The full range of motion, upright squat (front squat, high-bar back squat, and overhead squat) is a powerful assistant exercise for the benefit of your Olympic lifts; specifically it is preparation for your snatch and clean reception. It is worth repeating: anything and everything you do or do not do in the squat will either negatively or positively affect your goals and your ideal execution within the snatch and clean (the jerk as well). If you want to receive the bar as shown with the heavy cleans in Figures 1.1 and 1.2, then it doesn’t really make sense to perform ALL of your squat reps as shown in Figures 2.1 and 2.2. The partial range of motion, compensated positions, and overall poor quality demonstrated in Figure 2.1, and/or the width and turnout of the feet in Figure 2.2, will not teach you to receive a clean with the foot position, range of motion, and overall quality of Figures 1.1 and 1.2. If you’re continually allowing faulty patterns and not maintaining a full range of motion standard on your squats, your body will not magically do anything differently in your snatches and cleans. (Perhaps give yourself a moment to make that connection, and then accept it). Norman Vincent Peale said, Repetition of the same thought or physical action develops into a habit which, repeated frequently enough, becomes an automatic reflex.” (For more on the power of repetition, check out this article.)

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Remember, when you are pulling under a bar you have far less control and ability to focus in regards to where you want your body to go (especially the feet) than when you are squatting from the rack. That said, we want to train an automatic reaction from the body with the squat for the snatch and clean receptions. We want our body to “default” to ideal positioning in the heat of heavy loads (any loads really): immaculate quality inside of extreme depth, maintaining a stable width and orientation of the feet, with an excessive amount of strength. If any one of those standards are compromised – and therefore contributing to compensation, hesitation, and lack of performance within the reception – it should be seen as not good enough if one truly wants to be the best they can be at the Olympic lifts. (And by best, I mean in regards to technique, movement, quality, effectiveness, load, consistency, performance, and – most importantly in my opinion – health and longevity!)

First, let’s zero in on the feet. As the very first part of the squat, foot position deserves great attention. Your feet are your BASE for goodness sake, and can either be source of stability and support, or a location of great deficiency that bleeds compensation throughout your body. Foot position in the squat is seemingly more and more controversial; my goal is to make sense out of some of those daunting details and learn how we can best CONTROL the feet for the best benefit of your Olympic lifts (which for many athletes seem to have quite the mind of their own when dropping under a snatch and clean). So, “On Your Marks” everyone!  

Recommended Squat Stance
For an upright, deep squat, the wider your feet beyond the hips/shoulders, the less potential range of motion you’ll be able to tap into. For many, initially going wider might allow more depth, but the POTENTIAL depth is ultimately limited in this position. Think about doing a sumo deadlift where the feet are placed well outside the shoulders, with a 45-degree turnout; you can very much feel the blockage of depth as you bend to grab the bar and lock in (give it a try). Though this sumo stance can be a strong position for many athletes, if one were to aggressively jump into this sumo position with bar/load landing overhead (snatch) or the front rack (clean), the arches will likely collapse, knees will cave in, and the back will lose solidity within that deep, upright position they are hoping to create. (Take a second to imagine your body fulfilling this big “jumping jack” motion… #fail)! On the other hand (or maybe we should say foot), you would also have a tough time descending with the feet set inside of the hips/shoulders. (Though you want the mobility and strength to allow for extreme depth and quality with the feet touching – this is a great test and expression of mobility; a “stupid weightlifter trick” if you will – it will never be as realistic, strong, or usable.)

We can apply the “Goldilocks Principle” here to identify a width and turnout of the feet that is somewhere in between. The “just right” foot position I’m going to recommend is about shoulder-width apart with a slight turnout of the toes.

  • “Shoulder-width” means the outside of each shoulder is aligned to the outside of each foot; “about” means up to an inch outside of each.
  • A “slight turnout” means 5-15 degrees.*
  • “Of the toes” means using the line of the inside of your foot to gauge the appropriate angle.

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*As a coach and athlete I’m very aggressive here and relentlessly push for quality and consistency with a 5-degree turnout. I believe this is the strongest foot and leg position for the squat, and again, this will lend to a better chance for less turnout in the snatch and clean reception. To accomplish this, and develop a stronger foot, applying exaggeration here within warm ups is an effective and even necessary process (i.e., toes straight ahead, or 0-degree turnout, and/or even turned in slightly; we’ll touch much more on this specific method later).

Before you freak out and stop reading, UNDERSTAND that for many athletes, this will be a goal to work toward (rather than use immediately) and REMEMBER that to squat in this way means teaching your body to abide by this standard in the snatch/clean reception as much as possible.

Far too many athletes, coaches, and professionals in the community quickly adjust to a foot position for the squat that might accommodate one’s needs better in the moment (or even continually), but would lend to a less than ideal carryover to the snatch and clean. We all have different amounts of mobility in our joints, flexibility in different parts of our bodies, strengths/weaknesses, body types/limb length proportions, etc. Because of this, it can sound reasonable to hear, “given the length of your femurs, let’s put your feet 5 inches outside of shoulder width, with a 45-degree turnout of the toes, and stop at parallel” (Hey, what a great SUMO set up!) Ok, perhaps that’s an excessive example, but not too far off from a stance I’ve seen many athletes use for their squats (athletes who are pushing and hoping to be better at the Olympic lifts). This can be problematic for one to repeat, even if it feels best or strongest in the moment.

With such a strict standard, and all the confusion associated with foot position in the squat, I think it’s important to get another perspective, and no one better to turn to for this than Doctor Aaron Horschig of Squat University:

Doctor’s Note:
Why are some athletes comfortable squatting with their toes relatively straight forward, while others need to turn them out to the side? In the same way why do some athletes squat better with a narrow stance, while others prefer a relatively wider stance? This is not only due to potential
mobility restrictions, in many cases it comes down to anatomy.

The anatomy in textbooks would tell us that most of our hips have a socket that opens up at a slight angle forward – however, upwards of 40% of people have sockets that open more forward or more flat to the side. Also, if we look at the femur bone, it usually attaches at a small angle to the pelvis, while some have a femur that is twisted inward or outwards.

What this means is there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to squatting. It’s normal to see a LITTLE variation (key word “little”). If you are currently unable to perform the squat close to the ideal pattern Chad is referring to, it means we need to dive deeper to see if your limitation comes from mobility, anatomy, or a combination of the two.

Later, we will show you how to screen your mobility and anatomy. Those of you who uncover restrictions in mobility will then be shown corrective exercises that will improve your squat. For those of you who find limitations in anatomy to be a major factor of your foot position (as well as the depth and overall quality of your squat), it doesn’t mean you should just hang up your weightlifting shoes and quit trying all together. You only need to understand what works for your body and make the right adjustments in order to reach your potential and stay pain free. Until then, click here for a head start on some of the information and tools to come.

Doctor Horschig

So what does this mean from my bias for an unrelenting shoulder-width, straight-feet standard? Perhaps there could be a little more leniency, but remember, where we put our feet in the squat is our opportunity to show our feet where we want them to go in the reception of a snatch and clean. One thing that I get asked for advice on all the time, even from athletes that I’ve worked with before is, “How do I keep my feet from jumping out and turning out so much when I receive my snatches and cleans?” Yup, you guessed it, 100% of the time, they are STILL squatting with their feet well outside of the shoulders, and/or toes turned out beyond 15 degrees (and/or sometimes not even maintaining a full range of motion) on every single squat rep. So, my question back to them is, “How can you expect anything different?”

With all of the information and tools available to optimize mobility and anatomy, I want to challenge the concept and application of individualization. Instead of fiddling with random individualized squat stances/positions that might feel better for your squat in the moment, I challenge you to focus your efforts on developing the ability to execute (what I’d like to call) the “gold standard” of squat stances for the benefit of your Olympic lifts.

My ultimate goal is to get you as close to the recommended position (and movements) as possible. Instead of individualizing your stance, I’ll be encouraging you to individualize the mobility and drills you’ll use. Many athletes will need specific mobility work over a long period of time (perhaps continually), but please don’t let that scare you away. Often just solidifying an individualized warm up as part of your routine can make a big difference for most athletes. I won’t sugar-coat: this takes time and dedication; you must work toward this for however long it takes, or limit your potential.

Limitations due to mobility may come and go. At one point in my career, I’d reduced my training to an average of 2-3 times/week, and I was working from home sitting at a computer for 5-7 hours/day. After some time I noticed my body was tightening in a few areas – one of which was my internal hip rotation. I noticed my feet were jumping out wider than normal during my snatches and cleans, AND I was having a recurring low back tweak on my right side. Finally, I gave in and got a complete assessment to confirm any potential issues. Once I discovered my internal hip rotation was almost completely blocked, I simply put work in that area inside of my daily warm up. My low back pain almost immediately ceased and has not been back in the three years since. Additionally, my feet started to behave closer to the way they once had (not jumping out as wide); I had found once again better CONTROL of my feet!

If your limitation or adjustment from the recommended is due to your anatomy, then as Dr. Horschig indicated, PLEASE don’t just throw in the towel. You can and will achieve your best possible foot position, regardless of any perceived anatomical limitation. (If you are spitting this out on a daily basis as justification for a less-than-ideal position, then I hope you are certain about the diagnosis. I feel issues like valgus, quad dominance, and lack of glute activation are “diagnoses” people are given that keep them in a “corrective exercise limbo” constantly trying to fix a problem. While these are all real problems, we need to find a way to get past the “corrective exercise” stage and work with a barbell if we ever want to find lasting changes. I was born with a clubfoot. I had surgery shortly after I was born to straighten my right foot, then wore a cast for the first year of my life. My calf is about half the size of the other, and even more “detrimental” to weightlifting, I have less ankle flexion on that one side. I also lack extension and strength. This is a true anatomical block; my right foot will never match the other side completely. When I first started, my right shin was very close to vertical in the bottom of my squat/reception of the lifts. In my heaviest receptions my left foot would jump back leaving my right foot in front compensating for the out of balance range of motion; it still does to an extent. But, in my training I began to zero in and do extra strength and mobility work on that right ankle. It was aggressive, frequent, and consistent. I changed my ability in that right leg and increased my overall potential! When I began coaching and started learning so much more; I was able to find even a little more range of motion. At this moment – at the age of 38 – it is better than ever! But, understand I will have to work on this FOREVER to maintain what I’ve gained; many of you will likely have to do the same.

Before we talk about what the rest of the body (up from the feet) should be doing within this concept of “Squatting Like an Olympic Lifter,” in the next post we’ll be providing you with some bonus content on foot position which will include information on ensuring a stable foot (the creation and use of a “tripod” foot) and a sample squat warm-up sequence that you can implement into your routine to experiment with, change, and develop a stance of greater potential while we continue to make our way through the topic. In the meantime, to add to the questions I left you with at the end of the last blog post: What is your default receiving position? What are you currently telling your feet to do through where you are putting them in your squat set up? What compensations are you allowing and/or setting yourself up for?

Until next time,

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Chad Vaughn,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
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With

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Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW
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