The squat. It's a position that we have taken for granted and many of us have lost it. It is also a movement that has much debate about its positioning and patterning.
A movement that a lot of fitness and health professionals have a fascination with. There has been a lot of debate in the health and fitness world about feet position and how wide, or what angle the foot should be when squatting. Here is our attempt to break things down further and shed some light on this topic.
Squatting is one of the movements we always check at a certain point when you come to our clinic. The overhead deep squat is a movement that we assess in the SFMA and FMS. During the assessment we ask our clients to try and keep their feet pointing forward, as shown below
What may come as a confusion is that the assessment does not equate to the exercise. Just because you are able to squat well with foot straight during the assessment, we don’t generally tell our clients to squat with weights with their foot straight. Why the discrepancy???
What we would like to add as a disclaimer is this.
By assessing you with your feet straight, it allows us to see if you can squat with your feet straight, then we know you have a "buffer zone" and then CHOOSE to squat with your feet slightly turned out. We want to see if you have that full mobility to begin with.
If you squat with your feet turned out from the get go, then you are already at end range of your hip motion and have no buffer zone for your hip, which COULD help to reduce injury.
So we test with your feet straight, but we do not train with your feet straight.
Let us compare squatting with foot straight and pointed out. Squatting with foot straight requires more mobility in the hips, knees and ankles compared with foot pointing out. Squatting with foot straight is more “similar” to most of our functional activities in sports and daily life: walking, running, jumping, landing. In general, our weighted squat is an exercise done to build strength. Thus, rather than trying to build our squat to “match” our running/walking/jumping/landing, it is best to build our squat based on our bodies and let the training for running/walking/jumping/landing be done in other activities, not the weighted squat.
First, let’s look at the hips, knees and ankles. In general, as we’re squatting with weights we want both leg and thigh to fall in one line. This gives a line of force that goes vertically through our lower limbs as we load it up and our knees would not slant one way or the other. A common cause for knee injury is letting the knee cave in during the squat, hence the persistent cues to “push the knees out”. As we mentioned, squatting with feet straighter requires more mobility, but also makes it easier to “push the knees out”, preventing the caving in of the knees – arguably reducing knee injury risk.
To achieve a deep squat, you require sufficient hip flexion, knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion. Some people develop tightness and/or weakness which limits the range of movement especially in the hip flexion and ankle dorsiflexion. Tightness in general is best addressed as a mobility issue (e.g. stretches/foam rolling) rather than compensating that by changing your foot position or stance in a squat.
What happens once we’ve addressed the tightness and restriction? Some people still cannot go deep in their squat with their foot straight. Our hip bones are shaped differently. This means our hip can move differently in different angles/directions. We should still be able to achieve a full hip flexion, but we may need to put our hips in more abduction/external rotation which puts the feet to point out – depending on how your hips are shaped, this angle can vary greatly, some will say as little as 5-12o, some can say as much as 30-45o – “how much” will vary from person to person, but for most people they do need a degree of “pointing out” to achieve full hip flexion which gives the depth of the squat.
A commonly overlooked stiffness which limits squatting is the internal rotation of the lower leg (tibia) at the knee. As we position our hips to achieve full flexion, our stance would become wider and our feet will start to point outwards, but the lower leg (tibia) itself can turn inwards bringing that foot to be straighter. However, this motion is achieved by rotating the leg in wards at the knee (without the knee caving in). Some would argue at this point the knee does not work as a true “hinge” joint and it would be a risk for a knee injury.
After considering the minute details of joints and stiffness, let us not forget the bigger picture. A squat is a whole-body movement. The center of mass of your body during a squat must always fall within your feet, if the center of mass is in front of your feet, you’ll fall forwards, and if it is behind, you’ll fall backwards. Taking this principle and looking at how your body is folded up into consideration, not everyone can squat the same way.
During the squat, especially a back squat, your torso and lower leg (tibia) tends to lean forward, bringing the center of mass forward, while the thigh (femur) tends to lean backward, bringing the center of mass backward. Because of this, the length proportions of your torso to thigh to leg affects the way you squat. The longer your torso and lower leg are compared to your tibia, the more “natural” your squatting would be as it brings your center of mass more forward, opposing the “falling backwards” feeling. The longer your thigh (femur) is relative to your torso and lower leg, the more “unnatural” the squat would be as the center of mass shifts backwards. For a person with this proportions, a deep squat would be incredibly challenging as they would say they “can’t go any deeper” even though when you check their joints; everything may be fine. This is because if they went any deeper in their squat, their center of mass would fall behind their feet and they would fall backwards. Hence, how we are built, our proportions, affect the way we squat.
A way to counteract this “long thigh” problem is to have a wider stance. Having a wide stance puts that length of the thigh not just forward/backward but also sideways, making the “forward/backward length” of the thigh considerably shorter, bringing the center of mass closer to the feet. Of course, when we take this approach to compensate for your proportions, we are also changing the whole mechanics of the squat, the way your hip, knee and ankles joints are positioned, how the muscles work in that position and how you move as a whole.
A suggested way to individualise your foot position based on your hip is the “lock and rock”; by standing with your feet fairly straight, lock/tighten your glutes, and let the feet point out to where it wants to be. This would let your hip lead your foot position and allow for full hip flexion. If we try to achieve a deep squat without full hip flexion, when the hip movement reaches its limit, the back can potentially start moving in compensation, increasing the risk for a back injury.
What does this all mean? The discussion on how a squat should look like and where your feet should be, is still ongoing. However, if you are built like the most of us, and wanting to do squats to build strength, doing a squat with the feet pointing out to achieve a full hip flexion is generally recommended; once again, how much of the feet pointing out depends on your hips and don’t neglect to minimise your stiffness/tightness as you train. With that said, keep in mind that everyone is built differently, with different shaped joints and proportions and the general recommendation may not be suitable for your individualised exercise. If you are in doubt about any of your exercises, the best advice you can get would be from your health or fitness professional to individualise your exercises according to your body build and goals.