The squat is considered the king of exercises, putting the most demand on the body when performed especially with weight, the ability to sit your hips down to the heels means the internal body structures must be able to go through expansion and compression all in one movement. There has always been debate over the width of the feet when squatting, many will say wide, some say narrow others fall somewhere in between. If you are a powerlifter then wide stance it's going to be, but for the average person training the squat, or learning how to squat what is the better way to perform the movement? Typically whatever comes most naturally that day under those conditions but let’s unpack this a bit.
The squat is a vertical displacement of the hips, meaning the hips go straight down towards the heels as the knees bend past 90 degrees. The ability to squat down “ass to grass” as it is known is optimal performance and mechanics, if not then there are underlying issues or compensations that are restraining the full range.
When people assume a wider stance during the squat they are creating a greater base of support by widening the feet, meaning they do not feel comfortable with a narrower stance. This can mean that they do not know how to control and maintain position of the thorax and hips in that stance, and they will fall into compensatory patterns to perform the movement, or they do not have the strength of muscle actions to squat. This could be the ability of the pelvic floor to expand, the ability to keep the hips in a slight posterior tilt to allow the pelvic floor to move, it could be lack of abdominals to hold the thorax and hips in a stacked position.
When the feet are wider than shoulders the hips are more biased to an anterior pelvic tilt, which closes the pelvic outlet (floor) which does not allow for expansion during the squat leading to lost range of motion. The anterior pelvic tilt forces nutation (periodic variation) of the sacrum which will lead to lower back extension creating compressing forces on the lower back, on the front side the abdominals are put in a lengthened position, they have less influence on the hips and thorax leaving the lower back at risk. The combination of the concentric pelvic outlet and the lengthened abdominals restricts the movement of the viscera, not allowing proper movement of the viscera limits movement and creates restrictions.
With the hips in an anterior tilted position in leads the femurs (legs) into external rotation, and then most people feel comfortable pointing their toes out which creates more external rotation through the system, this leads to more anterior pelvic tilt and more overall system extension leading to compression forces in the neck, spine and hips.In this external rotated position the hips and legs cannot gain anymore ER therefore once max ER is reached that is the end of the movement. This is done to create a more stable feeling while under load.
Trying to get the low depth on the squat will be a challenge in this position due to the hips being out of position, as the squat goes down the hips will push back to try and get the depth, as the hips sit down and back eventually they will run out of range of motion, they cant anterior tilt anymore, they will tuck under to keep position, this is the “butt wink” to finish out the squat. If people are lucky they can get to the wink, but most times they will feel stuck when the hips, sacrum, and lumbar spine run out of real estate. With loading overtime the compressive forces placed on the lumbar spine will lead to injuries and tissue problems.
Now let's look at the narrow stance squat, with the narrower stance the hips can maintain a neutral position, a slight posterior tilt which stacks the thorax and hips over each other, this allows the abdominals to hold the ribcage down, and allow expansion of the posterior
mediastinum for proper squatting mechanics, it allows the pelvic outlet to expand to allow room for the viscera to go as the thorax compresses in the front and the diaphragm pushes down as we inhale, this allows for proper breathing mechanics and the legs to internally and externally rotate during the movement. The hips being in a neutral position lets them sit straight down instead of pushing back leading to the “ass to grass” position and the ability to manage pressure while breathing in that position.
Many will still argue wide vs narrow, and that's fine, I believe if you can keep position of hips and thorax you can change the width of stance during your squat but you must be able to control everything on the descend and ascend. But for people who are looking to benefit from the squat the starting place is the narrow squat, feet at hip width. This is where people live, we walk in a narrow stance, we generate greatest power in a narrow stance and most sports are played in that stance. So next time you squat close the width of the feet and squat right.