Written by Dr. Quinn Henoch
If you’ve been following Ryan Brown and I at Darkside Strength, you know that we like to use the “ground up” approach – building safe and proficient movement patterns through the use of developmental positions. These positions are in reference to the methods in which baby humans learn to explore movement. Yes, infants are basically made of rubber and their hip joints look more like shoulder joints, that possess ridiculous mobility. However, those little guys learn to control that mobility by putting in months of work and progressing from position to position – supine/prone, sidelying, quadruped, half/tall kneeling; until they have developed the necessary stability to stand, squat, walk, run, jump, etc.
As adults, it’s beneficial to revisit these positions to hone and refine our movement -especially since today’s more sedentary lifestyle seems to cause some loss of mobility and reflexive motor control.
The half kneeling position is a fantastic tool to improve these attributes. By lowering the center of mass (compared to standing), the athlete can practice moving through the hips and shoulders with less compensation and unnecessary motion through the pelvis and lumbar spine – which is common and more difficult to overcome in a standing position.
If you’re not utilizing it at some point in your warm-up, training, or rehab – perhaps you should be. Here are some more reasons why:
Reason #1: Trunk Stability
To echo the message of smart people such as Gray Cook, Charlie Weingroff , and Mike Robertson who have really made this stuff mainstream, we need proximal stability to have distal mobility. In other words, we need relative stability through the trunk to make full use of the range of motion available in joints such as the hips and shoulders. In other other words, a reflexive core that activates at the correct time and with the appropriate intensity is the prerequisite to having arms and legs that perform well. It doesn’t matter how much force you can generate with your extremities if your trunk is not in the position to oppose and transmit that force; and it doesn’t matter how rigid you can make your core if the intensity of the contraction is not appropriate or is not timed properly, based on the specific movement demand.
Enter half kneeling.
The base of support is fixed at hip width or more narrow. Narrowing the base can further increase the demand on trunk musculature, and requires the athlete to stabilize reflexively with intrinsic musculature throughout the body – as opposed to simply widening their base of support and “hanging on their joints and ligaments” In addition, balance overcorrections will lead to you falling on your butt. Holding your breath will exacerbate this. There is nowhere to hide. You need reflexive, well-timed contractions from head to toe as well as breath control, in order to remain stable. This is a theme that carries over to all athletic endeavors.
Here’s a video of a proper half kneeling position along with a simple trunk and balance exercise.
You can practice with 1-2 sets of 30-second holds. Once the position is dialed in, there are countless drills to progressively challenge the trunk while achieving dynamic movement through the extremities. Here are some common, yet effective ones.
This drill requires reflexive stabilization of the inner core and hip stabilizers to oppose movement in the trunk, and transmit force to the arms.
Chops and Lifts
Ageless classics. All the benefits discussed above, but now incorporating thoracic rotation, around a stable lumbar spine. This is similar to the demands of rotational sports. Also, using diagonal patterns while crossing midline does some fancy things to your brain maps. This is part of the PNF school of thought.
The last two drills can be incorporated as a warm up, in between sets of strength movements, or as a finisher to the training session. 1-3 sets of 8-10 reps on each side. Quality movement over quantity of movement.
The key to these drills is to use only the necessary amount of effort needed to perform the movement. If you’re holding your breath, and it looks like your head is going to pop (high threshold strategy), you are missing the benefit of motor learning. Smooth and controlled. Maintain your breathing pattern.
Reason #2: Correcting Squatting and Stepping Patterns
Now that you’ve dialed in your trunk control, it’s time to use that proximal stability to achieve a little distal mobility. Squatting and single leg stepping variants (sprinting, jumping off one leg, lunging, cutting, etc) encompass a lot of the movements that you will see in athletics. The half kneeling position resembles these things with the necessity to demonstrate both hip flexion and extension adequately around a stable trunk, and is a great way to build some foundational capacity for those complex patterns. Here’s a sample progression:
With any of the exercises that have been mentioned, you may notice asymmetry side to side – yet another benefit to the half kneeling position. It is a diagnostic tool, and intervention all in one. The reasons for side to side asymmetries are many; don’t concern yourself too much with nailing down the exact cause. Just spend some time on the problem side, performing the problem movement, and let the brain mapping happen on it’s own.
The squat variations can be done for 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps on each side. These can be loaded with a kettlebell or dumbbell; but realistically the goal should not be to develop top end strength – so choose a weight that you can control well.
Reason #3: A Stable Position For Overhead Training or Rehab
We humans move in alternating and reciprocal patterns. Look at a person’s gait for example. Alternating pelvic and thoracic rotation back and forth; reciprocal rotation in one direction at the pelvis and another in the trunk; flexing and extending the opposite arm and leg; etc. Single arm overhead work in half kneeling with the opposite leg up mimics this pattern, and is very powerful for developing the diagonal and unilateral stabilization needed to handle weights during dynamic standing activities.
It is an ideal position for some focused shoulder work or prehab because it minimizes ones ability to compensate with the lower body. With a motionless platform, all the work goes to the shoulder complex, where we want it. This is also a great place to go for someone who experiences low back discomfort when performing loaded overhead movements, as it minimizes the extension moment in the lumbar spine.
Here are a few exercises to help build some foundational overhead capacity:
This is a good progression to prep for more traditional overhead barbell training. 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps on each side.
Here are a few that utilize PNF patterning and static stabilization for a little rotator cuff rehab/prehab. Again, these are not “strengthening” exercises. They are motor control and patterning exercises – teaching tools to build a stable foundation before laying on strength and power development.
2-4 sets of 6-8 reps on each side.
Implement one or two of these drills for your squatting prep, overhead prep, or as part of a core-training program. Progress and modify as you begin to improve your control. Prioritize mastering the base position. Then there are endless possibilities regarding the specific exercise that you choose. So do not be afraid to become creative in how you utilize half kneeling. If you freestyle and create an awesome exercise, write it in the comments. I like learning too.