Read on for my thoughts on foot positions for squats, based on a recent question.
“Hi Chris, my friend claims that since he is bowlegged, he shouldn't set his feet parallel when he does a barbell squat. So, he points his toes out and his pelvis gets an anterior tilt. Any suggestions on how to fix it?”
While not directly a yoga question, we do have squatting postures or elements of the squat in yoga practice. Examples are versions of Utkatasana (fierce pose), malasana (garland pose) as well as virabhadrasana 1 and 2 (warrior poses) and anjaneyasana (high lunge).
In regards to the inquiry, is there actually anything that needs fixing? With our unique body structures, having the feet point out when squatting, especially when this allows for improved spinal positioning for the task, might be right for the friend.
But let’s look at the details behind the posture.
Foot position, i.e. pointing the toes out or forward, isn’t that much about the toes. The ankle joint moves in only one plane, allowing for flexion and extension. To this extend, foot direction via the ankle joint - shin structure, directs knee position. The lower part of the knee joint is the shin-bone. Shin-bone position is affected by different foot arches as well as foot position.
Relatively low foot arches can turn the knee inwards, high arches out. Having the feet pointed relatively too far in, or forward in some cases rotate the knee inwards. Unless well supported and muscularly engaged, we might like to aim at having feet and knees point in the same direction.
It is for the sake of knee integrity and longevity we are concerned with this alignment issue from the lower and upper half of the knee joint.
The upper half of the knee joint is the thighbone’s (femur) relative position in the hip sockets that turns the knees in or out. Pelvic position structurally can influence leg direction. A posteriorly tilted pelvis (tailbone down) encourages outward rotation of the femur. Conversely anterior tilt may lead to inwardly turned femurs. Externally rotated thighbones appear as bow-leggedness. Depending on the combination of thighs with the feet, this can spell congruent positioning of the knee or not.
From a soft tissue perspective, most gluteal (buttock) muscles function as outward rotators of the thigh. Squatting down requires the gluteal muscles, especially the gluteus maximus, to work eccentrically. Relative tightness in the glutes can lead to posterior pelvic tilt and outward rotation of the thighbone.
Returning from the squat to a standing position reverses the muscular action of the glutes to concentric work. Standing up from a squat, as well as any kind of coming up from a standing forward bend can and in yoga practice ideally is a muscular group action. Glutes, hamstrings and adductors (adductor magnus) all are important for the relative posterior tilting of the hips. The quadriceps (front of thigh muscles) exerts their primary action on the knee joint. This makes them very important for squats, but less so for the hip action.
Now, the friend in question has bow-legs. Bow-legs could be structural or postural. Structural bow-legs ar a reduction of the inner knee angle between femur and shinbone. Postural bow-legs appear from personal variations of leg rotation and pelvic tilt. This results from muscular use and tissue / postural holding patterns.
Bow-leggedness per se doesn’t require the feet to turn out in squats. Hip joint mobility may be the missing factor. By hip joint mobility I refer to a possible combination of skeletal make up, muscular and fascial tension as well as ligamentous restrictions.
To evaluate whether to ‘fix’ the friend’s outwardly pointing toes we would have to examine foot position, tissue restrictions around the hip, and the aim of the particular exercise, while keeping in mind healthy knee positioning.
Wider foot position, including toes pointing out, would favor stronger gluteus maximus action. A more narrow stance, including toes pointing forward, may reduce the gluteus action and bring in more hamstring and adductor magnus action for the squat.
A few gluteus and external rotator softening poses or stretches might show a different picture for the friend.
In yoga asana practice, warrior 1 and 2 are essentially partial squats on the front leg where these above considerations can be applied. The positioning and challenges of the back leg in extension make these postures more complex poses for hip alignment.