I received quite a bit of feedback in response to my last post and felt compelled to write a follow up.
When squatting as an assistant exercise to your Olympic lifts, I recommend the strict foot position of “about shoulder width apart with a slight turnout of the toes” (i.e., the outside of each foot right at the edge of each shoulder or up to an inch beyond, and 5-15 degree turnout). I put forth this “gold standard” for best carryover to the reception of the snatch and clean, and I believe everyone should/can work to get as close to this standard as possible, REGARDLESS OF ANATOMY.
What?!…Yes, I said it, and I understand that “regardless of anatomy” is perhaps a bold statement, but bear with me. I AM NOT dismissing or debating the fact there can be anatomical variations in the human body that may affect one’s ability to squat (especially in the way that I’m recommending). On the contrary, I want to work WITH this fact, and as always I have Dr. Aaron Horschig of Squat University here to help me do so! My goal is to explain the benefits of such a stance, and encourage you to believe, as I do, that most athletes can achieve a better foot position than they think or have been told that they can.
Initially, let’s establish that for most athletes, the feet are going to shift when they receive a snatch and clean. This typically occurs in two ways. One, they will move from where they are in the start/pull. Typically, the feet in the start position and up to the point of pulling under the bar are about hip to shoulder-width apart with a 0 to 15-degree turnout of the toes, and then they will leave the floor and return at least slightly wider and more turned out. Most athletes feet will move at this moment in the lift, especially with heavy loads, whether they want them to or not.
Should you come across an athlete of any level NOT moving their feet here, understand that they are either a rare exception (and are hitting all other points without hindrance), OR they still have room for improvement. Learning this action will benefit their lifts by helping them increase power and completeness through extension, allowing for a more solid landing/meeting of the bar, and resulting in a better position to receive in.
The second shift is seen when comparing the stance consistently used in the squat versus where the feet ultimately end up in the reception. That is, the feet land wider and more turned out in the reception of the snatch and clean (usually to a greater extent in the snatch).
As a coach and athlete, the goal is both of these shifts to be as minimal as possible. I notice with myself that when I’m training/squatting less frequently, my shifts are greater. My feet jump out wider, which hinders my depth – not good when I’m trying to get under as much weight as I can (simple math: the lower I can go, the more potential weight I can get under). When I am more consistent in training to optimize movement (i.e., sticking to the gold standard foot position when squatting), both of my shifts are VERY minimal (almost zero!). So not only initial development, but continual maintenance with foot positioning is important and necessary. See the below video for a comparison between a minimal shift with consistent squatting/training versus a greater (more “out of control”) shift with minimal squatting/training.
READER’S CHALLENGE: Open up the Instagram accounts of 10 of your favorite lifters and watch a squat as an isolated exercise: a front squat, back squat, or overhead squat. Then observe a clean and a snatch, and take note of the differences in foot position and depth in each. You’ll likely observe wider, more turned-out feet paired with a deeper position in the clean and snatch compared to their squat in at least a few, if not most, of the athletes you look at. This is where I’m specifically indicating there should be more awareness and consistency.
When we review photos or videos of elites, which athletes simply LOOK better in their receiving position? Is it just me, or do those with their feet more up underneath their bodies seem to be in a stronger, more stable position, AND usually deeper? There is something to be said for appearance in this regard, and I believe we should give a lot of weight to it (pun intended). Even a person who is not familiar with Olympic lifting will say that a lifter using ideal technique “makes it look easy,” or “smooth,” or “effortless,” more so than someone with a rounded back from the floor, bar away from the body throughout, choppy or muscled extension, etc. Same goes for the bottom position of a snatch and clean reception: Which seem to be smoother, less energy consuming, more comfortable? Notice the space between the butt and ankle. The wider the feet, the greater the gap between butt and ankle; with that gap comes less surface to SIT on in the bottom, and change direction against. Also, a larger gap transfers more of the load to the knees, which are typically inside of the toes in a wide, turned-out foot position (ouch!). The more narrow the feet, the smaller the gap, allowing the load to be distributed through a more solid foundation. I’m not trying to bash athletes with more gap here or preach to them that they are wrong or unsafe. (Athletes regularly in these “gapped” positions are training this way so there is preparation and strengthening in that aspect.) But, we can reason that if an athlete is shifting their feet and receiving load in a wider and more turned-out foot position, the more likely there will be compensation up from that point (moreso for the un-trained beginner or novice that will usually display examples of width, turnout, and compensation well beyond what we are seeing from the elites).
As I was looking for examples of the elite that would lend support to my argument to develop one’s reception foot position to a high level, they were harder to find than I thought they would be. But I don’t at all believe this is a result of anatomical variations. On the contrary, I believe this strengthens the idea that more athletes and coaches NEED to be more aware of this connection in their training and preparation to lift the most weight as effectively and efficiently as they can. The importance of the SQUAT as an assistance exercise is being overlooked, and I’m afraid foot position is being adjusted unnecessarily due to perceived anatomical limitations. Unnecessary/unpurposeful foot position (and often, partial range of motion) is accepted as sufficient execution. It upsets me to think athletes and coaches are seeing this lack of quality in execution and allowing it – perhaps for more instant gratification in squat numbers, or simply laziness? Laziness on behalf of the athlete to maintain this standard, or the unwillingness of the coach to speak up? (I can certainly relate to this from a coach’s perspective; I’ve held in what I want to say because the athlete is not accepting the personal responsibility to do it on their own. This is one of the aspects of coaching I most struggle with.)
I honestly believe the variations in the amount of foot shift among the elites is because some of them (just like athletes at any other level), simply lack awareness. For over ten years I’ve observed the squats of the best in the world in the training halls of international competitions, and more recently, on social media as they enthusiastically show off a PR, etc. Many of them are just not making the connection, and I can’t say it enough: How you perform your squats will dictate how you receive your snatches and cleans! From what I’ve consistently seen, less-than-ideal foot position when squatting negatively impacts foot position in reception. NOTE: It also has to do with the depth that they are squatting to. When a squat is not full range of motion, i.e., where their body will be forced to go to when receiving heavy snatches and cleans, you’ll typically see more compensation with the feet (jumping out wider and turning out more within their snatches and cleans). This means that as they snatch and clean heavy, their bodies will sink to depths that they have not molded with their squats, and with a less familiar foot position. I believe that this could be cleaned up and solidified by squatting all the way down with every squat rep they perform. (Believe me, I have a lot to say about squat depth, so be ready for much more on that later!)
The arguments for individualization of squat stance have made “standard” a bad word with comments such as, “there are too many factors involved for there to be a standard.” As expected, I’ve caught some flak through the years for indicating one. But, ANY coach/professional will have some sort of range; my range is just usually smaller. Also, let’s remember that we are talking about squatting for the benefit of the Olympic lifts, not just squatting in general. I can confidently say that this seemingly common sense concept gets lost in the minds of most in the community. It’s worth repeating myself: 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. Training a full range-of-motion squat with a “gold standard” foot position will help control our feet in the part of the snatch and clean that is an uncontrollable reaction. What is so wrong with putting out a “standard” if it lends to greater acknowledgement and awareness that there WILL BE transfer from one movement to the other (whether you realize it or intend for their to be or not)?
The bottom line is, I believe we can respect mobility limitations and anatomical variations and still strive towards the gold standard. All that being said (and off my chest), let’s see what valuable information we can gather from Dr. Horschig’s article linked below.
First of all, congratulations, you have a better idea of how you’re put together. The test mostly gives insight (a general idea; nothing specific or exact) into what one’s toe out preference would be, and less about what the width of your feet should be. Even if you can currently get deeper with feet wider, or feel more comfortable there, it is still limiting your potential depth. No matter what the shape of your hips are, the wider you put your feet outside of underneath the shoulders, the wider your feet shift in a snatch and clean, thus the more you limit your potential.
When talking about differences in anatomy and using “Craig’s Test” to determine who is “textbook normal” and who is not, we must remember that it is only a portion of the information that we should/could obtain. Note that a variety of shapes are still considered “normal,” as none of us is identical. Even if you have an underlying anatomical variation that requires a deviation from the recommendation, many of us have not yet reached our end potential to improve positioning with mobility work. That is, regardless of your individual variation, most people will struggle with the “gold standard” more due to mobility, and less by anatomy. Below is an example from Dr. Horschig of one of the first areas we would check in a mobility screening (and probably the most common issue):
Try this simple screen for ankle mobility: Stand in front of a wall and step one foot behind you to kneel. For the foot closest to the wall, place your big toe 5 inches from the base. Without your heel popping off the ground, try to drive (bend) your knee straight forward as far over your toes as possible. Were you able to touch the wall? If not, you just uncovered a “weak link” in ankle mobility. In my experience, this is by far the most limiting – but modifiable – factor that hinders your ability to achieve full depth squat. In order to maintain your foot position and keep your chest from collapsing over in the deep squat position, the knees must travel forward and even past the toes. Limited ankle mobility stops this forward progression. In order to continue the descent of the squat and keep your chest upright, limited ankle mobility will cause the toes to spin out to the side as a compensation. Therefore, exercises to reduce ankle stiffness/increase mobility such as foam rolling the calf muscles, stretches, and/or banded joint mobilizations (we will discuss in detail later) will bring you one step closer to the ideal squat position.
IF in fact there is an anatomical variation that might lead you away from the “gold standard,” you can certainly accept it as a permanent limitation and allow it to be a neverending excuse as to why you move in certain ways…OR you can treat is as information, motivation, and FIRE to relentlessly pursue your potential in spite of the perceived obstacle. Admittedly, I’ve ignored anatomical variations through the years (my own included); I believe this “so what?” approach might be necessary for one to really realize their potential. I’ve been able to figure out how to move very well (and in regards to foot position, better than most other elites). Due to my desire to be the best I could be in spite of my own deficiency, this specific combination of factors ended up being an extraordinary advantage; it is my belief that you can find advantages through your own circumstances as well.
So, the question is, should we accept our bodies for how they are currently moving, how we feel most comfortable, or even how we are currently lifting our greatest weights? Are you CERTAIN you are limited to a position that someone else put you in, or told you was your ultimate capability? Is it AT ALL possible for you, or even the exampled elites, to to break through some of these patterns and DO BETTER? I think yes, which is why I challenge you to reach for the gold standard.
On a more practical level, from here I’d like you to take a look at where your feet are currently landing in your snatches and cleans, as well as where you are setting them in your squat. How do all of those movements compare in range of motion and quality? If your feet are beyond the above mentioned “gold standard,” can you begin to PROGRESS them in any at all? Can you start working toward your receptions to be of better quality with a more consistent match amongst all your squat positions? (If now you know that an anatomical variation is going to make this harder to achieve, then simply be less aggressive with any initial adjustments, and plan to progress over a longer period of time!) You can combine information from both extreme sides of this topic to move forward and toward your Olympic lifting goals in a very powerful way.
Now back to our regularly-scheduled programming. Next up, we’ll be providing some bonus content on foot position (how to ensure a STABLE foot), and a sample squat warm-up sequence that you can implement into your routine to assist your progress toward a stance of greater potential.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW