Semantics & Sports Science; the double knee bend and other taboos

Today I think may just go that extra mile and incite a full-fledged riot in the sports science community. I’m going into dangerous territory, where reputations are on the line, and punches are seldom pulled.

It takes a pinch from my first article, on the myth of the one true path, and gives you a few anecdotes from various walks of my professional career.

Today it’s time to explore commonly held beliefs on coaching, technical skills, try and address the origins and break down the myths surrounding training, coaching and just what it is to lift.

I’ll start with a big difference, found between those who practice “fitness” (or more accurately cardio) and those who practice strength. I make this distinction because fitness encompasses strength, mobility, stability, endurance, power, mental strength, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and this list in itself is by no means the end of it, but you get the idea.

Thankfully the days of (Fitness=cardio) are becoming a thing of the past, with the advent and influence of crossfit and HIIT. The day of the half hour on the treadmill is being successfully challenged, and there is a wider spectrum of training methods that are now much more commonplace.

When I first became a fitness instructor many years ago (level 2); it was only a means to an end. I’d been involved in strength training and weightlifting competitively for quite a few years, and had racked up a few coaching licenses on my way. I had the basics of anatomy and physiology, as well as fundamental movement skills and strength training.

It struck me as surprising that an entire industry would teach something so fundamentally flawed that went so fervently against everything I’d learnt in strength training; the journals, articles and research I’d read, professionals I’d learnt from, and yet on my assessment day, just like passing your driving test; my blood ran cold as I was forced to utter the phrase “and you mustn’t allow the hips to go below parallel” when teaching the squat in my exam.

My examiner, was also a strength and conditioning coach, we both knew this was incorrect, but he had to “tick that box” despite knowing full well the logic held as much water as your average sieve.

Asking someone who is at the time, bearing load (weights), to decelerate, stop, turn around and apply the forces needed to get themselves moving again, all at the point where there is most sheer force on the knee, greatest strain on the patella tendon is simply madness. It’s asking for injury.

3f711_ORIG-9feb2_ass_to_grassSee, happy as you like

It also promotes muscle imbalance, which is a nightmare to fix in any athlete, client or gym user. The whole idea of going to the gym is that you’re better when you leave, not worse. So not only does squatting to parallel have the highest risk of injury, but prolonged usage of this particular variation of the squat actually systematically increases  your risk of injury in the long run. One quick caveat, I’m not talking about competitive powerlifters here; this is the body pump and aerobics classes of this world that purvey this particular myth. Powerlifters performing low bar squats to move the maximum amount of weight based on the particular rules of their competition is entirely different than saying that this is the one and only way of squatting. That myth is entirely a fitness industry staple.

Breaking parallel is the way to go, transfer the weight to where it should be and build actual movement, strength, balance and coordination. More important for athletes in field and team sports where sprinting mechanics are important; this will reduce quad dominance and decrease the risk of a hamstring tears due to proportional anterior and posterior strength and mobility. No need to take my word for it, this little snippet sums it up beautifully


So why does the partial squat continue to be taught as the required standard in the fitness industry… frankly the only answer I can come up with is laziness.

It’s easier to avoid putting the time and effort into addressing one of the most chronic issues affecting the vast majority of the population, sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t exist. This allows people to exercise in their comfort zones, which is pretty much the mantra of almost all major commercial gyms.

A little inside knowledge here…. If I ask you, what is a commercial gym for? The usual thought is, they are there to get you fitter, but the dirty little secret is, that they’re not. If you got better on your own, why would you come back? Fitness gyms, (massive chains, and we all can name quite a few major examples) have almost identical set ups. How they operate, their ethos, it’s really obvious when you look at who gets paid.

There are the reception teams, there to let you in and out, cleaners etc. But the only other people employed and paid are… the management and sales teams.

So your membership, the money you pay, the bottom line. That’s what the gym goes for ten times out of ten. They’ve entire teams dedicated to keeping you coming back, paying memberships, rather than instructing and teaching progressive training principles to help you get better.

Actually taking the time to get the general population flexible enough, stable enough and strong enough to perform the squat (as well as a million other beneficial exercises) properly would be too time consuming, cost too much and ultimately eat into the profitability of the structures that have been put in place. The investment is in a continuous, increasing membership base, not in the improvement of the members they already have.

This ethos of short cuts and quick fixes rather than long term progressive health benefits is rife, it’s even tainted the education process to the extent that a detrimental long term adaptation is taught as standard practice.  It’s pandemically wide spread, with the next fad taking over as quickly as the last one died out.

I don't know who thought this one up... but i see what you did there

I don’t know who thought this one up… but i see what you did there

Just like yo-yo dieting; misinformation, general ignorance and an industry that has let money overtake quality has reached the limits of what was possible. The tipping point has come and gone, and the increased knowledge, results showing from other training is now becoming more and more mainstream.

In a discussion with a prominent strength and conditioning coach I posed the same question about the depth of the hip, and he said thank F*** for the likes of Weightlifting, Crossfit and strength training, which is bringing an end to this dangerous practice.

It isn’t gone yet, but it is thankfully on its way out.

*A side note for anyone interested… the aesthetics of a good squat are a great side effect; Glute activation more than triples during a proper full depth squat. So it does make for a much better derriere.

Sticking with the squat… one other major myth that rears its ugly head is letting the knee track over the toe. Let’s be clear, if you’re knee moves over the toe, That Is FINE…. Hell It’s necessary depending on how long your femurs are. If you’re femur is 2 feet long, then stopping you’re knee from tracking properly over the toe, as in past the end of your foot, is only going to mean you compensate by keeping the bum high, dropping the chest and turning the squat, into a good morning. This places more load on the lower back…. Back injuries in squatting, It’s not the squat that’s the problem, it could very likely be poor form and compensation from tightness around the ankles. So you’re left to compensate with poor form, either that or your unbalanced ass is going to fall over as all your weight will be behind your heels. When the centre of gravity is not over the base, there’s not a lot left to do but fall over.

squat form

The only way to maintain a proper, upright torso, flat back (or neutral spine if you prefer) is to let the knee travel past the toe. The issue with tracking is that the knee is a hinge joint. It doesn’t like to be twisted, so track the knee over the toe, by aiming the knee to travel down the centre of the foot. Aim the knee between the big toe and the second toe and you’re good. The knees will travel in a straight line, and the circumduction, rotation and all those other movements will be taken care of by the hips. They eat that stuff up, they’re designed for it. Everyone wins. Better squat, better weights, better movement and proportionally strong athletes.

The next one is fun, and it comes down to experience and one small tit bit, science Vs Art.  Not nearly as philosophical as it sounds, but just a matter of taking in more variables and not trying to factually and functionally label absolutely everything.

When running coaching courses, I’m often in a room with guys and girls who are doing S&C at university or sports scientists, and they know that weightlifting in general or at least throughout Europe and pretty much everywhere that isn’t America, doesn’t teach the double knee bend. So they love asking me questions, you know, the ones you don’t get asked pretty much every time…. Honest.

For those wondering what I’m talking about, the double knee bend happens in deadlift, cleans, snatches and any exercise lifting the bar from the floor to about mid-thigh or higher.

What happens is that the legs straighten out (how far depends on relative limb length – Arms : Torso : Legs) as you lift the weight, they then re-bend once the bar passes the knees, hence the overly elaborate term double knee bend. It’s right up there for triple extension for its jargontastic properties. Triple extension is a fancy way of saying straight legs and up on the toes, but more on that later.

The double knee bend happens, it’s shown time and again in lifts and is therefore taught by S&C associations and accreditation bodies which is fine, but it’s mandatory to actively teach it on your test, which isn’t. The question is, if it happens, then why is this a problem?

It is yet another “tick the box” moment, which has come by, only this time on something that does actually happen, so less ridiculous than the fitness industry.

The thing is, cleans, snatches, even the simpler deadlift are still all pretty complicated exercises.

In a snatch the human body moves from fully squatted (start), to fully extended (end of second pull), to fully squatted (catch), to fully extended position (recovery), all within 1-1.5 seconds. Hitting a window, about 5 cm’s wide to secure the weight in a position above the base so the athlete can successfully complete and recover with as heavy a load as possible. The margin for error is miniscule.

The trick to performing it well is to be accelerating the bar from the start, you cannot think your way through the lifts, they happen too quickly. You have to practice good motor patterns to perform an extremely complex movement at speed. So giving an athlete more to think about than they actually need at any point is really just showing off that you know something about it, rather than coaching it.

A simple albeit rhetorical question, does the coach need to know…. Yes. Does the athlete…. Not necessarily.

A good sports scientist knows enough about the movements to fully understand them. A good coach knows enough about the athlete to make it both simple and applicable. Unfortunately, most sports scientists, and even S&C instructors in my experience are simply not familiar enough with the movements involved in the snatch and clean, to be both confident in their use, and proficient enough to coach them. This is no sleight against sports scientists, they are a lifetimes’ work in themselves, and it’s hard to be an expert in everything.

This is where being open enough to ask for help would really be beneficial, scientist or coach.

If I needed to learn to swim, I’d go to a swimming coach. To sprint I’d go to a sprints coach, to cycle, I’d hit the velodrome. So where do you turn when you want to learn snatches and cleans… to the people who’ve spent years teaching, performing and perfecting those exercises. Like it or not It’s a really specialist area, and the best people to learn it from are the people who’ve been immersed in that world forever and a day.

That’s not to say weightlifters know it all. Far from it. Without a good grounding in the principles of sports science: periodisation in programming, overload and supercompensation, recovery strategies, biomechanics, energy systems, neuro-muscular incorporation, etc. the technique in itself is only going to get you so far. Just bear in mind if running people down from the lofty heights of academia, that those same principles were born in weightlifting. Thankfully the more people in academia I speak to and work with, the more open minded I find them, which is awesome. Soon we’ll be one big happy family, if only we could get the weightlifting coaches to open up to new ideas as well..

The combination of the science behind the lifts, and the art of their performance, for the right reps, at the right load with the right technique is where the athlete truly gets the best from their coach.

So it’s not that we shouldn’t ever teach the double knee bend, it’s just that teaching it has more often been counter productive to creating the overarching principle that really makes a good performance of the snatch, clean etc.

Which is that the exercise is by definition, – One, uninterrupted, accelerated movement of a barbell, from the ground to the overhead/shoulder position.

Notice – uninterrupted, and accelerated, neither of which is achieved by the psychological effect of actively thinking about re-bending the knees, this actively breaks the acceleration of the bar, and is usually counterproductive.

I can’t say this is always the case, but I can say I’ve never found an athlete where I’ve actively had to teach this movement. If I do ever find an athlete where this is a good coaching que I’ll definitely use it. I’m just saying, after over a decade of coaching, I’m still waiting, which is why I question it as a mandatory element to teach to pass a test. The practical test is the ability to coach, the theory is the time to write down every detail about a subject. Mixing the two is problematic at best.

Not to pick on sports science and fitness professionals, but the levels of semantic back and forth outlined above happen even in weightlifting circles. Athletes have it hammered into them, X is automatic, where Y is something you need to work on without first checking if this is actually true for the athlete.

This time, it’s the turn of the triple extension. I’ve been guilty of going up on the toes early in my second pull, but I’ve learnt from my mistakes, that doesn’t mean I don’t teach athletes to go up on the toes. I do. And I get harpooned by weightlifting coaches who think I’m joking.

Sorry guys and girls. I’m not. It happens in the lift, only this time it’s not counter-productive to teach, if you use experience to que it up properly.

Try jumping standing only on your heels. Then jump normally (going onto your toes) if you got more height with the heels, stop lieing, no you didn’t. It was the toes that got more height, more acceleration, more power.

See, this complaint of other coaches I understand. Athletes who do not drive from a flat footed position, tend to be off balance, on the toes too quickly and there is a loss of power, but that to me doesn’t mean I shouldn’t teach it at all, it just happens to be that it is the timing of this that causes the most problems. Which is exactly why I teach it in sequence. Teaching the athlete to stand up straight (still flat footed with knees and hips fully opened out) before going up on to the toes and then shrugging with the shoulders allows the flat footed pull, transitioning on to the toes, then shrugging the shoulders, which is what happens when performing the lift. The degrees of these contractions will be dependent on the body shape of the athlete, and how they best utilise their own biomechanics. By in large, this method works just as well, if not better than any other I have used.

My personal coaching method involves the movements first, then at speed, then with resistance. The athlete will put these together in the way that best fits their own shape, size and strength, with fine tuning to get the best from the lift in its performance.

I know it’s been a long one, so I hope you brought enough coffee for the whole class; thankfully only two main points to go, so without further ado in this intermission, Static Stretching vs dynamic stretching.

Static, maintenance stretching has its cons, it reduces explosive output, not something that’s great for an explosive exercise. However again the absolute of never do this before exercise comes up. This again doesn’t take into consideration the athlete.

Take one of my favourite athletes, and I’m very happy to say friend. Damon Kelly. When talking to one of Ireland’s leading coaches, he was asked why he was doing static stretches before a competition event, as it would reduce the explosive potential of the muscles.

This is true he said, but what I lose in explosive power, I more than make up for by being able to get into the right position in the first place. I am paraphrasing here, but the lesson was a good one.

Losing explosive power is an acceptable compromise when you have a net gain by having better technique and movement.

Static stretching in this case was more beneficial than detrimental. This isn’t always the case, but the reasons are great words to live by. Use it where it is beneficial, don’t when it isn’t.

If you have a phenomenally flexible athlete, then static stretching really isn’t going to gain much in their lifting performance. Dynamic movements, increased blood flow, better secretion of synovial fluid. That is where your lifts will benefit most in this case, so it comes down to the coaching skill of knowing and applying the best method for that particular athlete at that time.  Something that may change over time, so too then must the coaching, and the coach.

The last topic is a bit of an insight into training that has always been with us, just more recently structured and defined as a particular branch of training. I’m talking about Plyometrics and when to use them.

The word plyometric, doesn’t actually mean explosive or anything of the sort… it simply means plyo (increase) metric (measurable) or measurable increase if you prefer. It’s been adopted to bring into consideration any form of explosive power or jump based training; which is great. Just avoid getting caught up on the idea that because it has a fancy title it’s somehow a mysterious entity to be revered rather than understood.

Using plyometrics can be beneficial at any stage of a workout or even mesocycle. It’s how you use them that’s important.

I offered up the opinion to use them as part of a warm up, this did not go down well with some. I’ll not go into details but many, many…. many journals were cited to refute this idea as heresy.

Sad truth is, the actual discovery of plyometrics was at a track and field meeting where the Russian team used it as… yep… their warmup routine.

I routinely use them to warm up for weightlifting, which is in itself plyometric training with weights. The increased blood flow, prepping of the motor neurons and usage of the motor patterns involved in the snatch and clean are a great way to prepare for a session.

The main consideration here was that this usage was with well conditioned athletes, who have undergone sufficient anatomical adaptation to handle the high loads and stresses involved with both the plyometric training and the weightlifting training as well.

How and when you use plyometric training is entirely down to you, as long as you know what it’s for… the stretch shortening, (amortisation) and powerful contractions of the muscle fibres to produce increases in explosive power is a great tool for achieving that result. It’s not in isolation in the force generation capability, but it does have prerequisites, such as adequate mobility, adaptation of tendons and ligaments, proprioception as well as stabalisation strength of the limbs and core.

In all of the above, the recurring theme is that coaching as an art form – the use of absolutes to cover every possible body type, learning preference of the individual and life experience, pre-learned conflicts with new teaching are a way of trying to normalise, label and fit the impossible into neat little boxes. The truth is, there’s simply too many variables for only one right answer, what we need to look for is what works for the individual at that time, and how we can best facilitate this stage of their physical, emotional or cognitive learning.

the generic differences within sports science, strength and conditioning, general fitness, and weightlifting methodologies all disappear when the end user is the focus of the training, and not the source of the coaches learning.


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