Foot Positions in the Squat

There are many different versions of the “squat” that take demand certain mechanics or take advantage of specific foot positions.
Below is a brainstorm of some things I can think of in terms of why certain positions are used, desired, or should be avoided.

 

Toes Straight
1.  FMS Deep Squat
–This is movement-evaluative squat, not necessarily one that would be be regularly exercised.  If you are actually correcting the squat in the rare occasions of 13 with a 1 on the squat or 19 or 20 with a 1 or 2 on the squat, then again the toes would be straight.  The big piece here in terms of keeping toes straight is to appraise relative hip internal rotation.  It is not a measure of internal rotation per se, but if you can keep your toes straight, the tone of hip flexors and/or stiffness in the posterior capsule is graded by the foot position that would challenge those limitations.  If you can keep toes straight, the Screen suggests that internal rotation is adequate.  However, if toes can stay straight in the 2 position, it does not necessarily mean the issue lies in the hip.  It can still be anything or anywhere.

Toes straight means Toes straight.

2.  Competition Squat
–Louie has talked about this, but I have never actually seen someone employ a powerlifting competition squat with toes straight.  If you can make depth and tension out against a straight foot, in theory, the passive tension of the capsule might give you some “free” stiffness in and out of the hole.  I can never feel it, and inherently, the knees collapse.  It makes sense in terms of the hip stiffness, but I don’t think it’s a viable option especially if you are wider than shoulders, not to mention clipping into FAI in the hole as well.

 

Toes Out
1.  Slacks hip flexors allowing for more relative stability of the pelvis.  As the Rectus Femoris (AIIS) and TFL and Sartorius (ASIS) become toned or even just in their quality resting tension with toes straight, their vector(s) to the fixed point of the lateral calcaneus is to pull the pelvis into an anterior tilt.  This approximation posteriorly, which feels like a hard arch, can likely cut a squat early from negative proprioception in the spine and/or unable to stay big against the anterior weight.  Letting the toes go out, anywhere from 20 degrees to 90 degrees, changes the line of pull of these muscles out of the sagittal plane, thus making the spine easier to centrate in a squatting pattern.

Getting these guys out of the way can make life a lot easier at the moment.

2.  The toes out position puts the ADDuctors on a line of pull that allows them act as sagittal plane hip extenders.  It’s fairly simple biomechanics.  Better line of pull = more force into returning out of the hip hinge.

Kinesiology says I'm a hip ADDuctor. Real life says I'm a hip extender. Winner: Toes Out.

 

3.  Partially for the spinal and hip implications of 1. and 2., slight toes out is not coincidentally the centrated position of the hip joint.  Centration is the position of the joint where there is maximal bony congruency around the joint as well as equal co-contraction of agonists and antagonists.  This anatomical visual is the basis of stereotypical postures in developmental kinesiology and is believed to yield full-body neurological strength and stability.  When 1 joint is “in place,” the rest of the body will ultimately follow.

4.  Please keep in mind that while there are advantages to handling load with toes out, it must be an option to be out there.  A loss of hip internal rotation may allow for force the toes to go out, but if there is a hallowing of the lateral glutes, this is the loss of centration in the hip joint that will also be forced.  The hallowing will be an indication that the deep stabilizers of the hips are not functioning as stabilizers.  This is an example of a high threshold strategy where the global muscles are contracting before the local muscles in the default pattern.  Toes out are okay, but it must be an option and still have the proper postural stereotype.

5.  Retroverted hips make it okay.  This bony structural change is typically a result of position during fetal development or an imbalance during early stages of development.  Retroversion creates a normal centration of the femoral head in the acetabulum, however, it is connected via a femoral neck that leads to a femur that is rotated externally.  Depending on the degree of retroversion, toes straight will be closer to slight toes out for some people.  Others will get to centration with excessive toes out.  The Craig’s Test is one fair measure of retroversion or anteversion.  It is also worth noting that some resources describe ante- and retroversion as the opposite of each other.  These are benign conditions overall, but they do lead us to stop looking to increase hip rotation when it’s a bony reason that’s preventing it.

 

Flat Foot
1.  No arch = less power.  I know a lot of people think they have flat feet, but this can be trained in a number of different ways both through training and manual therapy.  Many years ago, I was chatting with a podiatrist who became increasingly annoying, and I got out of the conversation telling him not to send me anybody with flat feet because after I’m done with them, they won’t need your little orthotics anymore.
The foot should have a tripod base of support via the sesamoid of the big toe, the MT head of the 5th toe, and the lateral heal.  The heel is the rear wheel drive, as Pavel would describe, and the front portion is the front wheel drive.  All wheels interacting with the ground = more more.  If the body of the vehicle is bottomed out on the ground, aka a fallen arch, there is minimized drive.
The arch is obligatory.  There are some people that are structurally flat, but this is terribly rare.  It’s also terrible for your squat or closed chain force production, but you did it to yourself during development.

Patrick Ward showing an example of taking advantage of and driving the short foot.

[youtube_sc url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EQ8q9C00k0″]

2.  Orthotics giving you a stiff post as an arch may work, or it may not work.  If you have an arch in the open-chain, or it can be achieved with passive overpressure mean there is an arch available in that foot.  Training it reflexively with tension and reaction with the floor will bring out that arch and a whole gang of tension and strength into the lift.  If you need orthotics to stay out of pain, that’s a different story, but can they be regressed in their stiffness or maybe use something like Barefoot Science that has a built in regression and forcing the arch via a reaction, not just giving you one like in most orthotics.

3.  The short foot is the ideal centrated posture of the midfoot along with close to zero degrees of dorsiflexion.  However, like other stability positions like packing the neck, bracing the abdominals, or squeezing the glutes, the desired position can be achieved through feed-forward mechanisms or just along the chain of a feed-back mechanism.  It is useful to force the short foot as if holding a melon under your foot, but it is only to gain a “feel” for the position and the tripod.  Ideally the short foot with the arch should be gained naturally without demanding it.  It will actually feel quite different.

On the list of all-time fraudulent exercises like push-up plus and ball squats.

Toes Curled
1.  Make no mistake about it.  In a static position, closed loop environment, curling the toes into gripping the floor will increase tension as we have learned from Pavel and Stuart McGill’s Superstiffness principles.
Toes curled is also a sympathetic reaction to threat.  Toes curled inhibits the ideal tripod as well, and while there is stiffness and tension with toes curled, it is at the expense of multiple mid-foot muscles being inhibited.
My thought is that the toes curled is an e-brake on the system, and while static tension is measured, I think posterior chain is inhibited without the toe pads gaining proprioception and a signal that the body is ready to propel.
I’m sure many a stud will suggest, just like the packed neck message, that they have had “success” with curling the toes despite the logic and soft science I am suggesting, but also like the packed neck, I think curling the toes is an e-brake that is easy to drive through.
Try shortening the foot with toes curled and without toes curled.  There should be an appreciable difference in the activation of the deep foot flexors.  I think this is something we want in attempting to translate force from the ground up through the chain.  Curling the toes limits that with the approximation and alteration of the tripod.
Just something to think about, but I don’t really want to argue.

Funny, she didn't look Druish.

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23 Responses to “Foot Positions in the Squat”

  1. Andreas Hessner says:

    Great article Charlie!

    You talk about hip retroversion. Is it possible to correct this structural change and is there a need for in terms of improving hip internal rotation? could you mobilize the posterior capsule? Your views?

  2. Charlie says:

    Mobilizing the posterior capsule shouldn’t hurt, but if it is a true retroversion, I’m not sure much IR will be gained.

  3. Jason says:

    Charlie – for those of us with X-ray dx of cam impingement, is there any hope of achieving any more internal rotation without surgery. Or do we just have to live with a decreased fms score and be forced in to the toes out squat? You said above that it should be an option, what do we do if it isn’t?

  4. Good morning Charlie,
    I utilize analysis of the squat with all my patients regardless of their complaint. An interesting subset population of my practice includes preprofessional and professional ballet dancers. Almost invariably, these highly trained flexible, strong athletes cannot perform a squat with toes pointed straight or even at 45-60 degrees. However, ask them to do a plie in 2nd position, feet wider than than the shoulders and toes at 90 degrees and they can generally go to a deep “squat.”
    I know I’m writing in generalities here but how would you interpret this data. Is this their normal? Should an attempt be made to improve the toes forward squat directly or indirectly? I don’t prescribe to fix the squat but look to correct AMC where it exists. Squat evaluation is such a useful tool in practice, thanks for your great article and input. It’s deeply appreciated! Mitch

  5. Charlie says:

    Jason – I would spend some time trying to mobilize the soft tissue, but if it doesn’t go after some level of appreciable time, it might be what you get.
    I have to believe that there are thousands of folks that have a CAM but are asymptomatic. Either that or underreported.

  6. Charlie says:

    Mitch – These young ladies have a whole host of fundamental movement physical limitations that can be screened or tested out for,
    The squat is just 1 piece of a full evaluation, so I would not lean too much on it.
    When it is time to address that pattern, these young ladies may have a laundry list of struggles that lead to the presentation you see.

  7. Jason says:

    Charlie – thanks for the response, it was about what I thought. Unfortunately my CAM dx coincides w/ anterior hip pain, not just a asymptomatic dx.

    On another note, I’ve never heard the term “hallowing of the glutes.” Can you explain what that means?

    I’m taking the SFMA class in Chicago in 2 weeks and I am really looking forward to it, seems like you find it to be really helpful in your work, I hope I can integrate as much as you do. You definitely influenced my decision to go to the course.

    Thanks, Jason

  8. Kevin Keast says:

    Bar with me, but I don’t understand the flat foot section. The short foot posture can be consciously used during squats, much like ab bracing. But you said it should be gained naturally? What do you mean by this?

  9. ben says:

    Great article Charlie. You mentioned Barefoot Science. Do you have clients who use this? I read their pdf file, pretty impressive with academic references but is the company still in operation? Also, I can’t seem to locate any mention of research conducted in a UK university although it was claimed in the pdf file that research was conducted in the 1990s…

  10. Charlie says:

    Kevin – During normal loading, particularly dynamic patterns, the short foot should happen naturally. You can try to learn it and feel with the braced pattern, and if you’re not moving like in a squat, you can use it to beat the lift. But I do not think that is the best way to translate to athletic movement like jumping.
    Try bracing your mid-feet and jumping; we want it there to funnel that neural flow elsewhere.

  11. Charlie says:

    ben – Yes, I have had clients use Barefoot Science. I have 2 folks using it right now, so I suspect he bought he not too long ago.

  12. Adrian says:

    Great article Charlie.
    You mentioned hallowing of the lateral glutes is a sign of deep stabilizers of the hips are not functioning correctly. Do you have any suggestions what would be the best way to rectify this common problem.

  13. Charlie – my client has a severely limited Internal hip ROM on the right, which we have been working on but actually having the toes pointing straight forward is not an option at this point. Would you suggest keep working with squats (outward rotated toes, only) until the ROM is no longer pathological, or rather abandon it?

  14. Charlie says:

    Michale – I would really have no idea without more information.

    What is his FMS?
    How has he done with other manual therapists?

  15. ori says:

    Hey Charlie,

    Interesting info. Regarding flat feet, i have read a couple times in your articles that you know a lot of people think they have flat feet, but that it can be trained in a number of different ways both through training and manual therapy.

    Could you possibly expand on the info in the article regarding how to “fix” flat feet, or possibly even do an article on it??

  16. Alex Guillien says:

    What are some exercises to alleviate a flat arch?

  17. Rory says:

    I’d also be very interested in how to cure injury-flattened feet (severe ankle injury and my foot went flat to compensate).

  18. Charlie says:

    Training flat feet is just good training.
    Follow the FMS and demand excellent hip dominant training.

    Everyone is different, but driving the short foot with everything from DLs to upper body reaching can work.

  19. Mike V says:

    Think about contracting abductor hallicus brevis with toes unmoving to strengthen foot intrinsics for a flat arch.

  20. Chad says:

    Thanks for the good read Charlie. Just need some clarification: I am not super familiar with the FMS but do understand the scoring system. Could you clarify what you meant by “occasions of 13 with a 1 on the squat or 19 or 20 with a 1 or 2?” I am particularly interested in what the 13, 19 or 20 signify.

    Thanks

  21. Charlie says:

    13 with a 1 on the squat would mean 2s on everything and a 1 on the squat.
    19 or 20 would be 3s on everything with a 1 or 2 on the squat.

  22. Christian says:

    Charlie – awesome article. Just a note: I’m not sure whether an arch is key to posterior chain engagement or vice versa. I think causality may be reversed there (or, more probably, bidirectional).

    I was diagnosed with Posterior Tibial Tendon Dysfunction by, yep, you guessed it, every Podiatrist I went to. As it happens, nothing is anatomically ‘dysfunctional’ about the tendon (though I do have a “structurally flat” foot because of elongation in the tendon). The problem is undiagnosed gluteal amnesia which led to overpronation and walking on the interior aspect of that tibia (thereby elongating that tendon – didn’t help that I weighed 320 pounds). As I condition the glutes and core, weight distribution changes, proper calf engagement and toe-off become possible, etc. I’m fairly certain I’m seeing arch development, even in that “structurally flat” foot.

    So long as we’re not talking about a *ruptured* tendon, I’d check the glutes before writing ‘em off.

  23. Charlie says:

    Christian-I have seen dozens of NBA players with “flat feet” that could touch the box, so of course it is not obligatory to have no hip power.
    But in talking about the squat and an overall concept of the system, you are proving that you never had flat feet in the first place. And this is a fantastic thing. It just takes time. It can’t be structural if it’s changing.

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