The very first exercise I teach all my strength athletes is the full squat. That one movement strengthens all the groups in the hips and legs: the glutes, quads, hamstrings, abductors and adductors. In addition, all parts of the back and even the shoulder girdle are involved. It forms the foundation that they will build on.
When beginners are learning how to squat properly, I watch them with two things in mind—one, if they are using good technique, and two, if there is any weakness showing. It’s important to spot any groups that are lagging behind early on. The sooner a weak area is identified, the better. A relative weakness will halt progress if it isn’t given some attention, and, more important, an injury can occur if it falls too far behind.
Of all the athletes I’ve started on a strength program, at least a third of them displayed a weakness in their adductors. That includes both male and female athletes. I was not surprised. Almost every sport involves a lot of running and jumping, which work the quads, hamstrings and abductors to a much greater degree than they do the adductors. So those athletes come to the weight room with weak adductors.
The adductors are not obvious muscles like the hams and quads, so they’re often neglected, but they play a vital role in lower-body strength. The adductors are made up of four muscles: the adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus and gracilis. They originate closely together high up in the groin, on the pubis bone, and then swing down and arc over to attach to the various parts of the femur, running from the top to the bottom of the long leg bone until the magnus finally attaches to the medial condyle at the knee.
In a nutshell, that means the primary function of the adductors is to pull the upper leg inward, and they play a role in stabilizing the knee joint. That’s extremely important to all athletes, especially those who are engaged in a contact sport where the knees take a great deal of punishment.
Here’s how to spot weak adductors. If an athlete’s knees turn inward while he or she is squatting or pulling a heavy weight off the floor, it’s a sure sign that the adductors are relatively weak. It’s easy to determine once you know what you’re looking for, and the good part is that the adductors respond very quickly to specific strengthening exercises.
First and foremost in that regard is the full squat. You must do full squats if you want to strengthen your adductors. Partial squats do not. In fact, partial squats put a much greater stress on the knee joints. When you do a partial squat, all the downward pressure is placed on your knees, but when you perform a deep squat, all the muscles and attachments that surround the knees take a burden off that downward stress.
Next comes an exercise that’s specific for the adductors. An adductor machine is a blessing. I recommend one set of 20 prior to squatting and two more sets of 20 at the end of the workout. You can do the warmup sets with light-to-moderate weights, but the two work sets at the end of the session should be very demanding. On the 15th rep your adductors should be screaming for relief. The adductors are potentially very strong muscles and must be pushed, not teased, in order to get them considerably stronger.
I’ve trained athletes with glaring weaknesses in their adductors who brought them up to par within a month. At that point, I cut them back to two sets of 20 on the machine twice a week to help them maintain the balanced strength in their legs.
I’m aware, however, that not all weight rooms have adductor machines. Don’t be dismayed—there are several ways to increase adductor strength with a barbell. The best is to do squats with a wide stance. How wide? Just as wide as you can manage and still be able to keep your balance. In other words, the wider the better. The key to making these work is that you must go extremely low. The adductors do most of their job after you get below parallel, and the deeper you go, the more they are activated.
The wide-stance, or sumo-style, squat is more difficult to learn than the conventional squat because of the balance required, so it’s smart to start out using moderate poundages until you get the feel of the new movement.
The form is also quite different from a conventional squat. You must position your feet straight ahead and not turn them outward, and place the pressure on the outsides of your feet, not on your toes and heels. Most important, you must hold your torso perfectly erect throughout the exercise. While it’s possible to get away with leaning forward during a conventional squat, it isn’t when performing the wide-stance version. Should you lean, you won’t be able to go low, and in most cases you’ll lose your balance. When you do a wide-stance squat perfectly, it will appear as if you’re in a Smith machine.
You can, of course, do wide-stance squats in a Smith machine, but having to balance the heavy weights is a plus for athletes because that attribute is most useful in all sports.
I recommend doing these for three sets of 20. Again, move the numbers up on those final two sets and push to the limit. Some athletes find that they are actually stronger on these than on conventional squats and stay with the wide-stance style even after they have sufficiently strengthened their adductors.
Another exercise that I use to make the adductors strong is the sumo-style deadlift. Use straps on these. Take a wide stance, and grip the bar between your legs. Again, point your feet straight forward, and put pressure on the outsides. Tuck the bar snug against your shins, eyes front, back very flat and tight. Now think about pushing your feet down into the floor. The bar will glide right up your thighs. Keep it snug to your body on both the up and down movements.
Do three sets of 20 while you’re making your weak adductors stronger, and then you can switch to the basic strength formula of five sets of five and alternate the sumo deads with conventional ones. Variety helps progress.
Ankle straps are another good way to strengthen weak adductors, although it will be a much slower process than using the adductor machine or free weights. Do one leg at a time and steadily increase the number of reps on two or three sets. Start with 50 and aim for 200. In most gyms there is some sort of Universal machine with cables and ankle straps. These, too, can improve adductor strength if you’re willing to put in the time and effort. If your adductors aren’t slightly sore the day after you worked them, you need to hit them harder.
Another piece of equipment I like for improving adductor strength is the slide board. These were developed for skaters, and they get the job done. The constant side-to-side movement not only helps the adductors but also greatly enhances strength in the abductors, which makes the knee joints more stable.
Relatively weak adductors have a negative effect on foot speed, leaping ability, coordination, balance, lateral movement and endurance. They also greatly increase the risk of knee injuries. As soon as a weakness in your adductors reveals itself, take immediate action to remedy it.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com.