By Dr. Rob Wagner
In 1987 I set my first national record in the squat in the ADFPA (now USAPL). I was competing as a 165 lbs. lifter and needed a 690 lbs. squat to break the old standard. I had planned to take a shot at this record on my third attempt. I had opened around the 630 lbs. mark, took a second around the 70's and then proceeded to the record. Everything seemed fine during the set up. I brought the bar out, steadied myself and waited for the signal. The judge verbalized the signal and dropped his hand and I went into my descent. As I came out of the hole my subconscious suddenly decided that my body was going to attempt a different feat of strength. Much to my surprise I found myself suddenly attempting a world record 690 lbs. good morning. The disappointing part was not only did I miss the Squat but my Good Morning was red lighted as well. The good news was that you could take a fourth attempt on National Records in the ADFPA in 1987. During the brief interlude between attempts, my handlers were able to watch the lift on a camcorder. In reviewing the lift they noticed a flaw in my bar positioning. The bar was resting in its normal spot but with the heavier weight I was getting pulled forward. The adjustment recommended was to place the bar just slightly lower on my upper back. This change resulted in my first National Record.
As I became more active in coaching I discovered how important the interaction of bar position, stance and foot placement. In both the competitive arena and in gyms I have seen many heavy lifts missed due the inability to properly orient the factors just mentioned. Most lifters assume that missing a lift is always a strength problem. They will attempt to remedy the problem by doing more sets and reps or by adding additional exercises. Gradually the technique problem manifests itself into an overtraining problem. At this point the lifter not only has a technique problem but has also encountered a loss of strength due to too much work on the movement. In the first article of this series I proposed some technical advice on how to set up the squat. In this article the technical focus will be on positioning of your stance and foot placement and their involvement with bar placement.
First allow me to define our terminology. I believe the stance and foot placement is an integral factor in performing the squat movement in accordance with the rules of the sport. More specifically your ability to break parallel (the rule in most of the rule books) can be greatly affected by your stance and foot placement. If you look at the squat motion it involves movement in several joints simultaneously. The hip, knee and ankle all move to decrease the joint angle at the knee. The movement of these three joints allows the bar to stay over the foot while performing the lift. Impede the range of motion or flexibility of any of these joints and the ability to reach proper depth or develop maximum force is negated. Stance and foot placement greatly affect several anatomical elements which will allow the muscles involved to exert their greatest forces relative to the squat.
Before discussing the determination of your stance I need to point out some rules you should always follow. The first is to keep the shin as vertical as possible throughout the entire squat movement. The knee should never travel past the toe. If it does you are placing yourself at an injury risk. The second rule is that you always will keep the knee pointed in the same direction as the foot. Don't allow your knees to pinch in during your ascent. The information provided in this article presents general guidelines to better your performance of the lift. These are not the laws of squatting. Take the information provided here and use what works for you.
Stance is the width or distance apart you space your feet. Foot placement is the angular positioning of your feet. Stance and foot placement will effect a couple of important anatomical considerations related to squat performance. The first of these relates to your center of gravity (COG). This is a point at which the mass of the body can be considered to act. It can almost be thought of as a balance point. Action on the COG occurs in a vertical line due to the force of gravity. The barbell also has a center of gravity bCOG and due to its rigid nature the bCOG is fixed and does not move as long as plates are of equal weight and are loaded evenly. The bCOG is always at the center of the barbell. The COG of the human body is different however. It will change as the position of the body changes. When standing with no weight it is usually located internally in the vicinity of the spine and at around waist level. When your body position changes it can move up or down and even outside the body. When a lifter lifts or places a loaded bar on his body you create a combined cCOG. This cCOG will lie along the line that joins the two COG and bCOG. The important point is that the location of the cCOG lies closer to the heavier object (the body and the bar). As the object (bar) increases in weight so does the movement of the cCOG towards the heavier object. The positing of the cCOG will play a role in your balance and force production. The cCOG will need to be in close proximity (vertically) of the foot to help with this. A simple way to look at it is to keep the bar over the foot during the squat because it is almost certain that the cCOG will be in close proximity to the bar (see figure 1). Your stance will greatly affect the positioning of the cCOG and its positioning over your foot during the squat.
The other area affected by stance and foot placement is the flexibility of the hips. Flexibility is defined as the range of motion created around a joint. The greater this range the greater your flexibility. Foot placement and stance individually and combined also has an affect on the positioning of the head of the femur in the acetabulum of the pelvis. By positioning your feet at a certain angles and different widths you can create different ranges of motion around the hip joint.
If you recall in the first article I pointed out the concept of body lean and its importance during the squat. Body lean can be adjusted greatly by making changes in your stance. The farther the hips travel away from the foot (backwards) the more you will have to lean to keep the bar itself and the cCOG over the foot. Positioning the cCOG and bar over the foot will be advantageous to the lifter. An extreme example of not doing this would be the good morning type position I mentioned in the introduction. When you attain this position the area of force production (the hips) and the cCOG and bar are greatly displaced. This puts the load into the low back and glutes and diminishes the force you can generate to move the weight. In the squat, body lean is required in helping to position the bar over your feet. If you can imagine a vertical line between the feet and the bar your goal is to try keep your hips as close to this line as possible. The closer your hips are to this line the greater force you will be able to produce because you will be keeping the bar and the cCOG over the foot. The stance plays a role here since moving the feet in or out can increase or decrease the displacement between the hips and the bar foot line. When you descend into a full squat and your hips are placed at an extreme position behind the bar and foot line you lose a force advantage. Usually if you do complete this lift you will feel it in the low back. In finding stance we should try to position the hips closer to the bar and foot line in the bottom of the squat in order to take advantage of our ability to produce force.
To determine stance look at the proportionality between the upper and lower leg. If your upper leg is shorter than the lower leg your stance can stay on the narrow side (inside shoulder width to 3-5" outside shoulder width of each leg) . If your upper leg is longer than the lower I suggest you assume a wider stance outside the distances mentioned above. Having a shorter upper leg will displace the hips (behind the bar and foot) at a smaller distance relative to your body size even with a narrow stance. On the other hand if you have a longer upper leg a wider stance will decrease the displacement by decreasing the vertical distance the bar and body will travel and this will help in keeping the hips closer to the foot and bar line. The final step in finding your stance is setting your foot placement. The positioning of the feet affects the rotation of your legs. The rotation of the leg will determine the position of the head of the femur (your upper leg bone) in the acetabulum (the socket of the hip joint). The placement you are striving for is the one that allows you the greatest range of motion while you are in your stance. The specific range of motion you are looking for is a legal squat depth. You should be able to break parallel without having to force yourself down. The foot positions can range from straight ahead to a more flared 10 of 2-clock position.
Now that you have read the guidelines of this approach we can know find your stance and foot position. Determine you upper leg : lower leg ratio and start narrow or wide which ever suits you best. If you have the shorter upper thighs start narrow and work outward and for the opposite category start wide and work in. Starting with a 5 to 1 (clock position) foot placement try to squat down with your hands on your head. If you find that your hips bind, try rotating the feet out slightly. If this doesn't work you may need to work the stance out or in respectively. The goal is to achieve below parallel depth and this should be done without having to force it. It may take a little tinkering to find the optimal position. As you go through this process be aware of the amount of body lean that you need to create to get to parallel. In the last article I mentioned torso length and bar positioning. The torso length and body lean should still dictate where you place the bar on your back. Remember to apply the rules of the first article to help when the bar finally goes on your back. A lifter who has a shorter thigh and has the flexibility to achieve depth in a wide stance is the best case scenario. This lifter is taking advantage of the factors mentioned above and reduces the distance the bar will travel overall! The final issue in determining this stance is comfort. Now I look at this in two ways. The first way is to determine that the new stance and foot placement doesn't cause bodily discomfort. This is taking into consideration that a period of time of about four weeks would be allowed for adjustments of flexibility and different anatomical positioning. The other way relates to the lifter’s ability to produce effective drive or force in the new set up. Sometimes what may be a lifter’s best stance may not always be the most effective from a leverage standpoint. This situation usually requires some minor adjustments to stance and foot placement before the lifter feels that he or she can move weight in this new position.
Remember even a minor adjustments can have big impact. The key is to put yourself in the best position possible. Then it is up to you to move the weight. You could be breaking some records of your own if you give some of these guidelines a try. In the next article I will discuss the squat descent and ascent and how to control the body through the movement.