Knee-dominant Versus Hip-dominant Athletes

Are you a knee-dominant or a hip-dominant athlete? What’s the difference and what does that really mean for your performance capacities?

These are the things we are going to discuss today. The world of sport science keeps evolving and we get so much great and useful information from researchers and thought leaders alike. One popular area of interest is in movement pattern analysis. There are many different ways of analyzing and appreciating human movement, and one that is very useful is the knee/hip reliance issue.

First, let’s define what is meant by joint dominance. This is simply a preference within the organism (human beast) to rely upon one joint (and it’s associated movement patterns) slightly more than the other. In the case we are examining today, we are differentiating between knee dominance and hip dominance. Most athletes will prefer and utilize one strategy over the other. I’ll define and explain the knee component followed by that of the hip.

A knee-dominant athlete will typically exhibit most of the following characteristics:

  • He/she will use the knee first and most when changing the height of the center of mass of the body.
  • The quadriceps muscles will be recruited heavily to control knee flexion and extension.
  • The squat and lunge patterns will be incorporated into most athletic movements and these will come easily for this athlete.
  • A more vertical orientation of the body will usually be preferred as the ribcage stacks over the pelvis, although this relationship can orient diagonally when cutting and change of direction are needed.
  • This is a compression-expansion strategy much like a piston. Because the knee-dominant athletes are strong in this load-explode combination, they’ll bias toward this pattern.
  • Knee dominance generally pairs with inhalation. The inward breath, downward displacement of the diaphragm and visceral contents, and pressurization of the abdominal cavity create the loading from which the athlete can explode.

Hip-dominant athletes usually display these traits:

  • Hip movement will often precede and exceed that of the knee.
  • Hamstrings and glutes are recruited to decelerate hip flexion and accelerate hip extension.
  • The hinge pattern will dominate most movements for this athlete.
  • The body will use more horizontal orientation as the hinge drives the hips backward and the trunk downward/forward. 
  • This is a tension-dependent strategy. The posterior chain muscles (hams, glutes, back) act like guy wires to direct force.
  • Hip dominance is consistent with exhalation. This coordinates with bracing to enhance stability in the guy wires.

Let’s immediately state that one strategy (knee or hip) is not necessarily (more on this later) better than the other, and that all humans have the ability to do both. While there are a few very gifted athletes who can perform either pattern equally well, most of us will have a preference for one over the other. This is dictated by your genetics…specifically your anatomy. There are potentially a number of anatomical factors to consider but the primary one is the relative length of the legs to the torso. This is largely a matter of simple physics. The body learns very early how to apply the most force while expending the least amount of energy. This is done by choosing the longer lever (legs/knees or hips/trunk) and/or more distant fulcrum. The central nervous system (CNS) then ingrains this pattern into our movement library so it’s automatic and subconscious in many demands. This is a great exemplification of the brilliance of the human beast.

So how do you determine if you are a knee-dominant or hip-dominant athlete? Make sure you are reasonably warmed up. Stand sideways to a mirror and place what you consider to be a moderately-weighted object in front of you. Without any preemptive thinking, simply pick up the object. If you stayed fairly vertical, got the weight up close to you, then pushed straight up using your legs like in a Zercher squat, you are knee-dominant. If, on the other hand, you broke at the hips, reached for the object and then pulled it up to waist level in deadlift fashion, you are hip-dominant. Your automatic movement pattern choice reveals how your CNS has been programmed.

Now let’s go back to the consideration of whether one pattern is holistically better than the other. The answer is “no” in that neither knee-dominance nor hip-dominance is absolutely superior. But each is slightly better for certain applications. Moving your center of mass explosively, such as in jumping or cutting, tends to work better with the knee-squat/lunge option. And picking up or pulling heavy things is the strong suit of the hip-hinge/deadlift pattern. We possess and use both patterns but our everyday and athletic movements will generally be identified by only one. 

We can take another look at that “mirror test” we talked about. Now, instead of performing the task in front of the mirror, imagine that you are inside a phone booth (old school) or refrigerator box. If you can get your hands to the floor and lift the object without touching the sides of the enclosure, you are knee-dominant. If you bump your butt or bang your forehead into the walls, you are hip-dominant.

Now here’s a couple of examples of a person using their less-dominant strategy, at least on a temporary basis. Let’s say we have a knee-dominant athlete who has a knee injury. He/she will hinge instead of squatting or lunging to offload the injured knee. Or how about a hip-dominant athlete who has a hip or back injury. Invariably, they’ll use their knees a lot and stay quite vertical when getting up or down. But in both cases, it will look just a bit awkward, and that’s because they are using their non-dominant or less-preferred movement pattern. 

As athletes, how do we interpret our knee or hip dominance? Probably the most familiar way is using strength and weakness thinking. For example, if you are knee-dominant, you call that your strength, and you consider the hip pattern your weakness. I think these terms resonate well with most of us. However, because I consider strength to be one of the 5 capacities of human performance (along with speed, power, agility, and endurance), in an effort not to confuse people I’ll call the strong point the asset and the weak point the liability. More recently, I’m toying with the notion of labelling the strength as the primary attribute and the weakness as the secondary attribute. It’s all semantics. As long as you know which one your body likes better, it matters not.

How can we use this knee/hip knowledge to our advantage in training? Our goal is always to give both mechanisms to the athlete but recognize the primary versus secondary attribute. In other words, if the knee is the hammer (primary attribute) in your tool box you want a really good one. And if the hip is your screwdriver (secondary attribute), you want it to be at least fairly decent and useful in many circumstances. 

Knee-dominant athletes will usually be better at pushing activities. This relates very well to acceleration in most sports. Sled pushes, squats, lunges, and the like will be useful in training, as well as reactive and absorptive plyometric jumps and landings. These athletes will perform these exercises well and get a high degree (potentially, if programming is good) of transfer to sport. They’ll need some work on their hip/hinge pattern to keep their posterior chain musculature healthy and balance out the body. But we’ll never turn a knee-dominant athlete into a hipster (couldn’t resist) because we can’t change genetically-determined anatomy.

Likewise, a hip-dominant athlete will not only be good at pulling but they will often excel at maximum velocity applications as well as upright stability against force. In court and field sport applications, we’ll need to train their knee-squat/lunge relationships to enhance change of direction and vertical jump abilities. As a coach, I look for squat variations that enable the athlete to handle load most safely and effectively. Hip-dominant athletes will often be better at back squats than knee-dominant ones — often because they use a very hinge-oriented technique — but other variations can be useful if our goal is developing their total athleticism more than maxing out weight (unless their sport is powerlifting). Using front-loaded squats such as goblets, Zerchers, and Bulgarian splits can help these athletes better stack the ribcage and pelvis and get a feel for knee dominance.

Optimization of sport performance, as well as functionality/longevity in the beast, always comes down to these 5 things.

  1. Identify the traits and movement characteristics of the individual athlete.
  2. Recognize the movement requirements of the sport and position (or other activity) in which the athlete participates/competes.
  3. Train the primary attribute to a high level.
  4. Develop the secondary attribute to no longer be a liability and to be a usable option.
  5. Bias training to best match the talents of the athlete to the demands of his/her sport.

Those principles listed above apply to any capacity or characteristic within the human beast. Knee and hip strategies are just one consideration. In the future I’ll be sharing more parameters that I use in my assessment and coaching methods to help athletes of all levels achieve peak performance and lifelong health. I hope you enjoyed this missive and I thank you for reading. I wish you all the best in your athletic pursuits and if you’re interested in 1-on-1 coaching, let’s go!

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