Monday, February 25, 2013

Varying Foot stance in the Squat. By Vic Goyaram

Squat narrow or wide:

Can this help you target specific muscles?
Researched and composed by Veeraj Goyaram
with inputs from Bodybuilding Mauritius members

Squat narrow for sweep?

It is a long-held belief that by changing squat stance you can target specific muscles in the legs. For example, bodybuilders willing to emphasize and develop their vastus lateralis muscle (a great contributor to the much sought-after outer leg sweep) have always been advised to squat with a close stance, as in the picture above.  Sometimes they are advised to squat with feet together and for reasons of stability these are often advised to be performed in a Smith machine. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to see people leg pressing while keeping feet together. I have myself believed in such a practice for a long time and dedicated countless sets of squats and presses with a close stance in the hope of improving my quadriceps sweep.
What does the lab say? 
EMG studies disprove narrow stance squats for "outer sweep"

EMG stands for Electromyography and is a technique used to measure electrical activity in muscles when become activated by nerve impulses. When a muscle is contracting there is an electric signal going into it which can be captured by the EMG machine. When you perform a barbell curl there will be higher EMG activity in your biceps than in your triceps, for example. EMG analysis has revolutionised exercise science because muscle activation patterns can be detected in order to analyse muscle recruitment during human movement and exercises. EMG analysis has told us for example how the glutes and hamstrings become more active as you put your feet higher on the leg pressing platform (Click for our leg press article). Therefore, EMG data to tell you how muscles are differentially activated during certain exercises or when variations of exercises are performed.  
Yours truly in the EMG testing laboratory at my university institute. 
Shown here is a Biodex machine which is also used along with the EMG especially when measuring muscle recruitment in knee extension

Several studies using the EMG have shown that squatting with a narrow stance alas does not recruit the outer leg (vastus lateralis) to a greater degree. The good news is that close stance squats stresses all the muscles making up the quadriceps to more or less the same extent. Mr. Doug Brignole, renowned Biomechanics of resistance exercise expert, writer for Ironman Magazine USA and my trusted source of no-nonsense exercise information states that:

The knee is a single movement joint - very similar to a hinge. Like a hinge, the knee only does one thing - bend and straighten. This movement is caused by the quadriceps, in its entirety. There is no way to activate one part of the quadriceps more than another part, without being able change what the knee does - and one can't. All parts of the quadriceps become activated, if the knee extends at all - either by way of leg extension, squat, leg press, etc.
Mr Doug Brignole at age 22. Now at 53 he is still going strong.

Our Strength and Conditioning specialist, Omar Patel, quoted a study in which “the EMG analysis showed that the percentages of IEMG max for the vastus medialis wide stance and close stance is not significantly different at 75.3 and 73.8, respectively; and those for the vastus lateralis wide stance and close stance, at 75.8 and 78.4, is also not dramatically”. This means again that the close stance does not work the vastus medialis (teardrop) nor the quad sweep more than when you would perform squats with a normal stance.
The merits of wide stance squats 

However, when squats are performed using a wide foot stance, there are other muscles which also come into play, namely the adductors (inner legs) and the glutes. When you rotate your hips externally, that is, bringing your legs out in a wide stance squat you work the glutes, adductors as well as the quadriceps muscle. For example, in a study conducted at the University of Rio de Janeiro (Pereira et al., 2010) muscle activity of the hip adductors was significantly greater with the rotation of the hips from neutral to 30° and from 30° and to 50°. Similar results were obtained with stance widths of 40% wider or even twice than shoulder width (Paoli et al., 2009).  

Adductors contribute massively to overall leg mass and bodybuilders known for outstanding leg mass like Tom Platz and Kai Greene always have well developed adductor muscles. Adductors also contribute to knee stability which is very important in preventing tears in your knee ligaments like the common ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) tear. Finally, weak adductors are also an important cause of groin strain. So make sure you perform your wide stance (sumo) squats as per the guidelines below. I forgot to mention that a sign of weak adductors is when your knees rotate slightly inwards when you are squatting.
Tom Platz shows stellar adductor development. How many of you
have legs that touch in the middle?
Yours truly shows that he has and must continue to pay his dues to adductor training
Other good adductor exercises are straddle lifts (aka Jefferson's squats) and adductor machine (aka the "yes-no" machine)

How to develop the quad sweep then?
We leave this to Charles Glass to explain. Please see the video below. Briefly, he advises going deep in squats and leg presses, feet slightly pointed outwards and doing reps slowly  in the 12-15 range. 

Other considerations

a. Be careful when performing wide stance squats. After reading this don’t rush to the gym and start pumping countless heavy sets of wide stance squats. Proceed with caution and experiment with the degree of outward hip rotation which is more comfortable for you. Seek help from someone knowledgeable if necessary.

b. Studies have shown that activation of quadriceps muscles is highest in the last phase of the descent to parallel and the first phase of the ascent. This means that partial or quarter squats will result in reduced muscle activation of the quads therefore may be inferior compared to parallel or full squats. So beware those who like to load the bar with more than they can squat one full unassisted rep with and perform quarter or “millimetre” squats.

c. I have also seen that it is important to make sure that during squats the vertical path of the bar should be kept close to a perpendicular line emanating from the middle of the foot throughout the range of movement (see picture below). That is why we don’t advocate Smith machine squats with both feet below the body or forward.
More proof to squat with a free barbell:
The vertical path of the bar should be as close to the red line

1. Pereira GR, Leporace G, Chagas DV, Furtado LF, Praxedes J, Batista LA. Influence of hip external rotation on hip adductor and rectus femoris myoelectric activity during a dynamic parallel squat. J Strength Cond Res 24: 2749–2754, 2010

2. Paoli A, Marcolin G, Petrone N. The effect of stance width on the electromyographical activity of eight superficial thigh muscles during back squat with different bar loads. J Strength Cond Res 23: 246–250, 2009

3. Schwanbeck S, Chilibeck PD, Binsted G. A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. J Strength Cond Res 23: 2588–2591, 2009.

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