Squats: Toes Forward or Toes Out?

by Larry Pastor | January 9, 2013 12:01 am

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There is no question that squatting is fundamental for any athlete or healthy person in general. But as we each strive to squat well and with better overall body position (Remember? You used to do that when you were a toddler), the question of a proper squat foot angle becomes an important performance point to address… thoughtfully, as always.

Toes Forward Creates Torque

Did you know? If you can’t watch MobilityWOD[2] at the box, hang up these helpful mWOD posters[3] as a resource.
If you’ve been keeping up with MobilityWOD[4] on a regular basis, you may have seen the episode below, in which Kelly Starrett[5] addresses squatting with the feet turned out. Here K-Starr talks about foot position and its effect on an athlete’s ability to keep his/her knees out. By turning your feet out past a certain angle, the athlete loses the ability to create torque through external rotation of the hips. He demonstrates this with his athlete, Oly lifting coach Diane Fu[6]:
By losing the ability to generate this torque, the knees are more vulnerable to “the valgus forces created by the body.” K-Starr goes into this subject more in depth in this episode of MobilityWOD[7]:
So the take-home message from these videos is that one should aim for squatting with toes forward instead of toes out. But how does this general rule apply to athletes who don’t currently have the required hip or ankle mobility to perform such a squat? Below are some thoughts by Justin Lascek[8] from 70′s Big.[9]

Cuing Athletes Properly

If you don’t currently have the mobility to do so, then no, you shouldn’t try to alter your toe angle.
In this brief video, Justin discusses the perils of forcing an athlete to squat with toes forward when s/he lacks the mobility to do so, as well as allowing an athlete to go to the opposite extreme with toes pointed out too wide: both of these will only reinforce poor mechanics.

Should I point my toes forward?

Prematurely adjusting to a “forward toe angle” stance could have a range of negative consequences… Instead, develop your trainee so that they are able to handle the new mobility demands by improving their mobility over time.
The answer, as always, depends on the individual. If you don’t currently have the mobility to do so, then no, you shouldn’t try to alter your toe angle. If a person with “poor” mobility — in that they don’t have the capability to achieve proper positioning with the toes angled more forward of their current toe angle — attempts to squat this way, then at best they will facilitate poor mechanics and at worst could experience an injury. The poor mechanics could simply result in the inside of the foot being lifted from the ground, thus reducing the stability and force applied at the foot. The potential injury could be due to undue torsion at the knee if the ankles, knees, hips, and everything in between don’t have acceptable mobility. The message should be clear: don’t jump into it if you lack the mobility.

A corollary is to not cue someone to put their toes forward when they lack the necessary mobility. If you don’t know if they have the mobility, then reconsider your role or job as their coach. If you accept the consequences in the previous paragraph, then prematurely adjusting to a “forward toe angle” stance could have a range of negative consequences. Don’t blindly cue because you read something on the internet. Instead, develop your trainee so that they are able to handle the new mobility demands by improving their mobility over time….

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Regardless of squat technique, the excessive outward angle of the toes limits the force distribution across the thighs and usually focuses the majority of the force on a single area.
The contrast to the above coaching sentiment is that you shouldn’t cue excessively wide toe angles either…. A wide stance facilitates navicular drop (AKA dropping the foot arch), a position that results in the knee shifting medially and results in undue stress on the medial aspect of the knee — even with the knees shoved out. Excessive outward toe angles (those closer to 45 degrees) also make it hard to sit back with the hips properly in a low bar squat; this reduces tension on the hamstrings and places a lot of stress on the adductors (which would obviously result in lots of groin soreness). In the high bar, clean, or snatch, excessive outward toe angle typically results in a lot of torsion on the knee’s connective tissue (since the knees will typically track inward on the ascent) and places the majority of the stress on the medial knee extensors. This may be fine or desirable for competitive weightlifters, but not for general strength or fitness trainees. Regardless of squat technique, the excessive outward angle of the toes limits the force distribution across the thighs and usually focuses the majority of the force on a single area.

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Justin further explains that although a 30-degree toe angle is still wide, it is the max width he allows for his athletes, even for those with poor mobility. So how do you help those athletes progress?

MobilityWOD[12] users and 70′s Big[13] readers always echo that they finally “feel” certain muscle groupings in basic lifts like the squat or deadlift after properly mobilizing the related structures. If structures are tight, sticky, or not fluid, they won’t be able to work through the full ROM properly and getting them to this point is an epiphany. Part of a coach’s job should be to develop the trainee towards “optimal mobility” by chronically improving their current mobility.

“Does foot angle really matter?”

Yes. While that does not mean that you can fix your foot angle overnight, every small improvement is worth the effort. Why?

If there is only an arbitrary 2% difference in mechanics due to the toe angle change, and we consider that 2% difference over 1,000 reps, then, yes, I think it matters. It could chronically train the hamstrings or quads more fully.
Efficacy in applying force. Safety from injury. Tighter and more stable positioning. It all reflects back to improved performance and safety. But what if you can only improve marginally from where you are now? If you have a toe angle, say, of 22.5 degrees, and you squat with good, neutral ankles and appropriately track your knees, then altering your toe angle may only have a minimal or subtle effect. However, I’m of the opinion that training should be conducted as efficiently as possible, so the subtlety matters. If there is only an arbitrary 2% difference in mechanics due to the toe angle change, and we consider that 2% difference over 1,000 reps, then, yes, I think it matters. It could chronically train the hamstrings or quads more fully. If there’s even a small potential for improvement, avoiding the “more forward toe angle” just because you don’t think it’s going to have a significant effect is just laziness and belligerence….

Remember that the focus isn’t on a “forward toe angle”; this is why I laboriously write “more forward toe angle”. The innermost toe angle will probably be about 10 degrees from “forward.”

Mobilize to Achieve a “More Forward Toe Angle”

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By improving your mobility, even marginally, you can and will improve how effective your squat is.
On the one hand, as Coach Glassman has said, at some point you have to “just squat.” And on the other hand, the never-ending chase for virtuosity means that we should keep working on all of the details of having a beautiful, full ROM squat, including proper foot angle.

If your mobility is poor, then you shouldn’t try to jump into what would be the “optimal” position for people with good mobility. Instead, use the best toe angle you can and always work to improve your mobility. The end result will be an improvement in force distribution throughout the relevant musculature and tighter, safer, and more effective positions. Avoid excessively wide toe angles, especially those that are 30 degrees or greater. By improving your mobility, even marginally, you can and will improve how effective your squat is. This will pay dividends in your training.

And a necessary post-script from Justin’s original post:

…all of this discussion is dependent on the lifter/trainee wearing weightlifting shoes. If they aren’t, then it’s a moot point because their mechanics will not be optimal anyway.

While you should not stop striving to squat well sans Oly shoes[15], do keep that final point in mind as you progress toward an ideal squat.

Justin Lascek[16] originally posted “Should I point my toes forward?” [17]on ‘70s Big[18] on March 21, 2012. Read the full article here.[19]

Tags: MobiliyWOD[20], Kelly Starrett[21], Diane Fu[6], San Francisco CrossFit[22], Justin Lascek[16], 70′s Big[23], Olympic weightlifting shoes[24]
Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://www.tabatatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/article_590_ll4.jpg
  2. MobilityWOD: http://www.mobilitywod.com
  3. mWOD posters: http://www.roguefitness.com/mobilitywod-positioning-posters.php
  4. MobilityWOD: http://www.mobilitywod.com/
  5. Kelly Starrett: http://www.mobilitywod.com/about
  6. Diane Fu: http://sanfranciscocrossfit.com/staff/diane-fu/
  7. this episode of MobilityWOD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inKpTU_TFrU
  8. some thoughts by Justin Lascek: http://70sbig.com/blog/2012/03/should-i-point-my-toes-forward/
  9. 70′s Big.: http://www.70sbig.com
  10. [Image]: http://www.tabatatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/article_590_fs8.jpg
  11. [Image]: http://www.tabatatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/article_590_75.jpg
  12. MobilityWOD: http://mobilitywod.com
  13. 70′s Big: http://70sbig.com
  14. [Image]: http://www.tabatatimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/article_590_96.jpg
  15. Oly shoes: http://www.tabatatimes.com/why-weightlifting-shoes/
  16. Justin Lascek: https://twitter.com/70sBig
  17. “Should I point my toes forward?” : http://70sbig.com/blog/2012/03/should-i-point-my-toes-forward/
  18. 70s Big: http://70sbig.com/
  19. here.: http://70sbig.com/blog/2012/03/should-i-point-my-toes-forward/
  20. MobiliyWOD: http://mobilitywod.com
  21. Kelly Starrett: http://sanfranciscocrossfit.com/staff/kelly-starrett/
  22. San Francisco CrossFit: http://sanfranciscocrossfit.com/
  23. 70′s Big: http://70sbig.com/
  24. Olympic weightlifting shoes: http://www.tabatatimes.com/why-weightlifting-shoes/

Source URL: http://www.tabatatimes.com/squats-toes-forward-or-toes-out-2/