This article describes the effects of varying foot positions on muscle stimulation and activation during barbell squats, as well as the ideal foot position and stance based on an individual’s biomechanics. This article is designed for more serious bodybuilders and powerlifters looking to maximise the development of their lower limbs or looking to increase their strength and power in this exercise. For less serious or non-elite athletes, the following techniques that are discussed should be used with great caution as their benefits will not outweigh the risk of injury that may occur with poor form.
Conventional Foot Positioning & Barbell Squats
Barbell squats are a great compound exercise for the lower body and, when appropriate for the individual, should be utilised in a bodybuilding and/or powerlifting routine. Barbell squats virtually work all the major muscles of the lower limb to some extent. However, their primarily target is the quadriceps and to some extent the hamstrings and gluteal muscles. Barbell squats are arguably the best exercise for overall leg development. Many professional bodybuilders believe however that varying stances and varying leg, knee and foot positions during barbell squats will allow for selective targeting of specific areas of your leg. Thereby, allowing for further muscular development of the muscles of the thigh and leg that would not normally be targeted during conventional stances/foot positions. During conventional barbell squats foot positioning is normally shoulder width apart with the toes pointed slightly outwards (tibia-fibula unit externally rotated). This is considered to be the most natural and comfortable position for most people to be in when squatting. Everyone will vary to some extent in regards to what feels comfortable to them, but when using this conventional stance, the legs should be externally rotated approximately 30°. While this position is adequate and will provide good stimulation of the muscle fibers worked when doing a normal squat, it is believed that varying the foot position used during squats will help to activate certain muscle fibers to a greater or lesser extent. While this may not be so important for the recreational bodybuilder, for the competitive bodybuilder, for those looking to take their physique to the next level, or for those who want to compete in the future and feel their muscle development needs improving, then varying stances should be used from time to time.
Squat Foot Positioning & Muscular Stimulation
The following points provide a basic understanding on how some small changes to stance and foot position can place different stresses on varying muscle groups and areas. The following points also provide some valuable information you should keep in mind when doing any variation of a squat, regardless of stance and foot position.
- A wider stance (i.e. feet greater than shoulder width apart) will activate more hamstrings and glutes and stimulate the posterior chain muscles (i.e. the muscles at the back of your leg).
- A narrow stance (i.e. feet less than shoulder width apart) will work your quadriceps muscles more than the posterior chain (hamstring/glute) muscles.
- Turning the feet inwards (not beyond straight though) and having your feet less than shoulder width apart will place a greater emphasis on the outer part of the quadriceps (the Vastus Lateralis muscle).
- Conversely, turning the feet outwards (not excessively but greater than what is considered ‘normal’ for that individual) will place a greater emphasis on the inner part of the quadriceps (particularly the Vastus Medialis muscle i.e. the teardrop muscle).
- Turning the feet inwards excessively (beyond straight i.e. medially rotating them beyond 90°) should be avoided as much as possible as it can place increased stress on the knee joint and can easily result in a serious injury.
- The narrower your stance, the more straight (internally rotated) your feet/toes should be pointed.
- The wider your stance the greater your feet/toes should be pointed out (externally rotated).
- When squatting, the majority of weight, approximately 75%, should be placed on the heels, not the forefoot.
Squat Foot Positioning & Stance for Powerlifters
Powerlifters aim to lift as heavy as they can. In most cases they are therefore less interested in muscle development and hypertrophy and more interested in moving the most weight from point A to point B. For powerlifters, the best stance to use during squats is the conventional stance, with a few tweaks. That is, the feet shoulder width (or more commonly slightly greater than shoulder width) apart with the toes pointed outwards approximately 30°. This places most of the major muscles of the lower limb in a mechanical advantage, that is, in their most advantageous position to work at their full capacity. Using a wider than conventional stance is often favoured by powerlifters, as it involves the hip muscles to a greater extent than when using a narrow or conventional stance. More muscle recruitment equals more power and therefore more strength. With a greater than shoulder width stance the toes are often also pointed outwards more than what would be considered normal. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, it feels more natural due to the wide stance. Secondly, it allows more muscular requirement of the inner thigh muscles (the adductors), thereby increasing power and strength (similar to how using a wider stance utilises more hip involvement). Hence it is quite obvious to see why powerlifters use such a wide, open stance in most cases when squatting. Hip inflexibility can sometimes hinder the depth that is able to be achieved when using a wider stance during powerlifter squats. As a result some lifters may prefer to use a narrower stance.
Barbell Squats & Flat Feet
For those who have ‘flat feet’ for whatever reason, it may be beneficial to square the feet a bit more and internally rotate the legs. In most cases this will feel more natural for the flat footed individual. The toes should not be pointed completely straight however as this will increase forward overbalancing and can also place increased stress on the knees. This in turn will activate the quadriceps muscles excessively and will not activate the hamstrings or gluteal muscles enough. This is not a good thing however, even if you are aiming for more quadriceps development, as there are other safer ways the quadriceps can be targeted over the hamstrings and glutes. Furthermore overbalancing forward too much may result in injuries, especially to the lower back.
Barbell Squats & Ankle Inflexibility
Ankle inflexibility can often result in the athletic population due to tightness of the Triceps Surae muscle complex (the calves). Ankle inflexibility can lead to compensations in the foot which are manifested most commonly as flat-footedness. Therefore, the same technique mentioned above for flat-footed people (i.e. internally rotated legs/feet during barbell squats) should be used for those individuals who have some ankle inflexibility. Ankle inflexibility is very common in both the male and female population, regardless of whether they are athletic or not. These individuals will find they cannot get enough range of motion during squatting unless their feet are pointed greater than 30° externally. Again care should be taken not to internally rotate the legs too much and point the toes inward excessively. Individuals with ankle inflexibility should instigate a stretching regime for their lower limbs in general as over time this will benefit their squatting technique.
What's the Correct Stance for Squatting?
While this article has outlined a number of different foot positions that can be used during barbell squats, there is no one stance and foot position that is really better than another. It really comes down to what feels natural for you. With that being said, carefully experiment with different stances and foot positions to find what works best and what is most comfortable for you and to determine what positions target what muscle fibers or muscle groups. Once again, varying your stance during barbell squats can lead to injury, especially when lifting heavy. Thus, the techniques outlined above should always be approached carefully and discontinued if they cause any pain or discomfort. If you have any knee problems especially then you should only try varying foot positions and stances cautiously as some positions may increase the stress on the knees.