How high demand for external hip rotation in squats creates a road to perfection

wide stance squatDoing squats with a heavy emphasis on external rotation can prove frustrating, but we encourage it for a number of reasons. Greater external rotation from your hips during the wide stanced squat supports your feet arches, creates a more stable position for the knees, allows a more vertical back angle and activates the glutes more. Beyond these physical benefits, it is also a great indicator of what you are doing wrong. I like to describe it as a squat technique which puts a magnifying glass on technical faults. The slightest errors get amplified significantly, not allowing you to get away with movements you might be able to with other techniques. And that’s a sure road to improvement.

Many people would see an exercise that exaggerates errors as being a negative, but you should see it as a strength. A mechanism that demands perfection in your movement is a mechanism that develops perfect movement. I can vouch for this from my personal experience:

Before I started with an externally rotated style, I had cured my patella maltracking and clicking knees through sissy squats, and I had strengthened my lower body further with more “normal” squats. The normal squats did not make my knees click at all and I was getting stronger and my knees were pain free. It was not until I starting reading and watching the videos of Dr. Kelly Starrett (author of Becoming a Supple Leopard) that I started experimenting with adding proper floor-splitting external rotation into my squats.

I wanted to try this style because it made sense to me: how it supports the arch of the foot, how it activates the glutes more, and how it encourages more stable positions for the knees (i.e. the complete opposite of caving in knees which place the ACL and MCL at risk). But here’s the thing: when I started doing these squats my left kneecap started clicking again, about half way down each rep. It clicked every rep and my knees were sore after the session. Not good.

But the other positives of the exercise made so much sense that I wanted to persevere. What I found was that when I nailed a rep absolutely perfectly (which required generating so much external rotation tension from my glutes that it was exhausting) I could get through that rep without a click. Invariably, the effort that rep took would be so great that by the next rep I would fatigue, incur a technical error and I would get a click again.

As frustrating as that was, I knew that it was possible to get a rep right. Then eventually, after session after session, I would get to a point where 2 reps out of 5 would be click-free, say. Then 3, then 4, and eventually all of them click-free. And I will say it was totally worth it as now I feel like I can generate so much power with my hips that I never could before.

 

It’s a ruthless technique, I don’t dispute that: even now, I might tire during a heavy set, make a slight technical fault on a rep and feel a click in my knee.I see that as a positive, though, as it keeps me true, always demanding perfection.

My experiences should explain why I’m such an advocate of this style, but do please let me know of your own experiences.

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5 Responses to How high demand for external hip rotation in squats creates a road to perfection

  1. Andrew LeDuc says:

    It’s funny because only after reading the first paragraph, I remembered watching Kelly Starrett’s squat mobility wod video and then you finished here with it!

    I can attest to the power that hips play in proper squatting form and that really, a large focus should be on the hips. The knees will simply follow suit. I noticed a difference from watching Kelly’s video some time ago and my biggest take away was making sure my feet are facing directly forward and making sure my knees have a slight but natural external rotation on the both the eccentric and concentric movement. That and squeezing my glutes insured proper external rotation.

    Quad strengthening and squats really do work wonders for knee pain. I think the trouble for many is nailing down proper form.

    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew. Learning how to use the hips properly in squats is probably the hardest element of the technique to get right, in what is already a technically demanding exercise. Those who put in the effort to learn it will be rewarded with much healthier knees.

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