. Their yelling is merely a way to get their message across to you clearly and immediately.
In our first $h!t my Coach Says, we’ll discuss the cue, Knees Out.
You’ll hear “Push your knees out” during squats. This cue is designed to correct an injury-inducing fault of allowing the knees to collapse inward while standing up out of the squat. A valgus knee is a position where the knee has dropped inside of the big toe if you were to draw an imaginary line, perpendicular to the floor, upwards from that toe. This puts a lot of stress on the ACL.
If you remember former Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, he demonstrated a severe valgus knee fault in his NFL Combine vertical jump testing as seen here.
Several weeks later, he tore his ACL in a non-contact change of direction movement likely caused by poor body mechanics due to his valgus knee alignment never being corrected throughout years of training.
A coach noticing an athlete tending to let their knees drop inward will give the knees out cue to correct this position. The coach could also say, “Spread the floor with your feet.” Properly implemented, the cue should remind the athlete to engage and maintain stability in the hips, keep the knees aligned with the toes, and create drive from the outside of the foot, keeping the foot flat on the floor.
Know that the knees out cue is not intended to be a universal method applied by every athlete doing a squat. The cue’s sole purpose is to remind only those athletes who are allowing their knees to drop inward to fix their alignment. If you are keeping proper knee-toe alignment with a stable hip and neutral spine, you don't need to emphasize the knees out correction.
One can also over exaggerate their knee position to a varus knee, or one where the knee extends to a position far past the pinky toe. While not as serious as allowing your knees to fall inward, pushing the knees out to the extremes can cause injury. If you feel pain in your ankles during squats, you might be pushing out too far. Have a coach take a look at your stance and make appropriate changes.
In this photo comparison, the photo on the left shows me in a neutral position with proper knee-foot alignment. I'm still keeping tension in my hips in preparation for standing up out of this squat. In the center photo, I let my knees drop inward in my squat. This felt very unnatural and awkward, as it should. This would be a dangerous position to push up out of. In the right photo, I've pushed my knees out too far, and my feet have tilted outward, soles losing contact with the floor.
So how do you know where your knees are, or should be, in relation to your feet? In time you should be able to feel what the proper alignment is, but until then, rely on our coaches to evaluate your positioning and correct it as needed.
We all respond to various ways of explanation differently. You may have heard a coach explain “knees out” to you a different way, or if you’re a coach, you may have a different cue for the same correction. Feel free to share variations of the cue in the comments below.