For those of you just joining us, allow me to restate the premise of this series: Anything and everything you do within the front, back, and overhead squat will either negatively or positively affect your Olympic lifts. Specifically, where you put your feet when you squat is training for where they’ll go on the reception side of snatches and cleans.

I wanted to present some bonus content from Dr. Horschig on the importance of having a solid foundation, and how you can understand, strengthen, and maintain it by applying what is known as a “tripod” foot. From here there is quite a bit more of the squat we will be dissecting, but experimenting with your stance and working toward developing a “tripod foot” (and maintaining it as much as possible throughout the squat) is a step you can take NOW. This will give you a “head start” so to speak and assist in your execution of those portions of the squat that are to follow. To help you with this experimentation process, we’ll leave you with a sequence that you can use as a routine warm up to practice creating and maintaining a tripod foot, and we’ll discuss the benefits of exaggeration – all with the goal of progressing the width and orientation of your stance toward the “gold standard.” (Keep in mind that we still need to cover mobility to determine how you can best move forward on a more individual basis, but the mobility drills included here for an intended purpose also address common areas of deficiency.)

Doctor’s Note:
Beyond your squat stance and toe-out angle, we need to discuss the stability of each foot. Often we lace up a pair of weightlifting shoes, set our stance, and squat. But if we could see through your shoes when squatting, what would your feet look like?

The foot itself is an extremely mobile structure. There are over 25 bones spread across four different joints, which allows for a ton of movement! However, the second we attempt to lift a barbell, we want our mobile foot to be instantaneously stable.

In order to create a stable foot, let’s use a simple analogy: Your foot is like a three-wheeled motorcycle. Ideally we want to see a small arch in the foot, the big toe jammed down, and the entire foot actively grabbing the ground. If we looked on the underside of the foot, your bodyweight would be evenly spread across three points of contact: the heel, base of the 1st toe and base of the 5th toe. Our goal when lifting should be to distribute our bodyweight evenly across these three points of contact, just like the three wheels of a motorcycle. If all of the wheels are in contact with the ground we get more power. If one wheel is off the ground, or if the body bottoms out, power is lost and the motorcycle breaks down. In essence, when we lose contact with any part of the tripod, our body loses vital stability and the efficiency of our lifting technique declines.

Maintaining stability during a dynamic movement like the clean, snatch, or squat is not as simple as it sounds. When we look at the main arch of our foot, we notice that it moves in relation to the rest of our lower body: If the ankles, knees, and hips bow outward, the entire foot moves into a full arched position. When the ankle, knees and hips fall inward, the foot subsequently collapses and the arch flattens out.

Once you can understand this connection to preserve sufficient foot stability, your body will naturally start to assume better positions because it is now moving from a more firm platform. In doing so, you will not only improve technique, but also give yourself the potential to improve performance.

Dr. Horschig


Before executing the sequence, I need you to understand the necessity and acceptability of EXAGGERATION; specifically in this context, in where you are putting your feet. The “necessity” part is solidified by the understanding that it requires better overall mobility to squat in an exaggerated foot position, therefore doing so would help DEVELOP overall mobility. Squats with varying or exaggerated foot positions can be looked at as drills or “squat therapy.” Initially, I’m going to ask everyone to place their feet straight ahead (0-degree turnout of the toes) and right at shoulder width through all reps within the sequence. Eventually you can build on this starting point by doing further variations and being more aggressive with exaggeration (for example I do some of my reps with toes turned in, some in more of a sumo stance, etc.)

But, what if with the information/tests from the last blog post you were able to confirm that your hips are outside of what is considered “normal,” and/or if this exaggeration hinders your quality or depth? How acceptable are these exaggerated positions?

Let’s assume that my hips are of “normal” shape. Part of my daily warm up is performing a squat sequence, similar to what we are recommending for you, with most of the reps with my toes turned in 5-10 degrees AND barefoot which increases difficulty/exaggeration and therefore benefit. (I also perform some of those reps with varying widened and turned out positions, some out to as much as a “sumo” deadlift stance. Note: this is not something I recommend for everyone, at least initially, as many athletes are already using a stance that is excessively wide and turned out so they need to work on stances that are in closer.) Once I get to my weighted squats, I’ll continue to vary my foot position and typically leave my shoes off for the first 2-3 sets (as I build up in weight), and then finish out with my “normal” stance with weightlifting shoes from there.

(I want to emphasize the exaggeration is only happening with bodyweight up to no more than light loads – or medium for advanced lifters; I have developed the ability to lift heavier with some of these exaggerated positions.)

I walk you through this to demonstrate that though the anatomy of my hips would certainly not indicate that I should squat with toes turned in, not only is it ok to do so, it has been extremely beneficial to me (and many others I have experimented with and observed through many years). In the immediate, the remainder of my workout simply feels better, and in the long term I’ve become more comfortable while solidifying depth and quality in these exaggerated positions. This means that when I squat with my normal stance, quality depth is going to come with greater ease, and solidity within that extreme depth will be undoubtable. By training in exaggerated foot positions, you improve the odds of an ideal default position of your body within the reception of a snatch or clean.

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No matter your anatomy, you can always exaggerate.  For someone with “normal” hips/anatomy who has been squatting with a 45-degree turn out, I’d suggest a “rip the bandaid” approach and jump in with the feet at 0 degrees as much as possible through the warm up sequence, and 15-30 degrees on their weighted squat workout. An eventual progression would be some warm ups with toes turned in, and then to use a 5-degree turnout of the toes on their weighted squats. But if the anatomy tests tell you that you might be more suited for a greater turnout of the toes, then simply be less aggressive with your initial exaggerations (considering that your ultimate aiming point might be a 15-degree turnout for your weighted squats instead of 5 degrees). Additionally, the “anatomically challenged” might adjust the speed of progression. For example, turning in more every couple weeks instead of days, and in smaller chunks, i.e., 5 degrees at a time instead of immediately experimenting with straight. All that being said, I do believe most won’t need that much conservation.

If this strict foot position is hindering your depth and quality (i.e., rounded back, “butt-wink,” forward torso, etc.), know that SOME of this is ok and likely even NECESSARY as your body tries to figure out new depths and positions (STOP hesitating here). We just don’t want it to be extreme and MOST of your reps should be done with a high standard of quality through complete ranges of motion. It’s important to find the squat variation(s) that you can execute with quality so you can appoint those to yourself in the warm-up sequence. For example, if you can only demonstrate quality inside of a deeper position with one of the variations written in the sample sequence (very commonly that is with heels elevated and holding a plate out front with extended arms), then use mostly only that one for at least a few weeks. Then you can progress into more difficult variations as able. (Also, “mostly” means still allowing slight breaks on a few of your reps with other variations to continually test your boundaries AND as part of the process to help surge you forward.)

Most athletes will be able to find quality with at least one of the variations written in the sample, but in a few cases I’ve had to further experiment, be very creative, and/or get LUCKY to find what I felt was an appropriate starting point for the individual. I once trained an athlete with kyphosis in the upper back (a rounding or curvature in the spine); this was noticeable in his natural standing position and more pronounced in his squat. We were doing mostly elevated-heel squats with a plate out front in warm up, and Frankenstein squats for his weighted work, as he was able to execute these variations with the highest quality. Though he was making progress in his lower body in depth and foot position, it still wasn’t what I felt good about for his upper back. But, one day luck and chance came into play as I observed him performing some overhead squats. Now, we had been doing power snatches but no overhead squats. As I was so focused on fixing his lower body and upper back first, I hadn’t even seen him do an overhead squat, and he wasn’t supposed to be doing them; he was just getting antsy and wanted to try. Before I could make my way over to shut him down and give him a speech on how he was skipping steps, I noticed that in the bottom of the squat with the bar overhead, his upper back was straight and solid! So, his sequence then became full of elevated-heel overhead squats. Sounds miserable (and maybe a little mean, I know), but the experiment certainly paid off as about a month later he was able to do weighted front squats and even high bar back squats with a straighter and more solid upper back! His mobility work was a contributing factor, but by combining it with a lot of quality squat reps, via an appropriate variation, he was teaching his body better positioning. Lesson learned on my part: Look at all possible variations on an individual, especially when the search for quality is not so easy.

Lastly, if this causes you pain, don’t just throw in the towel; simply backtrack a bit, and be less aggressive with the adjustments, and slower to progress. I do want to confirm that though pain is possible, in my experience it is very uncommon. On the contrary, most athletes report feeling better overall through the rest of their workouts (and even throughout their days) in a short amount of time by regularly getting into these exaggerated positions and moving through the drills. Please keep in mind as well that some discomfort within the sequences is to be expected and is necessary to make change.

I recommend making a commitment to do this sequence as a warm up everyday you workout for 4 weeks. At minimum, I recommend 3 times/week, so if you only workout twice on any given week, then do this sequence on a third day. You can adjust as needed, but that initial commitment with a timeframe in mind is very important to motivate, keep you on track, and create routine. Also, let’s do all of this barefoot (all reps of each squat variation AND the mobility drills) as this will give you a better chance to FEEL and learn the “tripod foot.” This is also a good exaggeration in itself outside of your weightlifting shoes (even though we’ll still be using plates to elevate your heels on some of your reps), and the ankle stretch in particular will be more beneficial.

Additionally, remember to EXAGGERATE your foot position here as previously discussed. For most of you we’ll go with positioning your feet straight ahead and shoulder width on all reps (meaning 0 degrees or NO turnout). For those of you with identified anatomical challenges, this means pushing yourself and turning in and narrowing at least slightly from where you normally are (and remember to progress in even further as able). For reference/reminder, see the toe out examples below to help identify where you’re at, and to guide you toward exaggeration.

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Finally, implement the tripod foot as part of your setup before each squat rep (the “lock and twist” action shown above will help you achieve this). Again this will help you create and maintain the stable tripod foot for a more pronounced arch, better knee positioning (especially for those that have trouble pushing the knees out sufficiently), depth, and overall quality.

Squat Warm Up Sequence
Summarized Instruction: Perform barefoot, with exaggerated foot position, and with “lock and twist” action to create/feel/maintain the tripod base on each foot.

  1. Air Squat w/Elevation (Demo here) – 10 reps with 3 second pause in bottom/rep
  2. Bent Knee Ankle Rocks (Demo here) – 10 reps + 10 second hold on last rep/side
  3. Bottom Squat Hold w/support (Demo here) – 30 seconds total
  4. Internal Hip Push (Demo here) – 10 reps + 10 second hold on last rep/side
  5. Extended Plate Squat w/Elevation into Overhead Stretch (Demo here) – 10 reps with 3 second pause in bottom/rep
  6. Bent Knee Ankle Rocks (Demo here) – 10 reps + 10 second hold on last rep/side
  7. Bottom Squat Hold w/support (Demo here) – 30 seconds total
  8. Internal Hip Push (Demo here) – 10 reps + 10 second hold on last rep/side
  9. Extended Plate Squat into Overhead Stretch (no elevation) (Demo here) – 10 reps with 3 second pause in bottom/rep

Now, time to get to work, make this warm up a part of your routine, learn to squat and move with a stronger and more supportive base, EXAGGERATE, and make positive change!

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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