Hip Exercises: External Rotation For Squats


Most people are not aware of this, but there are 7 different types of gluteal muscles.  That’s right!  Most people are already aware of the big three: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.  In fact most hip exercises out there are designed to target these muscles.  But what about the other 4 uncommon muscles?  These guys are responsible for external rotation of the femur.  Most hip exercises out there do not effectively target these muscles.  Now I’m not saying that these muscles need to be stronger, that is rarely the case.  The problem is they need to be cued.  In this post we are going to explore different types of hip exercises that help to target external rotation. 


Why External Rotation?

In most lower body movements, especially the squat, you hear the common cue to drive your knees out.  There is nothing wrong with that cue, except for the fact that the kinetic chain in the lower body will be insecure. 

Remember that a kinetic chain is a group of muscles transmitting force together as one unit.  In the case of the squat, the entire leg works as one unit to drive force into the ground.  If there is a weak link in that chain anywhere from the feet to the hip, then your form will eventually breakdown. 

The problem with the knees out cue is that it often fails to cue external rotation in the femur.  External rotation helps to secure the head of the femur in the socket when performing lower body exercises.  Think of the external rotators of the femur as the rotator cuff of the hip.

By training the external rotators of the hip, we can take our squat to new heights.   


The Four Uncommon Gluteal Muscles

So what are these mysterious external rotators? 

They are:

  • piriformis
  • gemellus (superior and inferior)
  • obturator (externus and internus)
  • quadratus femoris. 

Just like the rotator cuff of the upper body, strength is usually not the issue, motor control is. 


Hip Exercises Based On External Rotation

Okay, so now how do we activate them?  There are many different exercises out there to activate them, but we want to make sure that you are using the right exercises for the right circumstances. 

For example, you would not need to use closed clam shells if you already have decent motor control and just need some strength.  Likewise, you would not use bulgarian split squats or pistol squats if you can barely squat you own bodyweight with good form. 

We also want to make sure that we perform hip exercises that will complement our squat form the most.  Exercises that mimic the squatting motion will assist the exercise the most.

Below are some of my favorite hip exercises to use when addressing external rotation.   


Bulgarian Split Squats


I don’t know if the Bulgarians actually invented this exercise, but I do know that it is a powerful knee and hip exercise for external rotation and glute activation. 

Find a bench, or a box, and place one foot behind you elevated on the bench.  Now take a step out in front of you and squat all the way down just before your knee touches the ground, then stand back up.  Make sure you keep your torso as vertical as possible.  Your heel should stay down the entire time and your knee should not go past your ankle. 

Start out with bodyweight until you are able to do 10-15 reps with perfect form.  Now you can start to add weight to this exercise.  There are multiple ways to do this, you can either use a kettlebell or a barbell. 

A kettlebell can be held up in the front rack position.  A barbell can be placed on the back or on the shoulders in the front rack position for an even greater challenge.  Start out with light weight and gradually add weight as you get better.  Remember, this is an assistance exercise, not a primary lift so don’t get too jacked up.     


Pistol Squats


Aside from being a great tool for assessing muscle imbalances and mobility restrictions, the pistol squat is also a great exercise for external rotation.  However, this only applies to individuals with good form. 

If you observe a beginner performing a pistol, you will notice that they have a rounded back in the bottom position.  Many factors can cause this, ankle mobility being one of them.  However, inactive glutes can also be a cause.

When the glutes activate properly in the bottom of the squat, the spine will not round and will remain straight just like a normal squat.  This makes the pistol squat a powerful activator of the deep external rotators.    


Deep Squat Press Outs


Very little is understood about the concept of counterbalance.  When people hold a weight in front of them, the are activating the posterior aspect of whatever musculature they are working. 

Try holding a weight in front of you while standing up.  You will notice that the muscles in your upper and lower back will be firing in order to stabilize your body. 

For people who have difficulty activating their gluteal muscles during squats, deep squat press outs are one of those hip exercises that will effectively recruit those muscles. 

Simply squat down with a weight plate, or kettlebell, and while you are in the bottom position, press the weight out in front of you.  Hold it there for 3-5 seconds.  Your spine should remain as vertical as possible and your heels should remain on the ground. 

You can do this as a warmup exercise for your squats, or as part of a workout itself.   


Closed Clam Shells


Typically used as a rehabilitative exercise for individuals with a hip injury, this hip exercise can also be used for motor control of the hip external rotators. 

To perform, simply lay on your side and move your bottom leg out in front of you so it is at a 90 degree angle.  Keep your spine and neck in a straight line and keep your top leg straight.  Now drive your knee into the ground as hard as you can and lift your foot up towards the ceiling.  DO NOT let your knee leave the ground.

This is actually much harder than it looks and it will cause you to break a mental sweat as much as a physical sweat.  You should aim to perform about 10-15 reps for each leg.  Dr. Evan Osar has an excellent video explaining this exercise. 

I would not use this hip exercise during a warm up or cool down.  Instead, use it on your off days, or during de-loading phases of training.     


Standing Hip Dissociation


This hip exercise also is used in many rehabilitative settings for activating the external rotators.  The only difference is that this one is used when standing.  Thus, adding functionality over to our assistance work. 

Find a wall and place your back completely flat against the wall.  Place your feet slightly in front of you, about shoulder width apart.  Keep your feet straight and externally rotate your knees as far as you can UNDER CONTROL.  Then begin to SLOWLY internally rotate them UNDER CONTROL. 

If your toes leave the ground at any time, then stop and restart.  If your back comes off the wall in any way, stop and restart.  It is very wise to perform this exercise very slowly so as to not damage your knees. 

The best part about this hip exercise is that it is weight bearing.  Rather than lying down to primarily train and isolate the external rotators, this hip exercise incorporates it with everyday activities.  It also gets you to feel what external rotation feels like.  True functionality right there!

This exercise is best performed on your off days, or de-loading cycles.  Try not to go too crazy with it because the gluteal muscles can become overtightened.  About 10-20 reps will get the job done. 

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