Using Half-Kneeling In Your Strength and Conditioning Program: Part 1
When I first started studying strength and conditioning back when I was a choker-wearing, 155lb. badass at Marquette High I had no concept of “stances”.
Based on all the bodybuilding and powerlifting stuff I was consuming, you either stood when you did an exercise or you sat.
What else would you do?
And then, naturally, as my learning matured and I began to delve more into Gray Cook’s teachings and the Functional Movement Screen, I came upon the “tall-kneeling” and “half-kneeling” positions.
“Oooohh wow, this is cool,” I thought. It’s like I stumbled upon the Kama Sutra of exercise.
I enjoyed the hierarchy of how one progressed (or regressed) through the stances (tall-kneeling, half-kneeling, split-stance, standing) and the rationale behind each.
I won’t get into all of that in this article (in the future though, FO SHO).
For this writing, I want to focus on the half-kneeling stance.
It’s a stance that a lot of our athletes at Essers of Los Angeles find themselves in as part of their foundational programming and it also happens to be one of the more nuanced stances out there in terms of how to get in (and keep) the stance correctly.
In other words, it tends to require a good deal of coaching.
To make things more digestible, in this Part 1, I’m only going to cover why half-kneeling is legit and how to determine if you need it in your strength and conditioning program. In Part 2, I’ll go into the coaching/technique side of things and give you some cool exercises to practice.
What is Half-Kneeling?
Half-kneeling is the act of being down on one knee.
Where you at, Webster’s?? Boom.
Specifically, the down knee is going to be directly under the hip. The front foot will be directly under the knee. The back foot will be plantar-flexed directly in-line with the down knee. Arms are going to be relaxed with the majority of the weight being carried through the down knee.
From the front, everything should look squared up, like an oncoming car’s headlights. From the side, you should be able to plunge a sword through the top of the head all the way to that down knee (wow, that was unexpectedly gruesome).
What the Heck is the Purpose of Half-Kneeling?
What I learned when studying Gray Cook’s work is that if you want to build athletes who move properly you have to build them from the ground up. And this essentially means treating them like a baby.
Babies begin their exploration of movement in the supine/prone position, progress to side-lying, progress to quadruped (all-fours), and then they get up onto both knees (tall-kneeling), one knee (half-kneeling) before finally being able to stand.
Over time, through our typically sedentary lifestyles, we lose a lot of our baby selves ability to move seamlessly through these developmental positions.
Therefore, we end up hurting ourselves when we stand and perform exercises that we shouldn’t really be doing in the first place. It’s not our fault, it’s just that the body will attempt to make compensations to make up for the fact that we aren’t able to mobilize X or stabilize Y properly because we skipped the foundational work.
From a coaching standpoint, this means taking an athlete through supine/prone, sidelying, quadruped, and tall/half-kneeling positions and getting them to own those positions BEFORE getting them to do more sexy stuff like standing, squatting, and jumping.
In the specific case of half-kneeling, there are 3 primary benefits that you should be aware of to enhance your training, because let’s be honest, simply telling you that you need to “develop like a baby better” wasn’t going to convince you to continue reading.
#1: It trains your core to actually perform like a core should*
When most people think of core training, they envision some sort of crunch machine or a “where in the eff everything that is good and holy did they think of that?” exercise on a Bosu ball.
Contrary to popular belief though, the core isn’t supposed to CREATE motion on its own, it’s supposed to RESIST motion from the extremities.
In half-kneeling, the core is set-up to do that. Some coaches and therapists refer to this type of motion resistance as “reflexive” and I like that because you don’t actually think about not moving your mid-section…you just make fine adjustments to maintain your balance.
It’s pretty deep.
Compare this to someone whose core has little ability to reflexively stabilize and they’re attempting to do a single-leg deadlift. Things will get out of hand…fast.
Another way to look at is being in half-kneeling trains you to dissociate motion at the shoulders and hips from the core. The core instead acts as a “transmitter” of force. If there is a breakdown (e.g. excessive rib flare), there will be an energy leak that will lead to your performance being compromised.
#2: It will ultimately solve a lot of issues in single-leg stance and with single-leg exercises
You might have already noticed but half-kneeling is the bottom position of a split squat. It only makes sense that being able to stabilize properly in this position will translate positively when one does make the transition to full-on single-leg work.
I’m referring to not just split squats here, but also to lunges and sprinting. Think about a top-end sprint…where did it start? In a more-cramped half-kneeling (see below). That power wasn’t generated out of tall-kneeling or upright split-stance. Same goes for transitioning out of the bottom of a lunge.
And while performing a Half-Kneeling Pallof Press may not seem to translate to sprint speed, it all comes back to the “building from the ground up” stuff I discussed earlier.
If you constantly find yourself struggling to maintain balance on one leg and perform the aforementioned patterns, it makes sense to spend some time in half-kneeling ironing out any deficiencies.
#3: It will improve your overhead pressing ability, and therefore your total-body strength and muscle
One of the most common errors that you will see with someone who is not properly prepared for overhead pressing is a hyper-lordosis. Basically, they don’t know how to use their core independently of their arms/shoulders and instead attempt to muscle the weight overhead by flinging their chest up and putting a ton of stress on the lumbar.
More often than not, it’s an issue of simply getting that person back to basics and teaching them how to overhead press in half-kneeling (or tall-kneeling, in some instances, which we’ll get into in a sec).
As discussed in point #1, half-kneeling is a great way to teach proper core positioning and can minimize the errors that would occur in split-stance and/or standing.
The overhead press is a foundational movement for improving total-body strength and power is actually a great example of the core transmitting force between the upper and lower-body, as the arms press up and the feet drive down through the floor.
To paraphrase Mark Rippetoe, the trunk (e.g. core) is the transmission and the extremities are the engine. You won’t be anywhere near your strength potential without a core that can position and “turn on” properly.
How do you know when someone needs half-kneeling?
After all, not everyone will need to spend a lot of time (if any) in supine/prone, side-lying, quadruped, etc. depending on their movement quality and training history.
As with nearly everything in strength and conditioning, it comes back to the assessment. At Essers, our primary movement screen is the FMS, which I referenced earlier. Essentially, if someone presents with an asymmetry in the Hurdle Step, In-Line Lunge, or the Active Straight-Leg Raise, there is a 99% chance that athlete is going to get real familiar with half-kneeling. That’s because it helps accounts for those asymmetries…because half-kneeling IS asymmetrical.
It’s very similar to the philosophy of not performing bilateral overhead pressing with an asymmetrical shoulder mobility screen. You wouldn’t do that because you know that something is going to be “dominating” something else and ultimately throwing off the movement in a way that will present itself on the technique or in an ache/pain that comes up down the line.
Compare that to tall-kneeling, which is a symmetrical stance and would be used more for those who display inadequate scores on the screen but they are symmetrical scores, nonetheless (e.g. a 1,1 on the In-Line Lunge vs. a 1,2).
Of course, these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, as there are always exceptions depending on the individual and their WHOLE assessment, but that’s a good way to delineate things.
Another, slightly more subjective, way to know if someone would be a candidate for some half-kneeling action is to simply put them in the position.
Does it look good? Can they perform a few basic motions without much coaching?
Or are they breaking a sweat before they even get the down knee planted?
Sometimes you just need to use Mike Boyle’s shit test.
“If it looks like shit and it smells like shit, then it probably is shit.”
So when someone asks if half-kneeling is a progression from tall-kneeling, that’s tough to say, because it depends on the athlete.
Some will find half-kneeling to be devastatingly difficult, while others wonder why you’re having them do something so easy. Same for tall-kneeling. So use your best judgment if you don’t have access to the movement screen.
Based off my experience, if you have any doubt, it’s best to check if someone can do the little things before asking them to do more complicated stuff.
In part 2, I’m going to go HAM on half-kneeling technique, as well as several exercises that you can use to become a dominant half-kneeler and ultimately, a better athlete.
Dominate All Life,
*I despise the word core at this point, but will use it for efficiency’s sake from time-to-time