Foot Position in the Squat
The squat seems to be an exercise where opinions on optimal technique are constantly debated. There is so much information that people are confused with what is most beneficial for them. Let me say that no one way is at all times correct. By this I mean that a certain technique may work for 75% of the population but be horrible for the remaining 25%. The recommendations given by most people are geared towards what they believe is best for that 75% so I will do the same. The best way to determine what is best for you is to try it out or better yet get screened.
A question came up at training about foot positioning in the squat, should your feet be neutral or pointed out?
I like to use the feet turned out option. If I had to give it a degree I’d say anywhere from 5-30 degrees. The reason for this is that if you look at most people when they stand or walk, they have their feet pointed out slightly. If you stand up right now and look down at your feet and see where your toes are pointing, I’m guessing they will be about 5-10 degree out, not neutral. To me this says that a natural position to perform the squat is with your toes out.
By turning the feet out I also find my athletes are better able to keep their knees in the correct position while performing the squat. If they have a neutral foot position they tend to collapse inwards much more easily than if they have their feet pointed out and drive their knees out and keep them in line with their toes. By doing this it also takes a lot of pressure off the knee. Many people that promote the feet neutral position talk about creating torque by driving the knees out and screwing the feet into the ground. While I agree that creating some torque can be beneficial, if you do it with a neutral foot position you will find that a lot of that torque is directly transferred to your knee. You can test this out for yourself by doing a body weight squat, one with feet neutral and one with feet out, driving your knees out. Which one feels better?
By turning the feet out you can also lower into the bottom of your squat more easily as it opens up the hip joint a bit more and allows you to drive your knees out further. You will also notice that you can maintain a more upright torso in this position which takes some load off the lower back and if you are catching a snatch you will feel much more comfortable. With the feet neutral you have to drive your knees out to free the head of the femur but as spoken about above I feel this puts undue strain on the knee and you need a lot more mobility to perform a full squat this way.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on mobility if you turn the feet out. Turning the feet out excessively to perform a full squat would just be a quick fix and lead to other issues. But if you have your feet slightly turned out and your ankles don’t collapse in then I don’t have a problem with someone full squatting with the feet turned out.
The next benefit of having the toes pointed out is that you can fire your glutes and external rotators of the hips much harder. You can perform a simple test to try this out. First stand with your feet shoulder width apart and neutral, drive your knees out, and squeeze your butt as hard as possible. You will likely feel a solid contraction in the glutes but also feel tension around the outside of the knee and feel like you are on the outsides of your feet. Now turn your toes out 15 to 30 degrees and do the same thing. This time you feel your glutes and external rotators contract but without the pressure at the knee and you feel like your full foot is in contact with the ground.
Even Kelly Starrett who advocates a neutral foot squat position says in his book “now it’s important to mention that you can turn your feet out slightly – maybe between 15 and 30 degrees – and still generate a sufficient amount of torque”.
At the end of the day if you can perform a full squat in your most natural movement pattern, provided it isn’t massively dysfunctional, I believe this is what will carry over to the field most effectively. Tevin Allen who may have the fastest feet in the world said he actually has a technically incorrect foot position when he makes hard turns. He said that he walks with his feet turned out excessively and this is how he pushes off when changing direction. It’s not perfect technique but it is the most efficient way for him to make turns.
So to recap the benefits I feel you get from squatting with feet out are:
Less torque around the knee
Knees stay in the proper alignment more easily
Can achieve full squat depth by opening up the hips
Can keep the torso more upright taking load off the lower back
Contraction of the glutes and external rotators of the hips