Dan John: The Hip Movement Continuum

Breon Hole was struggling with her kettlebell swing. Josh Vert had asked me to help out, as Breon’s lower back would scream after a few repetitions of doing the swing.

Within two reps, I stopped her.

It’s funny, because years ago a young man told me, “Squats hurt my knees.” I asked him to demonstrate his squat.

He did . . . And I said, “Squats don’t hurt your knees; whatever you are doing there hurts your knees.”

I told Breon, “Swings don’t hurt your back; whatever the hell you are doing hurts your back.”

Ah. Great coaching again! I knew something was wrong and stated the obvious. Breon then asked the million-dollar question: Well, then, what am I doing wrong?

Thank you, Breon. You see, I could SEE the problem, but I had no ability to fix it. Oh, I knew drills and we could have pushed, pulled and prodded her to a better movement, but I knew that I knew that I didn’t know what to do. Like that famous exchange in Mystery Men, and, yes, I think it is the greatest film of all time:

Capt. Amazing:
 I knew you couldn’t change.
Casanova Frankenstein: I knew you’d know that.
Capt. Amazing: Oh, I know that. AND I knew you’d know I’d know you knew.
Casanova Frankenstein: But I didn’t. I only knew that you’d know that I knew. Did you know THAT?
Capt. Amazing: Of course.

So, I knew Breon was swinging wrong. But I didn’t know much else. For a few minutes, we waved our hands around, did some drills and actually fixed her swing. But, I still didn’t know something. Did you know THAT?

She was bending her knees too much, which let the ‘bell go too low, which tossed all the forces on her lower back. It is sometimes called the “Squatting Swing.”

When I said that out loud, my little world of lifting had absolute clarity. You see:

The Swing is not a Squat.
The Squat is not a Swing.

To which, you may reply: So? It is the greatest insight of my teaching career. We went to a white board and began talking about this notion. It soon became known as the Hip Displacement Continuum.

Breon was taught to do Swings from a “deep squat” and “you are cheating if you don’t deep squat.” Well, no . . .

Put this on a “rainbow” curve or continuum.

On the far left:
Vertical Jump
Standing Long Jump
Swings (all variations)
Romanian Deadlifts
(Tackling in football would go here)I

In the Middle:
Bootstrapper Squat
In a narrow beam: snatches and cleans and DLs
Back Squats
Front Squats
Overhead Squats

On the far right:
Goblet Squats

Dan John's Hip Displacement Continuum

The most powerful movements the human body can achieve are from this swing position or, as it has been called more recently, the hinge movement. If you are walking and a rattlesnake crosses your path, that leap away will be more on the left side of the continuum. If you first wish to kiss the rattler, that movement would be a squat. You decide, as I have no question about what I would do.

Bad jumpers start with a lot of knee bend and diminish the pop of the hinging hips.
Bad squatters bend their knees a lot and ignore the hip movement.

The continuum clarified this thinking for me. Forever. It is one of the few times that some mental effort can actually improve physical performance.

As a test, we added a series of Standing Long Jump tests. First, we encouraged the athlete to use a lot of knee bend, really use your legs, and tested three jumps. Then, we asked for nearly no knee bend, but a snappy hip movement. Most athletes are within three inches of their best with this style and many athletes actually do better. Finally, allowing some additional knee bend but emphasizing the explosive hip, the athlete takes a few more attempts. It is more common than not to reach personal records here.

Hinge movements, like the swing, are movements with deep hip movement and minimal knee bend. Squat movements have both deep movements in the hip and the knee.

So, to memorize:

Hinge the Hips (Swings, Jumps): Deep Hip Movement, Minimal Knee Movement
Squats: Deep Hip Movement, Deep Knee Movement[

As you move across the continuum, you might note that the knee bends more and more. There always needs to be a slight bend in the knees during any movement. Pavel calls the stiff-legged swing The Tipping Bird, like those old bar standards where the plastic bird swings back and forth into a drink. One of the great errors of beginning squatters is to lock the knees out at the start or top of the movement.

No need to jack up your knees for life, my friend: Keep a slight bend.

It is interesting to think about the popularity of leg extension and leg curl machines in the Seventies and Eighties. These are movements with technically no hip movement and deep knee movements, but there has been some research indicating that these movements are terrible for the knees. Mother Nature seems to know best when it comes to training.

When someone complains that swings hurt the back, it is often because the movement was turned into a Squatting Swing. Always keep the bell above the knees, attack the zipper, hinge the hips, make the hips fold . . . or whatever cue is going to help you. When someone complains squats hurt the knees, take a moment to cue the hips. Once you understand the Hip Movement Continuum, teaching the body to move powerfully becomes much simpler, safer and sounder.

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