Squats are one of the best exercises for building your lower body muscles. They work your glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings, "which means you will be able to get stronger, run faster and jump higher," says exercise physiologist Todd Buckingham, PhD.
But all those benefits disappear if you're not doing your squats with the proper form. And while you may feel like you have everything aligned, there's one small but foundational detail you should check: What direction are your toes pointing?
Squat Foot Placement: Toes In or Out?
When doing a squat, glance down at your toes. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) says your feet should be shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing forward, not out.
A December 2013 study in the Journal of Human Kinetics backs that up, saying that the toes-forward position puts the least amount of strain on your knees and lumbar spine, especially if you have osteoarthritis or meniscus injuries.
"They found that pointing the toes in or out 30 degrees could lead to a greater risk of knee injury than a squat with toes pointing forward," Buckingham says. "The reason for the increased risk could be that the rotation of the feet can put additional pressure on the tendons, ligaments and cartilage of the knee, particularly the meniscus."
But what if the toes-forward position doesn't feel quite right? Not to worry, says certified personal trainer Joey Thurman, CPT. A slight turn-out of your toes is fine. In fact, the American Council of Exercise actually recommends a slight toe-out position.
"No human is exactly the same and even though [the study] accounted for age, similar heights and weights, we all have different wear-and-tear on our bodies that will cause different variations in our movement patterns."
So what counts as a "slight" turn-out? A July 2018 study in BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation took another look at squat stance and found that the best position was toes pointing forward — or no more than 10 degrees slightly outward.
"For individuals who are not athletes and don't need to train to mimic their sport, squat form should be targeted toward what feels natural," Buckingham says.
Is It Ever OK to Do a Toes-Out Squat?
You'll often see powerlifters doing squats with their toes pointed out more than 10 degrees. This exaggerated turn-out allows them to recruit more muscles and lift higher loads, but it also comes with some risk of knee problems down the road, according to the NASM.
"I prefer a slight foot turn out and a little bit of a wider stance especially when I'm under load with a bar on my back," Thurman says. "For my clients, I have them start with their natural position and then adjust to see their squat depth, ankle flexion and what's happening with their internal or external rotators."
Buckingham says that athletes should do the squat that closely mimics their sport. For example, offensive lineman in football stand in a wide stance with their toes pointed slightly out for better traction. "Therefore, their squat position when lifting weights should be similar," Buckingham says.
But then track sprinters will have a different squat position, he says. "Track athletes should squat with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed forward and squatting to a depth of at least 90 degrees." This position more closely resembles their stance at the starting blocks.
Practice Proper Squat Foot Placement
Ready to squat like a pro? Follow these tips to maximize the benefits while minimizing the risk to your knees.
Basic Squat Form
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. If you're lifting a load, you can stand with feet slightly further apart.
- Point your toes forward or slightly turned out (no more than 10 degrees).
- Keep your back straight and eyes forward.
- Squat down like you're sitting down in a chair.
- Descend until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Only go down as far as you can pain-free.
- If your squat is limited by ankle mobility, place a small weight or book under your heel to elevate them slightly, as pictured.
- Hold for a couple seconds, then return to standing.
“One common mistake most beginners make when performing a squat is not sitting back far enough and allowing the knees to extend in front of the body over the toes. This can add extra strain to your joints and could lead to a variety of injuries,” Buckingham says.
“Instead of leading with your knees, sit back into the squat like you’re sitting down in a chair. Better yet, put a bench behind you and touch your butt to the bench before returning to the standing position.”
- Journal of Human Kinetics: "Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats"
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: "Six Squat Exercise Variations That Bring Great Results"
- Journal of Human Kinetics: "Alterations in Three-dimensional Knee Kinematics and Kinetics during Neutral, Squeeze and Outward Squat"
- BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation: "How to Squat? Effects of Various Stance Widths, Foot Placement Angles and Level of Experience on Knee, Hip and Trunk Motion and Loading"
- American Council on Exercise: "Ab Exercises: Bodyweight Squat"
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: "Squat Stance: Neutral, Squeeze, and Outward Squat (Article Review)"