Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Knees Out/Toes Out in the Squat

by Mark Rippetoe | May 10, 2018

squatting with toes out - knees out

One of the most important differences in the squat model we use is the position of the feet on the floor – the stance width and angle. This is discussed extensively on Saturday morning at the Starting Strength Seminar, in astonishingly minute and tedious detail. I'll spare you the pedantry and present a condensed version. But there will be some vocabulary words, to save time. Sorry.

On of the hallmarks of the Starting Strength model is efficiency. We realize that time spent under the bar should be designed to be used as productively as possible. So we design the barbell exercises to 1.) use as much muscle mass as possible, over the 2.) longest effective range of motion, so that 3.) the lifter can use the heaviest weight possible, and therefore 4.) get the best possible strength improvement. A shoulder-width toes-out stance satisfies these 4 criteria, while a narrower or wider toes-forward stance does not.

First, the heels-at-shoulder-width stance works best for most people, and should be the default starting point for teaching the movement, since it has proven itself as the best facilitator of below-parallel depth. Heels closer together causes the thighs to impinge against the gut for most people, and too wide a stance causes the adductors to reach their maximum extensibility before the below-parallel depth is reached.

Second, the toes-out angle – 30-35 degrees for most people – accomplishes three things. First, it gets the thighs out of the way of the gut even better than widening the stance a little by angling the femur away from the hip pointers. This is illustrated in the blue book in Figure 2-43, and you can demonstrate it to yourself by lying on your back and comparing the two positions in hip flexion.

Second, it involves all the muscle mass that externally rotates the femur. When the knees are shoved out as you squat down with your feet on the ground, the knees abduct. Put another way, when you abduct your femurs with your feet on the ground, you have externally rotated the femurs. The two things are inextricably associated, and as a result, when you shove your knees out when you squat you involve all the muscle mass that externally rotates the femurs in the squat – the glutes and all the little Physical Therapy muscles. And the toes-out stance facilitates the knees-out squat.

The knees-out/toes-out squat is also safely performed, because the femurs line up with the feet – thighs and feet must be parallel. If they are not, i.e. the knees cave in (called a “valgus” position) or the knees are actually outside the line of the feet (“varus”), there is a twist or “torsion” in the kinetic chain, either in the knee joint or the ankle, or both. Thighs absolutely parallel to the feet prevents this problem.

toes-forward, knees varus squat

Third, the abducted femur allows the adductor muscle group (the groin muscles) to function as hip extensors by placing them in a position to contract eccentrically on the way down and concentrically on the way up. The adductor group originates on the anterior ischial tuberosity and inserts on the medial femur at various places all the way down to the knee. They cross the hip joint only, and so they extend the hip joint.

If you take a toes-forward stance, the femurs are internally rotated and the adductors are shortened by this position, quite effectively removing their ability to further contract. But if you abduct your femurs, as with toes-out and knees-out, the adductors become very powerful hip extensors, thus helping you start up from the bottom of the squat. In effect, the external rotators enable the adductors to function as hip extensors.

Just-below-parallel depth makes all the hip extensors and the quads stretch out to the extent that they can while retaining the ability to lift the maximum weight. It also is the best place to generate an effective stretch reflex, the “bounce” out of the bottom. Ass-to-grass requires that you relax a bunch of things, which kills the stretch reflex and dramatically reduces the weight you can handle. Just below parallel is the sweet spot, and the toes-out position allows it to happen.

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