How often do you change your stance in your squats?
I’m in the camp of lifters who squat with their toes slightly angled out with their stance roughly wider than shoulder width. This feels natural and comfortable to me, plus, I’m strongest in this position, so it makes up 90-95% of my time squatting. Over the last few months, I’ve been playing around with different stances in search of different benefits.
After a quad rupture during a back squat in February 2017, I realized that there were most likely imbalances that I was missing, and simply not addressing in my legs. After being cleared to back squat again, I started on a quest to explore different squatting variations to help address imbalances and weaknesses. I acknowledged that my hips and legs most likely had issues before the rupture and I needed to pay more attention to knee tracking and mechanics to move forward healthily.
This article isn’t intended to sway you away from your current squat form, or entice you to use a narrower squat stance, but to start a conversation and bring up a few benefits I’ve found with using narrow stance parallel footed squats lightly in a program, along with anecdotal points I’ve learned along the way.
Squat Stance and the Research
When I first started using this squat style more often, the first thought that came to my head was Tom Platz, aka “The Quad Father” on the hack squat machine, and under the bar for that matter. He used to position his feet extremely close and perform the movement for a variety of reasons, one of them being quad hypertrophy. Although, is this logic in accordance with what the research says?
Squat Stance Width
Before moving forward, keep in mind that there needs to be more research done on this topic and the current literature is a little limited. To kick off stance width research, this study from 1999 showed minimal differences in squat stances (75% shoulder width vs. 140% shoulder width) and isolated leg muscle EMG ratings.
Then in a (slightly) more recent 2009 study, researchers analyzed subjects with three different squat stance widths. Researchers had six men with prior lifting experience squat with different widths and these included 100%, 150%, and 200% of greater trochanter distance. They found that none of the thigh muscles were significantly activated in either of the stances, but the gluteus maximus was more active in wider stance squats. Although, they noted that the vastus medialis was slightly higher in the wide stance squat, while the vastus lateralis was a bit more active in narrow squats, yet these were minimal differences.
Foot Position and Joint Angles
What about foot positioning? Similar to stance width, research is a bit limited on this topic. A study from 2013 suggested that EMG ratings in the rectus femoris were minimal during internal, external, and neutral foot positioning. In terms of squat width and pressure on the joints, this study from 2011 suggested that narrow stance squats may increase tensile forces on the knee joint, which makes sense when you consider the increased knee flexion caused by narrow stance squats.
While on the topic of joint flexion, or depth in this case, research has also suggested that full squat depth facilitates greater lower limb EMG ratings. This 2013 study suggested that deep squats elicited the greatest strength and hypertrophy at the knee joint compared to shallow squats. Additionally, this 2002 research suggested that the gluteus maximus was most active in full-depth squats, while the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and biceps femoris remained consistent across all depths assessed.
Although, it’s worth noting that depth isn’t always everything, as this 2016 study found that the vastus lateralis and gluteus maximus activation were greatest at 90 degrees flexion compared to a partial squat, and a full depth squat. Researchers speculated the drop off in the full depth squat could be due to the muscle firing less while in a more elongated state.
Research Takeaways and Practical Application
As mentioned above, the research on this topic is slightly limited, and the research that’s out there isn’t entirely consistent. This all being said, like with everything, think critically about what’s been presented and try to relate it back to your training. I think it’s tough to get a consistent answer on this topic from research because there are so many different body types. Squat mechanics are generally consistent across the board, but moment arms, joint angles, and limb lengths will always vary between athletes.
In my opinion, I would experiment with different squat widths when searching for specific training adaptations. That’s what I did and I found that narrow squats will never be a realistic squat option for me when wanting to move weight, but in terms of rehab, finding imbalances, and working knee mechanics they’ve been a god send, and I’ve learned how to program them optimally to get the most of them.
Narrow Stance Parallel Squat Benefits
The below three points are purely anecdotal and I would highly doubt they run consistently true for every athlete. Yet, if you experiment with these squats, and find even one of the three benefits mentioned below helps your training, then I count that as a win.
1. Imbalances and Weaknesses
As you can probably imagine, lifting on one healthy leg and one that’s currently lagging, I’ve built up a solid resume of imbalances. My right hip is much tighter, my ankle flexion is slightly different in each leg, and my right foot has an incredibly tough time staying parallel. Narrow squats have helped me dial in my focus on some of these points.
The increased hip, ankle, and knee flexion of narrow parallel footed squats have illuminated which of my ankle’s flexibility has decreased since surgery (shout out to my left ankle). In addition, they’ve helped me realize that my right hip is much tighter from consistently compensating for my bad leg, so my right foot now has a tendency to turn out more when descending. These are all things that I could have missed without changing squat styles and forcing my body to move slightly out of its comfort zone.
2. Mechanics & Joint Sequencing
“Legs for days” is possibly the best way to describe my body. My femurs are crazy long, so finding my perfect squat position is always a battle, especially since I’m slightly stronger with high-bar squat, but feel more comfortable in low-bar. Not to mention, I work a desk job and my body never feels the same. Consistently battling my anthropometrics to find the perfect position has left my joint sequencing far from perfect.
I’ve learned that I have a tendency to break at the hip way too drastically at the beginning of the descent in a squat, so using narrow squats have helped me dial in on my knee and hip flexion sequencing. These squats feel ridiculously uncomfortable to me, so having to focus on proper joint sequencing to perform them safely has had carry over to my regular squat style.
This benefit is where this section could get dicey, mostly because not everyone will find that these are great for hypertrophy (relative to other movements, that is). In fact, if doing these truly breaks down your form or causes a ton of discomfort, then they may be counter-intuitive when hypertrophy is your goal. There’s a difference between a little bit of discomfort and a feeling that completely distracts your brain from a forceful contraction.
After all, the goal for hypertrophy is to produce a stimulus that will elicit growth due to a progressive overload on the leg musculature, so if you can’t focus on contracting the quads and glutes, and your focus is to simply get through the movement, then your time may be best spent doing something else.
Recommendations for Using Them
Over the course of my past few months using these squats, I’ve learned a few things that could help you if you choose to play with them in your programming. Below are suggestions I’ve learned and use and also use with clients.
1. Program Them Later & Warm-Up
In my opinion, I would never use this squat style early on in a workout for three reasons. First, they’re most likely not your main squat style, so doing them before working sets of squats could impact squat form in a negative way. Second, these require much more hip, ankle, and knee flexion, and you may be limited in the beginning of workout due to lack of warm-up, so using them later on can spare you some warm-up time. Three, the goal of these (at least, for me) is never strength, so later in a workout is better in my eyes, as they’re done with a lower intensity and don’t detract from my main working sets.
This all being said, if I’m going through a lower-body day, then I’ll add these later in with my accessories. Personally, I like to perform two or three exercises before moving into this squat style. Some times your working sets can be mentally exhausting, so taking a break from being under the bar can be a nice refresher before performing them.
2. Keep Intensity Light
These squats most likely going to put increased stress on the joints, especially for those like myself who aren’t rubber bands. In terms of intensity, I’ll keep these between 25-40% of my 1-RM and keep the reps high (8-15) for 2-3 sets. Remember, this isn’t an ego squat, it’s a squat used most likely for self-assessment, or a specific adaptation that’s outside of strength alone (hypertrophy, form analysis, etc).
Granted, you can take them heavier if you’d like, but I use them for self-assessment and hypertrophy, so your usage should be individual.
3. Elevate Heels
Most likely, these will feel nearly impossible without an elevated heel, or lifting shoes for that matter (thank you, Reebok Legacy Lifters). An elevated heel will help you perform these safely and allow you to sit back without losing your balance.
4. Decrease Width and Foot Position Slowly
If you squat wide with your toes out, prepare yourself, this movement is going to feel completely foreign to your body. I’d recommend decreasing your stance width and foot position slightly each time you use them. For those using these for the first time, there’s no shame in taking a few workouts to adapt while bringing in your stance and foot position slowly. This could also be a healthier option for your joints, which have become adept to your normal squat style.
5. Demonstrate Control
If you’re used to dive bombing squats, then I’d recommend avoid doing so in this movement. You’re actively changing your squat style, so lack of control in the eccentric portion could cause unnecessary or unwanted stress on the legs. Not to mention, it could throw off your joint sequencing by doing so.
This squat variation isn’t going to be for everyone and the information above will be subject to individuality, like everything in fitness. The benefits above are a few I’ve found with these squats, but you may find different benefits or none at all, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding what makes you better in the most efficient ways possible.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.