Feet positioning: forward or out?
Squatting with your feet pointed straight forward is a great test of mobility (hello adequate tibial internal rotation), so many guys and gals out there are trying to learn how to perform it correctly just because of the challenge. Unfortunately, this is not the most efficient way to squat, especially when it comes to loaded squats that demand the entire lower part of your body to be in a straight line in order to optimize joint mechanics and maximize force production.
Anyway, it seems that foot positioning is mostly determined by the stance. Generally speaking, lifters who squat narrow keep their feet pointed forward and lifters who squat with a wider stance tend to flare their feet slightly, thereby allowing for a greater hip involvement and reducing the risk of knee valgus.
During any squat variation, the hip gets into a certain level of abduction, which is crucial because hip abduction increases the range of motion of the hips and contributes to a more efficient hip extension. Then, if we want to descend into a deep squat while maintaining the feet in a forward position and simultaneously abducting the hip, a great deal of tibial internal rotation is a must. On the other hand, if the feet are slightly turned out, staying in line with the knees doesn’t require such an extent of tibial internal rotation and it’s much easier to keep the entire lower part of the body in a straight line.
This is very important because it means that struggling to keep the feet pointed forward takes away from your capacity to work with a load, because mechanically speaking, it’s not an optimally efficient position for squatting. The most efficient position from which to squat is the one where the feet are turned out at anywhere between 15 to 40 degrees. In this position, the foot is in line with the abducted hip, the knee is not excessively rotated and essentially no energy is lost rotating joints that aren’t even supposed to be rotated in the first place.
Additionally, keeping your feet pointed forward during a loaded squat can cause your knees to cave medially, which encourages the hip to rotate internally and ruins any chance of a proper knee and hip position, thereby welcoming a variety of injuries. In the best case scenario, petty much like in the case of losing your neutral low back arch, knee caving can be seen as an energy leak, so you should make sure it doesn’t happen.
Lately there’s been a lot of talk among lifters about how ‘screwing the feet’ and aggressively flaring the knees can help you increase the torque production within the external hip rotators and have greater control over the feet and knee position. While this rings true for a part of the powerlifting community, it’s pretty unnecessary for the regular lifter and it can lead to excessive foot supination. Instead of focusing on screwing the feet and flaring the knees as much as possible, make sure that your foot is in line with the femur – this is optimal for creating a balanced force distribution through the feet.
With that in mind, for the majority of people, the simplest way to encourage a safe and effective knee and hip position is by turning the feet out. Some people will still perform better with neutral foot positions, and that’s alright. Again, optimal foot positioning is very dependent on the hip anatomy of the individual.
Regardless of what you personally believe is best, it’s up to your hip anatomy to determine your optimal squat variation, stance width and feet position. This is not to say that you can’t improve your position by working on your lower body strength and joint flexibility, but it’s crucial to avoid forcing your body into positions or movements which are painful or feel highly uncomfortable and unnatural.
Based on a great number of scientific studies and the expertise of many strength coaches, the majority of people will have most benefit from taking a wider stance and turning their feet slightly out (at 15-40 degrees) during the squat. A good rule of thumb is to always make sure that the foot is parallel to the femur – this usually means that for narrower stances, the feet will be turned out just slightly because there’s less hip abduction, and during wide stance squats, the angle could be 45 degrees. Finally, keep in mind that for optimal efficiency, your entire lower body should be in the same plane of motion.
If your bodyweight squat form is terrible, that will translate to a higher risk of knee and lower back pain and less gains from what is otherwise a great exercise. But if progress to loading your squats without first improving your form, you risk reaping serious injury in multiple body parts. Therefore, try to exercise in the safest way possible and never ever trade proper form for a heavier load.
Photo credit : Barbel Rehab