If a person is struggling to achieve a certain position under load, it can be as simple as having to regress the movement and have them practice it first. “knees out” means nothing to a person who has no neurological or motor control reference for what the position is. Cues like that are also problematic because they lack specificity. “Knees out” in particular, tends to lead to a lot of people rolling to the outside of their feet, or pushing their knees so varus that to generate force they immediately must collapse back into valgus.
Staying with the theme of “knees out”; cuing is also intrinsic, as mentioned earlier. Intrinsic cueing refers an individual to move their body in a certain way, undirected. They have no need for an outside point of reference to facilitate an understanding of what to do with their body in space. People take much better to cues that have external stimulus. This is why people have some success achieving the position they’re looking for by adding a band around the knees, or placing a hand on the outside of the knee and cueing to drive force into that.
The next piece to understand when looking at the efficacy of cueing is to look at how certain things relate to another. These days, I don’t do much cueing of peripheral joints such as “knees out” or “core tight”. When people are trying to focus on controlling multiple points on their body independently, they are much more prone to missing or letting go of one while they’re focusing on another. Instead, I take the approach of slowly introducing a few cues at a time almost exclusively starting with creating proper intra-abdominal pressure. A huge number of problems will be sorted out simply by organizing the trunk. This goes beyond just putting them under a squat bar and saying “core tight”. It involves regression, specificity, and intent. Taking the person to an unloaded (generally supine 90/90) position where all they must focus on is single origin cuing will likely lead to greater retention of skill. This isn’t necessary for all people but it is the easiest, fastest, and most basic, regression part. To get to specificity and intent, I’m providing very specific cues about what to do with what structures and where. When the person has successfully created quality pressure you will be able to see it demonstrated in a full abdomen without concave (contracted in) parts. This is the first step which is creating awareness.
This isn’t something that only applies to teaching people to pressurize properly. If somebody is having trouble controlling their knees, you can still regress, but to a lesser degree. You can take them from a 70% barbell back squat to a light goblet squat, to an unloaded bodyweight squat, or even a squatting motion in a quadruped position. You always want to be regressing as little as possible to get the maximum training effect, but you also want to be engraining quality movement patterns as that is the purpose of regression to begin with.
There are other high payoff things that you can look to other than the abs. Things we talk a lot about at Kabuki Strength are the lats (another part of torso rigidity) and the feet (or whatever your points of contact/base of support are in each movement). People are often working to achieve a desired knee position when the person has no control over their base of support, leaving the knee unsupported and unstable. Fix the problem with the foot and the knee problem often gets taken care of as a byproduct. An important distinction to make is between a person looking like they’re in the right position, and actually generating force the right way. For this reason, another big part of what we teach/cue at Kabuki Strength has to do with load tensioning, which is the term we use to talk about creating tension with the right structures in the right ways.
To wrap all of this together in a few main points:
- Prioritize midline stability and control the base of support first.
- Create tension properly through the established supports.
This and all other coaching cues should be very intentional and specific without excessive intervention. If a person isn’t grasping it under certain load conditions that load should be regressed to where they can learn the proper motor pattern and not pushed to where they are breaking down. Cues with feedback outside of the person’s own body give the person a point of reference and can be immensely helpful. Whether it’s physical touch/other proprioceptive feedback, resistance with a band (RNT method), or even just including an object such as the floor as a directional reference.