The squat is a dynamic strengthening exercise used in multiple facets like hypertrophy training, sports training, and even rehabilitation as it replicates functional movements utilized in day-to-day activities. Conventionally, the squat is performed with a foot stance at shoulder width but studies have mentioned that a wider stance activates a variety of muscles that are not engaged in narrower stances.
The specific stance used in performing a squat depends on the goals of the individual with particular attention to the muscles targeted and joint mobilization. While a narrower stance makes for a more functional application as it better mimics daily activities, taking a wider stance puts emphasis on developing posterior chain muscles and activates the gluteal muscles more.
Varying leg positions in performing squats target different muscles and affect the range of motion of the hip, knee, and ankle joints. The biomechanics involved in doing wide stance squats require understanding to optimize performance in targeted muscles and engage the same muscle groups in a manner that would avoid injury.
The typical squat form includes placement of the feet at a shoulder-width distance with the movement targeting the quadriceps muscles, hamstrings, and hip adductors and abductors.
A wide stance squat is typically performed with the feet placed 1.5 to 2 times the width of the hip with the toes pointed slightly outward. Assuming a wider stance causes more glute and adductor magnus activation as a result of greater posterior hip displacement.
A common misconception in muscular recruitment in relation to stance width is that assuming a narrower stance is more knee-dominant, while a wider stance is more hip-dominant.
There are currently no studies to show that a narrower stance activates the quadriceps to a greater extent than wider stances do. However, a study by Escamilla, et al. (2001) demonstrated that both narrow and wide stance squats are knee-dominant, but wide stance squats were the most knee-dominant in all phases of the activity.
Paoli, et al. indicated a significant difference in EMG activity of the gluteus maximus muscle when back squats were performed in a wide stance. No significant differences in activity were noted concerning other muscles. Nonetheless, it was concluded that a large width is necessary for a greater activation of the gluteus maximus, thus allowing for the development of the muscle.
An individual’s hip anatomy varies from one to the other and this affects how much motion is available in a joint. Regardless of stance width, an almost full hip flexion range of motion is required to be able to perform squats safely.
In addition to hip flexion mobility, the adductors play a huge role in how wide a stance can go. Tight adductor muscles limit how much abduction can occur at the hip joint resulting in having the knees pulled inward.
While the idea that a narrower stance activates the quadriceps muscles more than other stances is not supported by any study, most individuals believe in this concept due to the tension felt in the knee. Narrower stances require anterior tracking of the knee placing greater stress on the patellofemoral joint.
Insufficient training in this manner may lead to tendonitis as a result of recessive forces acting on the knee. Assuming a wider stance helps the lifter reach the same degree of depth while maintaining the tibia in a vertical position, putting far less stress on the knee joint.
Narrow stance squats demand more dorsiflexion than any other stance width. As the individual goes deeper in a narrow stance squat and knee flexion increases, the knee translates forward in relation to the ankle. If there is a limitation in the ankle’s range of motion in a narrow stance squat, then the squat depth may also be limited.
Wider stances may be of benefit in allowing individuals to attain deeper squats without compromising ankle health. This is because in a wider squatting pattern, the posterior tracking of the hips places the tibia more perpendicular to the ankle, thus requiring less ankle dorsiflexion.
There are no studies showing that one stance width is superior to the others in terms of quadriceps activation. The main takeaway of doing wide stance squats over other variations is the slight increase in gluteal muscle activation.
Due to variance in anthropometry, inherent differences are present in ranges of motion, joint mobility, joint stability, and neuromuscular control. Subsequently, an all-encompassing statement regarding squat width for all individuals is ill-suited at best.
Playing out a squat with exemplary form is expected to improve muscle activation and limit hazard of injury. A typical stance in doing squats will be around shoulder width, with a slight degree of toe-out; However, considerable variations exist.
Of all variations of the squat, the ideal squat stance is the one that provides an individual the greatest range of motion without compromising the integrity of the squat through the development of compensatory movements - like buckling of the knees.
A compensatory movement is the body's method of looking for the easiest course of action to play out a specific activity which does not benefit the individual in this case. Development of compensatory movements does not maximize the activation in the targeted muscle groups, and in turn accompanies poor functional outcomes.
In any case, individuals lacking optimal joint mobility, joint stability, or neuromuscular control regularly show compensatory movements.
Squats are a good exercise to develop posterior chain and overall lower extremity strength. Although wide stance squats recruit the gluteal muscles more, no significant difference is seen in quadriceps activation.
Ultimately, leg positioning for doing squats is heavily dependent on the individual’s physiological variance and the goal for which the squats are done.
1. Lorenzetti, S., Ostermann, M., Zeidler, F. et al. How to squat? Effects of various stance widths, foot placement angles and level of experience on knee, hip and trunk motion and loading. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil 10, 14 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13102-018-0103-7
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