By Bill Starr September 2010
Knees rolling in on squats and pulls?
Bill Starr explains how you can fix the problem by working on your adductors, which will translate to more weight on the bar. Any program designed to build greater strength must be constantly monitored to ensure the various muscles that make up a particular body part are worked proportionally. In order to continue to gain strength, the athlete (or his coach) must pay close attention to the less-obvious groups because they are integral to the successful development of the more prominent ones. The adductors are a set of muscles that is often overlooked in the total scheme of things.
All strength improvement emanates from the center of the body—hips, glutes, upper leg—then radiates upward and downward. Those on a mission to get stronger recognize the importance of leg strength and know the back squat is the very best exercise for the job. In addition to heavy squats, many strength athletes also add in leg extensions and leg curls to ensure they’re keeping their quads and hamstrings plenty strong. But few do anything specific for their adductors. They’re sort of the forgotten leg muscles. Even those with experience generally fail to take the adductors into consideration when setting up their programs. Of all the athletes, both male and female, that I started on strength routines, at least a third of them displayed a weakness in their adductors right away. I attributed this to the fact that they had all been doing a great deal of running, which works the quads and hams a lot more than the adductors. So they start in squatting with a slight handicap that needs to be corrected as soon as possible. Then there are those who are fine at the beginning, but after the poundages in the squat start to be considerable, weak adductors reveal themselves. How? When an athlete’s knees turn inward when he’s squatting or pulling heavy weights, his adductors are relatively weaker than his quads and hams. It’s easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for, and the nice thing about working the adductors is that they respond to direct attention rather quickly.
The adductors comprise four separate muscles: adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus and the gracilis. They originate closely together high up in the groin on the pubis bone, then swing down and arc over to attach to various parts of the femur, running from the top to the bottom of the long leg bone until the magnus finally attaches to the medial condyle at the knee. This last part is most important. Strong adductors are critical to the stability of the knee joint, and their primary function is to pull the upper leg inward. This is why the athlete’s knees turn inward during a heavy squat or pull. The adductors are not strong enough to hold the knees in the correct position. More than a few athletes that I’ve coached have trouble differentiating between the adductors and abductors. A way to remember the two groups is to think about a kidnapping. The victim is taken away, abducted. Not adducted. The abductors pull the leg away from the center while the adductors pull it toward the center.
When the knees roll in on a squat, weak adductors are the cause. That’s the reason many new CrossFitters learn to squat properly and wake up with very sore inner thighs the next day.
One of the main reasons why many strength athletes end up with relatively weak adductors is they don’t go low enough in the squat. Some coaches in high schools and colleges have their athletes do partial squats, believing the shorter movement will be less risky to the knees. Actually, half and quarter squats are much more stressful to the knees than a full-range movement. When an athlete does only partial squats, he develops the quads but neglects the adductors and also the hamstrings to some extent. And all the pressure of the downward movement has to be handled by the knees.
However, when he goes deep, well below parallel, all the muscles and attachments that surround the knee, including the adductors and hams, get stronger and help support that large joint. Plus, in a full squat, the powerful hips do most of the halting of the descending bar, taking the stress away from the knees. Whenever I have an athlete switch from partial squats to full ones, he always gets extremely sore in his adductors, and usually hams, because they have been neglected previously. So the very first step in regards to making the adductors stronger is to do full squats—the deeper the better. Front squats are excellent as well because the athlete must go very low in order to do that exercise correctly.
Yet, I’ve had some athletes who did go into a deep bottom position in both their front and back squats but started showing a weakness in their adductors. Again,
I think this came from all the running they were doing while practicing and playing their chosen sport. As soon as a weakness is revealed, steps need to be taken to correct the problem. One of the main reasons why many strength athletes end up with relatively weak adductors is they don’t go low enough in the squat.
For correcting weak adductors, extra work is often needed.
Bill Starr’s adductor exercises.
Wide-stance squats with the toes pointed forward are good for working the adductors. Athletes should work to go as low as they can: the deeper they go, the more they will work their adductors. Depth will increase as flexibility increases.
Some form pointers: Your feet have to be pointed straight ahead, not outward as in the conventional squat. The pressure should be on the outside of your feet, not on the toes or heels, and your torso must remain perfectly upright on both the down and up motion. It should appear as if you are working inside a Smith machine when you do these. Of course, wide-stance squats can be performed inside a Smith machine, but for athletes, having to balance the weight during the execution of the exercise is a good thing. Any time you have to utilize any athletic attribute during an exercise with resistance, it carries over to other athletic activities. Do these for higher reps, 15-20 for 3 sets, and, again, the final few reps should make your eyes water. If you stay in the comfortable range, the results will not be nearly as good as if you lean on these. When the adductor weakness is glaring, I have the athlete do all his squats in this manner until the problem is solved, then I have him do wide-stances twice a week after he has done his regular squat workout. These back-off sets are done on the heavy and medium days, but not on the light day.
I mentioned that the knees turning inward during heavy pulling exercises represents one indication of adductor weakness. It’s most apparent when doing deadlifts, but Ihave also seen it in Olympic lifters when they approach their limit in snatches and cleans. Their knees move inward when the bar breaks off the floor. When the athlete has very weak adductors, his knees will move even when doing high pulls, bent-over rows and good mornings. I use wide-stance deadlifts, or sumo-style deadlifts, to rectify the weakness. They work extremely well, and quite often an athlete finds he is much more comfortable deadlifting with the wide stance than with the conventional close stance normally used by most powerlifters. Again, the question, how wide should the feet be placed? This will take a bit of experimentation. You will be gripping the bar with your hands inside your thighs, but you don’t want to place your feet so wide that you can’t lower your hips enough to be in the proper starting position. Use straps so you can concentrate on doing the movement correctly, or you can use the over and under grip if you prefer. Lower the bar in a controlled manner. Even if you’re using rubber bumper plates, don’t let the bar crash back to the floor. This will cause your back to round.