During a recent Squat University seminar, I was approached by an athlete who wondered why I had asked everyone to show me his or her squat with their toes straightforward. This was definitely not the first time I’ve been asked this question. There’s a lot of controversy in the fitness world today when it comes to recommended foot position during the squat. Some experts say our feet should be straightforward all the time. Others advocate the toes should turn out at an angle. So who is correct?
This is actually a trick question. The answer is both. Let me explain.
Argument for Toes Forward
The squat is a movement first and an exercise second. When I screen a new athlete, I want to see their ability to squat with shoes off and toes facing forward. My goal is to assess their MOVEMENT. This method allows me to see any weak links with the athlete.
Squatting with your feet straightforward is more difficult than with the toes pointed slightly outward. I don’t think many would argue with that notion. However, that is the point of the screen.
In order to squat to full depth with the toes straightforward, an athlete must have adequate ankle and hip mobility and sufficient pelvic/core control. They must also have acceptable coordination and balance. By turning the toes out at an angle, it allows a majority of people to achieve a full depth squat with a more upright chest position. There will always be a few individuals who are simply unable to get into a deep squat position due to abnormal anatomical reasons. Some people are born with genetic abnormalities. With that said, most athletes should be able to reach ass to grass with a squat.
The bodyweight squat sets the movement foundation for other athletic actions such as jumping and landing. Many knee injuries occur when you land with your foot pointing out and with the knee caving in. Players who have to jump and cut will tear their ACL when the knee caves in and rotates. My goal is for athletes to land and jump with good mechanics therefore decreasing their lack of season-ending injuries.
Argument for Toes Out
As soon as you pick up a barbell, the squat now becomes an exercise. For this reason, there are slight changes in the movement pattern that are more “sport specific”. This includes turning the toes out slightly. Doing so creates a mechanical advantage for the squat. Not only does it give us a slightly wider base of support, but it does not challenge our pelvic control and mobility to the fullest extent (1).
This is why some athletes can squat deeper when they turn their toes out. By externally rotating the hips we can usually achieve a deeper and better-looking squat.
When our hips externally rotate, the adductor muscles on the inside of our legs are lengthened. As we squat these muscles are put in a better position to produce force (length-tension relationship). This simply means the adductors are turned on and recruited to a greater degree during the squat if you turn your toes out slightly (2). The adductor magnus specifically has been shown to help produce hip extension (the action of standing up from a squat) (4). More help from the adductors means a stronger and more efficient way to move the barbell.
Turning the toes out, however, only changes the activation of the adductor muscle group. The glutes and quads (the main movers in the squat) are not significantly activated to a greater extent (3). Research has shown that turning the toes out more than 30-degree is less effective (2). For this reason, you should perform barbell squats with your feet turned out anywhere from 10-30 degrees. Always use a position that is most comfortable for your body. Remember, no two squats will look exactly the same. It’s normal and expected for you and your friend to have different squat stances while lifting the barbell.
The argument is simple. I believe many should have the capability to perform a bodyweight squat with the toes relatively straightforward. If you cannot, more than likely there are some things you need to work on. I recommend turning your toes out when you squat with a barbell for optimal performance.
This is the difference between training and screening. Screening should point out and illuminate limitations in how we move. Training should reinforce and strengthen our current movement capabilities. When coaching athletes, it’s your job to know the difference between screening and training.
Until next time,
1) Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, and Corrective Strategies.Gray Cook, editor. On Target Publications: Santa Cruz, California, U.S.A.2010