The best way to do a squat is to keep your feet pointed straight in front of you. No, wait — you should point your feet slightly outward. Actually, your feet should be shoulder width apart, or no, they should be slightly wider, or maybe narrower. Squat until your knees hit 90 degrees, then push back up. Or perhaps you should squat as low as you can go.
Confused yet? So am I.
I’ve been writing about fitness for almost two decades, and over those years, I’ve heard (and, I’ll be honest, written) a lot of conflicting advice about the proper way to do a squat. Let’s try this again, in 2020.
A squat would seem like such a basic thing. And yet, ideas about the proper way to perform the exercise “seem to be almost like a religion,” says Silvio Lorenzetti, head of the performance sport section at the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport Magglingen. Although a lot of practices in strength training are now evidence-based, in earlier times, Lorenzetti says, “It was the coach’s opinion that was always right.” A really convincing coach could activate a placebo response among athletes — by creating a strong expectation that this program would get results, the athletes would believe that it did.
Practices were built as much on beliefs as on objective evidence, which is why there were multiple schools of thought on what was best. Even today, a lot of fitness advice that’s given is based on the way things have always been done, rather than on scientific evidence.
But conflicting advice about squat technique doesn’t always reflect differences in philosophy. In many cases, the variations arise from contrasting definitions and objectives, says Ryan DeBell, founder of Movement Fix, a program that offers workshops and courses for fitness training. “The reason so many people disagree is that they don’t define squatting the same way or fundamentally agree on what they’re trying to do,” he says.
The best way to execute a squat depends a lot on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Squatting is a natural movement that people around the world do when they’re resting or pooping, and in that case, they might let their knees come together and their butt fall near their ankles. But if you’re doing a squat to try and build leg and back strength, the ideal technique may be a little different. Many instructions for squatting advise against lowering into a position beyond where the knees are bent at 90 degrees, and that might be reasonable advice if the goal is to build leg strength while minimizing strain on the knees, DeBell says.
But Kelly Starrett, a coach, physical therapist, bestselling author, and the founder of San Francisco CrossFit and The Ready State (a fitness training program) is more interested in the squat as a functional movement: How do you squat down to pick something up off the ground? He wants to see people squatting in ways that mirror everyday life. Squatting is one of the first movements that children do, Starrett says. “It’s crazy that it is so controversial.”
In 2018, Lorenzetti and his colleagues published a study in which they measured how different stances and foot positions affected the three-dimensional kinematics of the squat movement. The researchers measured knee angles, range of motion in the hip and knee joints, and joint movements in the hip, knee, and lower back in 42 volunteers as they performed squats in nine different stances and foot positions — ranging from feet close together and toes pointed straight ahead to feet wide apart and rotated 42 degrees outward. Half of the participants were novice squatters, and half were experienced at the exercise.
The results showed that the foot position and the distance between the feet had a big influence on the force loading and motion on the knee and hip. “In the more extreme positions, it’s more difficult to maintain proper leg alignment,” Lorenzetti says. He defines proper leg alignment as when the hip, knee, and feet are aligned in a single two-dimensional plane.
“If you have a problem squatting like that, you’ve never taken a poop in the woods. We’ve created a whole set of arbitrary rules for something that looks good on Instagram.”
Lorenzetti’s research shows that standing with the feet either very narrow or very wide has the potential to strain the body in ways that could cause injury, so he recommends that beginners avoid these stances.
Yet some advice purported to protect against injury isn’t well supported. For instance, I have often heard fitness trainers say that the knee should never move forward beyond the toes during a squat, but Lorenzetti says his research shows that this advice is nonsense. “For most people, it’s safer and smarter to have a natural forward shift of knee,” he says. The rule about not moving the knee beyond the toe comes from a study of three powerlifters in the 1970s. One of the athletes in the study exhibited the greatest sheer force in the knee when it extended the furthest forward, and so the researcher concluded that it was the forward movement that was responsible for that extra force, Lorenzetti says. But that conclusion was based on a single example that doesn’t generalize to the wider population.
A University of Memphis study that examined knee position during barbell squats concluded that “although restricting forward movement of the knees may minimize stress on the knees, it is likely that forces are inappropriately transferred to the hips and low-back region,” and so it may be safer to allow the knees to move slightly past the toes.
The oft-cited notion that it’s dangerous to squat beyond the point where your thighs are parallel to the ground is also ridiculous, Starrett says. “If you have a problem squatting like that, you’ve never taken a poop in the woods. We’ve created a whole set of arbitrary rules for something that looks good on Instagram.” People should be able to squat “ass to ankle,” he says.
Still, human anatomy has some natural variability. The angle and length of the femur’s neck, the hip socket’s orientation, and the depth of the hip socket are just a few factors that can influence someone’s range of motion in the hips during a squat, and these anatomical differences mean there is no one-size-fits-all squat position, DeBell says.
So, what’s the bottom line here? How do I avoid giving more bad advice? In 2020, most experts seem to agree on a few basic principles: Keep your torso as upright as possible (rather than leaning forward and bending at the waist), your knees aligned with your toes, and your feet firm on the ground with your weight as evenly distributed as possible. “Your foot pressure shouldn’t change through the whole squat,” Starrett says.
The precise position of your feet is not the most crucial thing. What’s more important, Lorenzetti says, is that you get used to doing squats in the first place — with your feet placed in a way that feels comfortable. DeBell agrees, saying that if you use the stance that feels the most natural and gives you the greatest depth, there’s really no mechanical reason to think you’d have bad form that would strain your joints in a way that would lead to injury.
Squatting is very safe if you compare it to other fitness activities, Lorenzetti says. What’s really dangerous to your health is being sedentary — in other words, not squatting.