Hips Or Knees: Which Should Break First In the Squat?

Chicken or the egg, which came first?

The knees and hips argument has raged on since the dawn of time, well, at least since we started barbell squatting. On social media and other online outlets, it can be incredibly tedious watching the argument go back and forth between the knees and the hips breaking first in the squat. And let’s save the low-bar vs. high-bar argument.

If you’re a veteran in the strength industry, then my guess is you already have an idea of how this article going to play out. The answer to pretty much every, if not all, questions in this industry always fall back to: It depends.

Whether you squat high-bar or low-bar for a majority of your training, the answer of which joint breaks first is never clean cut. It’s going to come down to what let’s you perform optimally, comfortably, and supports your training longevity. I reached out to a few  coaches and athletes to have them share their thoughts on this topic, check it out below.

Hips Vs. Knees: Is There an Optimal Technique?

Editor’s Note: One thing you’ll notice in all of the pieces advice below is that every coach varies slightly, yet they ended up being similar at their true core. The similarities align when you consider how every athlete isn’t built the same, and there will always be slight variation in squats due to multiple lifting characteristics.

Greg Nuckols: Perceptions of Low-Bar and High-Bar Squats Vary

Greg Nuckols’ advice entails how athletes typically perceive each squat style as being completely different, but that’s not always the case. In addition, he points out what types of athletes gravitate towards each squat style. He states,

First, I think it’s important to consider that when most people think about high bar and low bar squats, they don’t just have different bar positions in mind. They tend to have two very different looking lifts in mind. That doesn’t necessarily need to be the case, though. You can do a more quad-dominant, upright low bar squat, or a more hip-dominant low bar squat that you sit back into. More often than not, I think people who are naturally more comfortable with an upright squat gravitate to high bar, and vice versa for low bar, but a lot of the biomechanical differences are independent of bar position.

All other things being equal, a low bar squat will involve a bit more hip flexion at any given point in the lift, but the difference is relatively small (<5 degrees). Any differences past that are due to technique choices independent of bar position.

With that being said, generally, it’s more comfortable to break at the hips first when squatting low bar, simply because a little forward lean will help the bar dig into your rear delts a bit better, and be more stable. Past that, with both squat styles, I think it all comes down to individual strength and comfort. Generally, people with shorter femurs relative to their torsos (and better ankle mobility) will favor breaking at the knees first, or breaking at the hips and knees simultaneously, while people with longer femurs relative to their torsos (and/or worst ankle mobility) will favor breaking at the hips first, or breaking at the hips and knees simultaneously.

I think the biggest mistake people make is getting too dogmatic about it, though. I mean, ultimately, the whole point of the eccentric is to set you up well for the concentric. If you feel safe, stable, under control, and ready to explode out of the hole when you hit depth, your eccentric was good. If you don’t feel safe, stable, under control, and ready to explode out of the whole when you hit depth, then something needs work (which could be joint sequencing, could be speed, or could be some other factor like stance or footwear).

Ben Pollack: Base Your Squat Off Training Principles

Ben Pollack takes the approach of constructing your optimal squat based off movement principles, as opposed to limiting yourself to one mantra because everyone will have individual needs. Pollack goes on saying,

In my Unf*ck Your Technique videos, I explain that because “optimal” technique is so dependent on individual variance, I think it’s more useful to think in terms of general principles.”

For example, in the squat, regardless of your structure, you’ll want to maintain a neutral spine position throughout the lift; you’ll want to brace your core; and you’ll want to keep your weight balanced over the midfoot. How one finds that position with change depending on his or her limb lengths, muscular strengths and weaknesses, etc.

So, there is no one right joint sequencing pattern that is right for everyone. Some athletes might break at the hips first; others at the knees. Some might have different technique for the low bar compared to the high bar; others might use the same technique for both styles. Rather than getting hung up on proper joint sequencing, I encourage my athletes to look for balanced distribution of force – in other words, the positions where all of their muscles are able to contribute to a lift in proportion to their relative strength.

Mike Farr (Silent Mike:): Differences Are Often Small

Farr mentions that it’s often perceived that every squat will look completely different, but that’s rarely the case. Everyone will have similar movement mechanics, but will vary slightly due to their individual differences and strength. 

BarBend: In the low-bar squat, do the knees or hips break first?

Farr: In my opinion, we want both the knees & hips to break at the same time, in an ideal squat.

BarBend: For the high-bar, does lower body joint sequencing differ from low-bar

Farr: Typically no, it should be very similar, in my opinion. The biggest differences may be the cues used in the squats not the sequencing itself. For example, a lifter that has the bar positioned a bit higher, I may cue ‘push into your knees’ or ‘knees out and forward’. Ideally, the hips will look slightly different – moving straight down between your legs – but the actual joint sequencing will be similar to low-bar squats.

BarBend: What are some useful ways athletes can check to see if their sequencing is in order to keep them safe and healthy, while progressing at a great rate? (Side view cams, etc)

Farr: If you have it, it’s always best to have a good coach’s eyes on you. If this doesn’t help, or it’s doable, then something like a cell phone video can help a ton. If there is a major issue, then tempo work is a great place to clean up technique.

BarBend: Are there any misconceptions you see in regards to the mentality of knee or hips breaking first?

Farr: I think the biggest misconception is that every low-bar and every high-bar will look the same. Conversely, another big misconception is that every squatter is a unique snowflake. The squats themselves will all be very very similar, they just end up looking often very different based on the individual’s leverages, experience, muscle mass, mobility, and athleticism.

Hayden Bowe: Find What Works Best Within Reason

Hayden Bowe discusses why he breaks at the hips first, but adds that other athletes may be different. He believes there are “truths” to the squat, although, the hips vs. knees argument isn’t necessarily one of them. 

BarBend: In the low-bar squat, do the knees or hips break first?

Bowe: I always break at the hips first. It allows me to set my back angle before starting the descent of the squat instead of trying to set it under load and with speed. It allows for more control in my opinion.

BarBend: Is that always the case?

Bowe: No, I think athletes should do what works best for them within reason. Many athletes set world records with unorthodox styles, everyone is built differently and everyone will have different tweaks that work ideally for them.

BarBend: For the high-bar, does lower body joint sequencing differ from low-bar?

Bowe: I think it’s even less important for high-bar since the back angle generally remains a lot more vertical than it does in the low-bar squat. It is easier to control bar path and bar whip while high-bar squatting.

BarBend: What are some useful ways athletes can check to see if their sequencing is in order to keep them safe and healthy, while progressing at a great rate?

Bowe: Filming yourself lifting is important if you take the sport seriously. Instagram is great but videos you take have more important uses. Athletes in every sport at the highest level watch “game footage”, you should be doing the same. I don’t think you necessarily need to obsess over the sequencing of your squat form, but you should definitely be using the footage to help identify any noticeable form breakdown.

Are there any misconceptions you see in regards to the mentality of knee or hips breaking first?

Bowe: I think the biggest issue is coaches forcing movement patterns on their athletes based on what has worked for them in their lifting career. Like most things in lifting there are a few universal “truths” to the squat, I don’t believe that the sequence of break in the descent is necessarily one of them. Neutral spine, knees tracking in line with the toes (with no excessive knee twitch), and the hips and shoulders rising together are what I deem most important when watching or teaching an athlete the squat.

Rori Alter: Simultaneous Break Fairs Best

BarBend: In the low-bar squat, do the knees or hips break first?

Alter: In the LBBS the hips AND knees should break SIMULTANEOUSLY.

BarBend: Is that always the case?

Alter: Nope! In ALL squats we are looking for the joints to unlock st the SAME time. If hips or knees break before the other we end up with unnecessary momentary stress on that particular joint or body segment and a reciprocal balancing action to counteract the premature motion. For example, a typical technical mistake I see in the SQUAT (more so low bar than high bar but I see it in both) is that the hips break first and people initiate the motion with their hips. This happens because the LBBS I s a “hip dominant” or “hip driven” motion but that’s not to be confused with leading or initiating with the hips first.
Our bodies want to maintain the bar over the middle of our foot to reduce energy expenditure and possibility of injury. If we break at the hips or knees first this will move the bar away from the mid foot and typically see an over correction of movement in the opposite direction to recenter the bar. In our example with breaking at the hips first we turn the lift a “good morning” placing stress on the low back and hips more than is necessary in the low bar squat. This can lead to less load being lifted (let’s be honest, who can good morning as much as they squat? Not me) and potential injury to the low back, SI joints, and hips over time. Well usually see a counter movement of the knees sliding forward too far and for too long into the hole (a conversation for another day) but this “hips first” mistiming can not only hurt the low back, SI joint and hips but can also have a residual effect on the knees and quads.

BarBend: For the high-bar, does lower body joint sequencing differ from low-bar?

Alter: Yep a side view video is a great tool. In the absence of having a quality coach there in person, using video can provide great feedback to the lifter. What you’re looking for is the bar path to be maintained in a straight vertical line over the mid foot (there are bar path tracking apps) and for the hips and knees to break simultaneously (and also lock simultaneously!).

In fact, in every competition Barbell lift performed, joint timing should be at the same rate for all joints.

Wrapping Up

From the advice above, it’s best not limit to yourself to one side of the argument because everyone will have slight individual differences in their squat styles. What’s most important is that you’re practicing a technique that equates to healthy long-term movement and continued progress.

Whether that entails a slight break of the hip or knees first, or even a simultaneous break, it’s all going to come down to what helps you perform best.

Feature image from @bilbo_swaggins181 Instagram page.