Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Knees Out in the Deadlift

by stef bradford, PhD, SSC | May 06, 2020

The Starting Strength teaching methods for each lift are designed to efficiently get lifters moving correctly. A key part of this is making them familiar with the positions of critical points in the lifts – the bottom of the squat, the bottom position and lockout of the press, the bar held over the shoulder joints in the bench press, the three teaching positions of the clean, and the start position of the deadlift. Once a lifter knows where to start and where they are going, the movement between these targets is a much simpler problem to solve.

The deadlift uses Starting Strength’s famous and widely copied 5 step method – stance, grip, knees forward, chest up, pull. The hardest part of the set up is step 4 – lifting the chest to set the back into extension. It’s difficult for many to do correctly because of lack of kinesthetic sense, problems controlling body position, insufficient yelling from a coach, inadequate flexibility or some combination of the above. It occurs so frequently that in addition to the attention we give it in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, we’ve devoted a number of articles and videos to help the lifter identify and solve this problem – here’s a sampling:

Each of these fixes focus directly on Step 4 – finishing the set up by lifting the chest and locking the entire back into extension, but another way to attack Step 4 is to make it easier to accomplish by correctly finishing and optimizing the earlier parts of the sequence.

The Forgotten Deadlift Cue – “Knees Out”

One of the most useful cues for a correctly performed squat is “Knees Out!” Pushing the knees out is so important that it’s a repeated part of the squat teaching method used both before and after the bar is introduced. Knees out keeps the knees in line with the toes, externally rotates the hips to bring more adductor and external rotator into the movement and creates space for the torso to drop between the femurs without impingement, allowing depth to be achieved.

In the deadlift, the “knees out” position is built into the set up at Step 3, but coaches and lifters very commonly overlook it. They move the shins forward until the touch the bar, but don’t finish by pushing the knees out toward the elbows [Learning to Deadlift 1:42, Starting Strength p 105].The knees out movement is usually far more subtle in the deadlift than the squat since the toe point is more moderate, but the same benefits occur when we push our knees out in the deadlift.

deadlift set up step 3 knees forward

Step 3 - Knees forward until the shins touch the bar

deadlift set up step 3 knees out

Step 3 - Knees to elbows

Perhaps the importance of knee position is overlooked because the narrower stance width and higher hip position used in pulls off the floor don’t challenge the adductors by creating tension and a tendency for knees to cave in as they commonly do in the squat. And since depth and a rebound out of the bottom are not considerations in the deadlift, perhaps the effects of external rotation on muscle use and in allowing back extension by decreasing impingement are also unnoticed.

Optimizing 3-1-2

Next time you pull off the floor, make sure to finish Step 3 by pushing your knees out. Pay attention to what happens to your ability to put your back into extension in Step 4 and to better control the start of the lift off the floor.

If you’re still having trouble finishing the set up, experiment with a little more toe point at Step 1. Make sure to match the increased toe angle with more knees out on Step 3.  This allows you to take advantage of the greater external rotation and open more space for your belly to drop between your knees on Step 4. Widen your grip slightly to accommodate your new leg position as needed. Make note of the new grip position and use it next time you run through the set up.

Finishing Step 3 of the deadlift by taking advantage of a knees out position is an often missed part of an efficient pull of the floor. A small difference in knee position may be the advantage you need to reliably hit the correct start position every time you step on the platform.

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