The Art of Half – Kneeling
The half-kneeling position is a developmental position that provides tremendous benefits including reflexive core, hip, and split stance stability. Unfortunately, many people still perform it improperly, rendering it largely ineffective. Use the kneeling to half-kneeling progression to ensure that you’re getting the most out of half-kneeling training every time.
Core stability is a term that gets thrown around quite about in the health and fitness community, and more times then not, the purpose is missed. Core stability is not achieved or trained through repeated flexion and extension of the spine, but by learning to fire the muscles of the midsection in sequence to create a stable and neutral spine position, which allows the transfer of force and expression of movement through the arms and legs. The body prioritizes spinal stability above all else, and will not allow full movement and mobility of the limbs until the primary need for spinal stabilization is met.
One needs to look no further then the squat for a perfect demonstration of how lack of core stability can impact movement. Many untrained individuals will present with restrictions and compensations in their squat patterns such as knee valgus (knees caving in), butt wink (lower back rounding), and/or the inability to squat to at least parallel without falling over. Often times, coaches respond to this with tried and true cues like “knees out,” “chest up,” and “sit between your knees,” or by stretching and trying to lengthen areas of the body they feel are “tight.” Unfortunately, if the individual lacks strength and stability where it counts, all the cueing and stretching in the world isn’t going to fix the problem, because the brain absolutely will not allow the individual to achieve the desired movement pattern until proper core stabilization and positioning is achieved.
In addition to improving movement quality, a strong core is vital to force and power production both in and out of the gym. In any athletic endeavor, whether it is lifting, jumping, sprinting, cutting, skating, or blocking an opponent, the person who can reach maximal force production the fastest is going to have a higher probability of success. The ability to rapidly recruit the motor units and muscle groups necessary to produce force at high velocities is known as rate of force production, and is one of the baseline goals of strength and conditioning programming for athletes. While there is no doubt that training to improve rate of force production is important, all the power in the world won’t matter one bit if the athlete has the core strength and control of a caterpillar. I believe Eric Cressey put it best here when he said, “the research on core function is pretty clear: its job is to transfer force between the lower and upper body.” In that capacity, it is a basic attribute that all athletes should possess to optimize performance.
Benefits Of The Half-Kneeling Position
While there are many ways to train core stability, one of the most effective tools we have found is the half-kneeling position. The half-kneeling position is a developmental position that we use as infants to learn to move from crawling to standing. It is useful to incorporate developmental positions such as supine, quadruped, tall kneeling, etc. when trying to improve movement patterns or improve core stabilization. These positions provide a great deal of proprioceptive feedback and limit compensation patterns so that the desired training goal can be reached.
In the half-kneeling position, one knee is placed on the ground with the glute contracted and the hip fully extended while the other hip is flexed with the foot flat on the ground directly in front of the hip. The spine remains in a neutral position with the ribs drawn down. With a narrow base and the pelvis in a neutral position, it is difficult to compensate and find stability through faulty movement, which leads to improved neuromuscular stabilization of the core and body awareness.
It is truly amazing how “self-limiting” exercises like landmine presses, Pallof presses, single arm overhead presses, and cable chops and lifts become when performed in half-kneeling. Most of the clients at Parabolic who perform one of these basic exercises in half-kneeling for the first time find themselves falling all over the place even with very little external resistance. They have become so dependent on compensations for distributing force and performing work that when they are put into a position where stabilization can only be achieved through properly timed firing of the core musculature, they are lost. Over time, the brain and body adapt to the demand for trunk stability, and the same clients who weeks before were falling to the ground with a light band Pallof press are challenging the limits of our heavier bands and reaping the stability benefits in more complex movements like squats and deadlifts.
Dr. Quinn Henoch of Darkside Strength and Juggernaut Training Systems wrote a great article about the half-kneeling position titled, “Three Reasons Why The Half-Kneeling Position Will Improve Your Training” which you can read here, for more detail about the benefits of working in half-kneeling.
Correct Half-Kneeling Position—The shoulders are stacked directly over the hips with the hip of the rear leg stacked directly over the rear knee. The rear glute should be engaged and the back foot should be directly behind the back knee. The front knee should be at a 90-degree angle with the front knee stacked directly over the front ankle, and the front knee directly in front of the hip. Draw the front femur back and into the socket slightly to ensure the pelvis is level. The ribs should be drawn down and the pelvis neutral if not slightly tilted backwards (posteriorly). Take full diaphragmatic breaths while holding the position.
Common Errors In Half-Kneeling
While the half-kneeling position limits compensations, it does not eliminate them. Even when coached properly, most people find the half-kneeling position extremely challenging and uncomfortable at first, which causes them to compensate in order to make accomplishing the task easier. The two most common compensations are:
1. Leaning forward into the front leg while allowing the glute on the back leg to relax
2. Placing the lead leg too far to the side, creating a wide base of the support and limiting the need for the core stabilization
The first compensation involves relaxing the back leg and shifting most of the bodyweight forward, removing the need for glute activation of the rear leg and reflexive stabilization of the hip. In a proper half-kneeling position, the majority of the bodyweight is placed on the back knee, to the point where the front foot can actually be (slightly) lifted off the ground, and the glute of the rear leg is contracted to achieve hip extension. In this position, isometric glute contraction and hip stability is integrated with core stability, which provides an ideal base for movement through the upper extremities. When this position is altered, such as in the example of shifting weight to the lead foot and relaxing the rear glute, the integration of core and lower body stability is no longer achieved.
The second compensation involves moving the front leg out to the side, effectively widening the base of support, and reducing stress placed on the core musculature. This may be a viable way to teach those who are having an extremely hard time maintaining balance when first learning the half-kneeling position, but the goal should be to quickly transition to a narrow base to achieve the desired effect. Again, the goal of the half-kneeling position is to minimize the aid of passive stability means like base of support and place the stress on the muscles responsible for trunk and lower body stabilization.
Kneeling To Half-Kneeling Progression
Now, these errors can be easily corrected by physically putting the person into the proper position and cueing them to squeeze the back glute. However, we have found that in a group setting, where coaches can’t possibly see every client every second, many people continue to fall back into bad habits even after they’ve been corrected. Additionally, many find it difficult to contract the glute on the rear leg due to hip flexors with chronic tone and inhibited glutes. Telling these people to squeeze their glutes until you are blue in the face will not help them to fix the problem.
Instead of providing constant cueing, try the kneeling to half kneeling progression. This is a movement progression first demonstrated to me by Dr. Joe Myhren, one of Parabolic’s physical therapists. Begin on both knees and sit the hips back towards the heels. Extend the hips by contracting the glutes until the tall kneeling position is achieved. Ensure a neutral spine by contracting the abs and drawing the ribs down. From the tall kneeling position, maintain the contraction of the glutes as one knee is lifted off the ground and stepped in front of the body until the knee is directly in front of the hip and the ankle is directly below the knee. The majority of the weight should remain on the rear leg. Lift the front foot off the ground and slowly bring the knee back to the ground, returning to the tall kneeling position.
What makes this progression so effective is that it combines the benefits of tall kneeling, another developmental position, with those of half-kneeling, and improves stability and proprioception by requiring the individual to move from one position to the other.
In the tall kneeling position, with both knees on the ground, the glutes contracted, and the hips fully extended, many people are exposed for lacking the ability to fully extend the hips. Luckily, the tall kneeling position also does a great job of developing full hip extension through contraction of the glutes and reflexive inhibition of the hip flexors. Hip extension is vital to athletic performance as it is a huge component of movements like sprinting, jumping, and exploding into an opponent in contact sports. Lack of hip extension limits the function of the glutes and minimizes power output. Hip extension is often usually lacking in the general population, as most of us sit for long, extended periods resulting in chronically short hip flexors. The tall kneeling position is a valuable tool for anyone because it requires full range hip extension and properly firing glutes to execute properly.
Once full hip extension is achieved and the glutes are firing, the next step is to lift one leg off the ground and step the front leg through into the half-kneeling position. As I mentioned earlier, one of the major compensations of the half-kneeling position is putting too much weight on the front leg and relaxing the rear glute. The progression of contracting the glutes and extending the hips in the tall kneeling position then raising one leg off the ground and placing it in front of the body requires that the rear glute remain contracted and the weight remains balanced on the rear leg in order to maintain balance. We have found that this is a very effective way to get people to “feel” the weight distribution and isometric glute contraction necessary to maintain a proper half-kneeling position.
In addition to the benefits of tall kneeling and half-kneeling, the transition between positions, if done in a slow and controlled manner, presents a challenge to the individual’s reflexive core and hip stability. To lift one leg and move it forward without falling over, proper integration of the core musculature and hip stabilizers on the down leg must be present. It will quickly become apparent if there is a weak link or loss of tension as the individual attempts to transition from position to position when he or she topples to the ground.
How To Incorporate Kneeling To Half-Kneeling Progression
As with any position, once the individual is able to maintain tension in the glutes and stability through the transition without external resistance, the next step is to challenge the position in multiple planes. Here are some of our favorite exercises to incorporate with the kneeling to half-kneeling progression to build anti-extension and rotary stability and in some cases, build upper body strength and muscle.
Pallof Presses are a classic anti-rotation core stability exercise that nearly every client learns to perform at some point in their time at Parabolic. We like to perform them with a resistance band and an added overhead component, which further challenges the lifter’s ability to resist lateral flexion and extension forces.
Chops & Lifts
Chops (performed from high to low) and lifts (performed from low to high) challenge the lifter’s ability to create dynamic pushing and pulling movements with the upper body around a stable core and lower body. The lifter must resist lateral flexion, rotation, and extension forces.
Single Arm Kettlebell Press
My personal favorite, the single arm kettlebell press is an ass-kicking exercise that commands stability, mobility and strength in all the right places at all the right times. Not only must the lifter possess the core stability to resist lateral flexion and extension, but he or she must also have the ability to express full overhead range of motion. If there is any lack of range of motion at the shoulder or in the thoracic spine, the lifter will be forced to compensate by extending the lumbar spine or the bell will end up woefully out of position and put a great deal of stress on the anterior deltoid.
The landmine press is a highly effective, shoulder-friendly press variation that gets a lot of mileage with our clients at Parabolic. The arched motion of the bar when inserted into the landmine attachment allows the lifter press through a full range of motion without as much stress as a classic overhead press. We like to add a slight lean into the press at the end to approximate and build the lifter’s ability to achieve full shoulder flexion, and upward rotation of the scapula, but care must be taken not to shift the weight too far toward the front foot doing this. When performed correctly, the landmine press performed in half-kneeling is a challenging core stability and upper body strength exercise that is shoulder friendly and can help lifters in the transition to full overhead pressing.
The kettlebell halo is a great drill to improve reflexive stability and mobility of the shoulders and thoracic extension, but what many don’t realize is how effective it can be as a core stability movement. As the kettlebell moves around the lifters head, the lifter must resist extension, rotation, and lateral flexion, while also maintaining position balance and stability of the lower body. Most people miss the purpose of the exercise and flare their rib cage, allowing the lumbar spine to extend. When performing this exercise, focus on a full exhale as the kettlebell is moved around the head and think about drawing the ribs down to maintain position.
Kettlebell Rack Holds
This is a late addition that came from Coach Mike Cusmano and Dr. Sean Astorga of Parabolic, but has quickly become a favorite of mine. There is something extremely powerful about the kettlebell rack position. It develops stability and endurance of the entire shoulder girdle while also activating the serratus as the scapula is protracted and upwardly rotated. This scapular mobility/stability is vital to shoulder health and function Simultaneously; it challenges core stability because kettlebells, by design, will roll off the rack position quite easily if there is any deviation from proper position. Only a rigid core and well-maintained torso position will allow the lifter to maintain the rack position without the bells rolling off. Combine this with the kneeling to half-kneeling transition to incorporate glute activation and add a dynamic stability component to the equation and the result is a great bang for your buck movement that challenges the entire system. Continue To fully inhale and exhale throughout the movement draw the ribs down and keep the spine neutral.