My Take on the “Knees Out” Debate

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In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past few months or engrossed in the latest season of The Walking Dead, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a hot debate in the fitness and weight-training community surrounding the whole “knees out” technique when performing the squat (or deadlift for that matter).

As far as debates in this industry are concerned, it’s a doozy. I’d put it right up there with other debates which make people go bat-shit crazy with rage such as steady state cardio vs. HIIT, eating every 2-3 hours vs. intermittent fasting, ShakeWeight vs. ThighMaster, or which is the superior late 90s-end-of-the-world-asteroid-slams-into-Earth-disaster-flick:  Deep Impact or Armageddon?

The impetus behind the madness is one Dr. Kelly Starrett, owner of CrossFit San Francisco and author of the New York Times best selling book Becoming a Supple Leopard, who, at least recently, is the prime example of someone who’s championed the “knees out” cue.

Just to be clear though:  he’s not the first (nor will be the last) to use this cue, but writing a national bestseller will pretty much guarantee your name is placed in the spotlight, and open the floodgates to the critics.

Addressing the pink elephant standing in the middle of the room, let me preface all of this by saying that I don’t work with elite level olympic lifters – in fact, I rarely work with anyone who does olympic lifting outside of the occasional college athlete or meathead who wants to learn how to perform a hang clean.

But in a non-explosive reverse bicep curl kind of way.

However the book (and the cue) speaks to more than JUST elite level olympic lifters – and I believe the book was intended for a much broader audience, and was written as such.

Sure there’s sections dedicated towards the Olympic lifts – and CrossFit (for better or worse, mostly worse, but that’s another ball of wax I don’t want to get into right now) – encompasses a large olympic lifting component. But the book as a whole and Kelly’s message throughout is to help people move better and to avoid technique faults or errors – with the squat (and by extension, the deadlift) taking the forefront.

Still, due to the whole phenomena, you’d be hard pressed to find more spit-fire and venom directed towards Kelly within various articles, blogs, and forums. It’s like playing the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except here the premise is to see how many time you can click your mouse or notebook pad before you come across someone on the internet shitting a kettlebell because Kelly has the audacity to cue people to squat with their knees out.

What an asshole!

And that’s the thing – he doesn’t even subscribe to that “cue” in the first place!  At least not in the literal sense.  He’ll be the first to tell you that squatting with an excessive knees out pattern (or excessive varus, bowing) is a fault and that he would NOT want an athlete or client to do that.  In fact, he uses it as a CUE for when an athlete begins to go into knee valgus when squatting.

But more on that in a second.

Before I continue:  lets take ad hominem jabs out of the picture. I love how a lot (not all) of the arguments against Kelly is that he calls himself a “Dr” (he has a doctorate in Physical Therapy), that just because he treated “x” athlete one time doesn’t mean he trains said athlete, and that CrossFit San Francisco has yet to churn out an elite level CrossFit athlete.

For starters the book is titled Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance.

It’s NOT called The End-All-Be-All Guide to Winning the CrossFit Games:  Go Fuck Yourself, Everybody.

Secondly, the man has run his own successful gym (for nine years) and clinic (for six) and he and his staff have logged over 100,000 athlete sessions during that time.


I’m sorry but as someone who’s been coaching for a while and who co-founded one of the more reputable strength training facilities in the country, that number HAS to be respected.

That is a crap ton of sessions.

So lets just take a chill pill and respect the fact that Kelly probably knows a thing or two about training people, Mmmmkay.

So Back to This While Cueing Thing

As Kelly notes in THIS video series he posted on his website were he defends his stance and tries to clear up any miscalculation on his message regarding the “knees out” debate:

“A cue is a relationship between a coach and an athlete specific to that moment for something that’s going on. Ie: trying to solve a specific problem.”

What other cue (key word: CUE!!!!) is supposed to be used to prevent the knees from collapsing in?

“Hey, hey, hey, HEY!!  Stop doing that thing you’re doing!!!!”

Or, as Kelly and his staff jokingly state:

“Knees not in.”

They coach people to squat with flat feet, cueing an external rotation torque (rotating femurs?) to create more stability in the hips and lower back. During the descent and ascent out of the hole, the knees should track in the same path.

Starrett even notes, “if you push out too far and your knees bow out into excessive varus, and your foot comes off the floor, that’s an error.”

How this has somehow been lost in translation is beyond me.  I don’t know of ANY strength coach – and I know a lot of very smart strength coaches – who would disagree with this assertion.

Knees collapsing into valgus when squatting is unacceptable, and I don’t know of ANY coach who doesn’t use the knees out CUE.

For 99.99% of people out there who aren’t elite level OLY lifters this is a bang on cue and helps to significantly improve technique.

[I recognize that many elite level OLY lifters will go into excessive valgus on the catch to explode out of the hole.  Okay, cool.  They’re ELITE.  They’ve perfected technique to the point where if they do get into a compromising position, when the shit hits the fan, they’re less likely to injure themselves.  This doesn’t mean Dave from accounting, on his first day of training, should be held to the same standard.]

Which then begs the question:  what if someone can’t squat well?  To perform a “deep” squat you need adequate hip internal rotation.  If you don’t have it, the default isn’t quite so much knees caving in (that much), but more so someone leaning forward too much.  Either way it’s a faulty pattern.

Likewise for those who lack ample ankle dorsiflexion, the typical default pattern will end up being a collapsed arch in the foot with subsequent knee valgus.

And all of this doesn’t take into consideration one’s hip or bony structure.  As Dean Somerset has touched on recently:  genetics do come into play.  Depending on one’s body (hip) structure, this may dictate how well they’re able to handle heavy loads and/or even which squat or deadlift variation is most suitable for them.

As well, you have to take into consideration one’s current (and past) injury history, soft tissue restrictions, posture, experience, and ability level.

In short:  everything’s a little more complicated than nitpicking over semantics, and toy actually should assess your athletes and clients.  And I have to assume that Kelly along with his staff would agree with this.

But I can’t think of one coach who would advocate nor tolerate someone squatting with the knees caving in.  By that token, the cue “knees out” is the universal go to.  All that’s being asked is to create peak torsion to create the system for stability in the hip and back. No one is asking for someone to stand there, perform a squat, and then push the knees out so far that they’re hanging on the end of their joint capsule.

I could be wrong, but I have yet to interpret anything Kelly has said or written to think otherwise. I don’t doubt that there are some coaches or CrossFit affiliates out there who may be coaching their squats in this fashion, and if so, they’re wrong.  Direct your hate towards them.

Or, you could actually go coach someone before you start throwing darts.  Just sayin…..

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Kellie Davis

    This is excellent. To be honest, I have been living in a cave called grad school for the past three months, so when I finally came up for air this debate was well underway. My reaction was much like your retort here… you don't need to tell someone knees out if they are already doing such. Common sense. Wouldn't that cue then be knees out farther, no farther, no you should feel intense shooting pain and your adductors should be tearing right now.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Mark

    Really well said, Tony. This is why yours is one of the very few training blogs I read. You are a voice of reason and you're entertaining. Serioulsy, thanks and keep up the good work

    December 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Andrew McConaha

    This is an awesome post and spot on.. I wonder, since this is clearly a misunderstanding in wording, would all this debate be going if Kelly wasn't so heavily affliated with Crossfit?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Manish Fitnessgurukul Aggarwal

    Very well said sir. Many of cross fitters don't deserve to be called coach .coach name should be given like a doctor after proving ..

    December 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Christian MAC

      These non-productive episodes are driven by unproductive jealousy, arrogance, inexperience and pessimism. The prefix of Dr was actually adopted by the medical profession from the academic society I believe. Secondly this whole "coach" thing is embarassing. People get so offended by indiscriminate comments related to training. It's as if by suggesting something that challenges someones philosophy is a life threatening experience. I am all for intellectual debate but this whole thing is far from that. Tony not one word of this is directed at you. Thanks for your free material. I know its time consuming to keep a blog/website active so I appreciate your words

      December 17, 2013 at 1:49 am | Reply to this comment

  • Random Thoughts 12.13.2013 | Smithfitness

    […] also read Tony Gentilcore article about Kelly Starrett Knees approach and how he was getting a lot (lack of a better word) hate from a […]

    December 13, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Emily

    Spot on Tony. Simple, as usual, and to the freakin' point. Why the hell are we even having this discussion??? I work with many, many women and knee valgus happens. I give this cue a lot. It's a reminder. Plain and simple. As I tell my clients, you will never hear me say "Knees in! Knees in!" or "On your toes!" Why he had to put together an entire video to discuss this was ridiculous. 100,000 hours. Do we really need to make him out to be the bad guy??? ;)

    December 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dave from Accounting

    "To perform a “deep” squat you need adequate hip internal rotation." Did you mean external rotation? Is knees out not external rotation?

    December 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dave from Accounting

    Oh and great post! You have way with the trolls. I loved the "It’s NOT called The End-All-Be-All Guide to Winning the CrossFit Games: Go Fuck Yourself, Everybody." LMAO Well said sir. *clap*

    December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Niel

    Is it collapsing if it's intentional adduction of the knees? The former is a passive unintentional action whereas the latter isn't. This is what I've been coming across for the knees in cue.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Alex from Engineering

    Tony, what's with all the fucking profanity?

    December 13, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Christopher Notley

    Thanks for the post Tony. Well said. And it's nice to see that you didn't have to go bash him because he does Crossfit but show some respect for his experience

    December 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    Sounds like some tall poppy syndrome to me. Not a huge fan of KELLY but the man knows what he is doing. And so do you Tony. I will listen to both of you and learn a lot.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Barath

    I have recently started doing pause squats. Full ATG with a 5 sec hold at the bottom. I've been noticing that my knees point outward more conspicuously than if I did parallel or below parallel squats. Everyone's biomechanics is different, and people should do what comes naturally to them, but I'd think it is pretty much impossible for your knees to cave in if you go below parallel without causing discomfort/pain. Except maybe for Dave from Accounting, because he's awesome.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Ekanem Enquire

    i love this, really love it

    December 14, 2013 at 6:44 am | Reply to this comment

  • Brett

    Great post Tony, Thanks. I try to keep my feet straight ish while squatting as Kelly suggests and it's humbling when you realise you have you work on your ankle and hip mobility so much more. The moment that really got me in that video, I think it was showing RG III do a broad jump and his knees were caved right in. The squat is quite a fixed pattern and you can get away with some knee movement, but if you take those faulty patterns onto a soccer or a football field where they are consistently tested laterally then it will create problems. I think the squat is a microcosm of what Kelly is trying to teach which is creating strong, stable and aware athletes.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:17 am | Reply to this comment

  • Michael

    Here's the thing, I understand this whole "it's a cue, not a literal statement", but at the same time, Kelly's squat form IS significantly more knees out than most I've seen, or else he never would have caught all this flack for saying what others have said. I would describe most coaches' style as "knee over the second toe" whereas I would describe Kelly as more like "over the pinky toe or beyond". He has actually said specifically "knee outside of ankle" and "knees do not actually track the toe" "knees track the limits of ankle range of motion". Please watch the last couple minutes of this video: These are Anatomical statements, not cues, and that is the discussion I'd really like to see but I never see addressed, including here. I was actually surprised by his recent "knees not in" video because it felt like he was almost retracting these anatomical statements I just pointed out in his earlier video, maybe from the backlash he's been getting? For the record I actually agree with him in that earlier video, but it's those statements, not the more vague knees out "cue" which I think is a done to death topic, that I'm interested in your opinion of. Almost every coach agrees with "knees track over the toes". What I want to know is your thoughts on his more aggressive anatomic (not cue) statements like "knee outside of ankle" and "knees do not actually track the toe" "knees track the limits of ankle range of motion". I really don't think he could be any clearer that that is what he means than in that video.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:55 am | Reply to this comment

  • Sean

    Well said Tony. Glad to see common ground can be found in the world of coaching, even in the face of differing opinions on 'all things CrossFit'. Thanks for the blog post.

    December 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Alicia

      Tony's article made me laugh out loud. People really take things to those extremes? Wow. I must be somehow averting all trolling hate these days because I had no idea.... Then I saw that Dave-From-Accounting commented and I giggled. Then my favorite commenter Barath lost his avatar and I peed a little... Some days I just come here for the comedy.

      December 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Reply to this comment

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  • Jack Yee

    Finally some clear and common sense to this debate. Thank you Tony for clearing this up!

    December 21, 2013 at 7:39 am | Reply to this comment

  • B-Town Barbell ClubJanuary 2014 Newsletter | B-Town Barbell Club

    […] The latest silly internet fitness pissing contest is about cueing clients to push their knees out during the squat.  Apparently that is highly controversial.  In all honestly, this is why I mostly avoid any conversations pertaining to fitness on the internet.  The industry is horribly reminiscent of high school.  In any case, this article does a good job of pointing out what nonsense the whole debate is. […]

    February 20, 2014 at 10:20 pm | Reply to this comment

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    February 19, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Reply to this comment

  • 2 Squat Cues That Pretty Much Work For Everyone

    […] Push knees out. But not to the point where your feet come off the ground. Think: knees track in line with the direction toes are pointing (which is 15-30 degrees of ER). It helps to open up the hips more and allow for better depth. […]

    December 1, 2015 at 11:04 am | Reply to this comment

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