When people think of a powerlifting squat it usually conjures up images of someone squatting in an ultra-wide stance, far exceeding shoulder-width.
But, are wide squats better for powerlifting? A 1.5 times shoulder-width stance will be stronger for most people because (1) there’s greater glute activation, (2) it requires less ankle mobility, (3) it produces more power than narrow squats, and (4) it can protect against excessive lumbar flexion (low back rounding) while squatting.
There are several considerations when picking your optimal squat stance though, so let’s investigate this topic in more detail. In my discussion, I’ll list four reasons why I think you should squat wider than shoulder-width.
One Important Consideration: Bone Structure Matters
Before arguing for a wider squat stance, your stance should primarily be determined by your personal preference, whether that’s narrow or wide. While this may seem basic, you definitely don’t want to force a stance that doesn’t feel natural.
Why? Because everyone is built with different anthropometrical possibilities.
This means that people have different bone and joint angles, and when it comes to squats, we’re talking about how the femur and hip socket interact.
For one person, the femur may attach to the hip socket quite vertical.
For another, the femur may attach at an angle.
For the angled femur, this person would feel much more natural squatting in a wider stance where the hips open more and the knees flare out. Whereas the vertical femur would be more suited to a narrow squat stance.
Where Should Your Stance Be: A General Rule of Thumb
The following is a general rule of thumb for where you should start with your stance:
- Set up for a bodyweight squat
- Start with your feet directly under your shoulders with your feet pointed straight
- Then flare your toes out slightly
- Then flare your heels out slightly
- Then flare your toes out slightly, again
What this should achieve is a stance that is slightly outside of shoulder-width, with your toes slightly pointed outward. Perform 10-15 bodyweight squats in this general stance, and then play around with slightly wider or narrower to determine what feels most comfortable.
I want to reiterate that picking the stance that ‘feels the most comfortable’ should not be ignored, and it should be the first selection method for picking your optimal squat stance. You’ll also want to pick a squat stance that allows you to get appropriate depth, which you can read more about in my article on tips to squatting deeper.
Now let’s look at the research and the 4 reasons why I think a wider squat stance over time is optimal for most people.
Your squat stance will also depend on your back angle. Read what the best back angle is for squats.
1. Squat Stance & Muscular Recruitment
Remember, in powerlifting, the goal is to increase your maximal strength. So what we’re primarily concerned with is moving the most weight possible, which requires us to recruit the maximum musculature.
The bro-science will say that narrow stance squats are more ‘knee dominant’, and therefore recruit more quads, while wide stance squats are more ‘hip dominant’ and recruit more glutes.
This is actually untrue, but regardless, it still leaves people wondering, ‘which squat stance is better for recruiting maximum musculature?’
A study by Escamilla et al. (2001) looked at three squat stances: narrow, medium, and wide. They measured both the knee and hip angles at varying points in the lift. The conclusion was that all three squat stances were knee dominant, and in particular, the wide stance squats were the most knee-dominant at every phase of the movement.
This study demonstrates that neither narrow or wide stance squatters are more knee-dominant. but rather both narrow and wide are knee-dominant, with the wider stance even more-so.
Let’s relate this to muscle activation.
A study by Paoli et al. (2009) measured the activation of several lower body muscles in narrow, medium, and wide squat stances across light, medium, and heavy loads. They found that there were no differences in the quad activation in any of the stances. However, there was higher glute activation in a wide stance.
They concluded that:
A large width is necessary for a greater activation of the gluteus maximus during back squats
It would appear that squatting in a wider stance has distinct advantages. You get the same muscle recruitment in the quads as compared with a narrower stance, but as the load increases and your quads get ‘maxed out’, a wider stance will allow you to shift some of the loading demands on the glutes.
With the goal of lifting the most weight and recruiting as much musculature as possible, you’ll want to squat in a wider stance.
If you get knee pain while squatting, check out my reviews of the best squat shoes for knee pain.
2. Ankle Mobility
If you have ankle mobility issues, then it will only be exacerbated in a narrower squat stance.
Because with the narrower stance, the greater forward knee bend is required (typically) while squatting, especially the deeper you go. Forward knee bend requires your ankle to flex simultaneously, and if it’s restricted your heels might come off the ground, which would affect your balance and coordination throughout the range of motion.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore your ankle mobility by squatting wider. You should definitely address any underlying ankle mobility issues. But in the meantime, you can squat wider, and maintain a better overall position.
If you’re a tall lifter with long legs, check out my article on whether you should adjust your stance based on your height.
3. Power Production
Power is defined as your body’s ability to overcome resistance in the shortest period of time.
A study by Akitoshi et al. (2010) examined the effects of different stance widths and the effect on power productions during squats. They found that a stance width of 1.5X shoulder-width distance produced the most amount of power when compared with other stance widths.
To achieve a “1.5X of shoulder-width distance” you can measure the distance between each shoulder and multiply it by 1.5. That number will be how far your feet should be apart to achieve maximum power according to the study.
The 1.5X of shoulder-width stance produced about 30-35% more power output when compared with shoulder-width and narrower than shoulder-width stance. Interestingly, however, a stance that was 2X of shoulder width (i.e. ultra-wide) was not as effective in producing power as the 1.5X shoulder-width stance.
This shows that there is some degree of diminishing returns when going too wide. But certainly, a wider than shoulder-width stance can produce more maximal power.
Read my complete guide on How To Fix Losing Tension At Bottom Of Squat (8 Tips).
4. Spinal Health
If your bone structure (as mentioned above) favors an angled hip socket, or if you have poor hip mobility generally, then reaching adequate depth (hips below parallel) will be extremely hard.
With these mechanics or limitations, reaching depth in a narrow squat will require you to tuck the lumbar under the torso to facilitate hip flexion. This is called a ‘posterior pelvic tilt’ or ‘butt wink’. The resulting flexion of the spine under a load puts pressure on the low back, which could be linked to injury over time.
Again, you don’t want to compensate for poor hip mobility, which is why I suggest implementing some hip mobility exercises to overcome these deficiencies. However, taking a wider stance will allow you to achieve proper squatting mechanics in the meantime.
The first rule should always be to squat with the stance width that’s the most comfortable for you.
With that said, you’ll want to pick the widest squat stance possible given your biological strengths and limitations. Being in a wider stance will allow you to recruit your glutes more, produce more power, and require less mobility through your ankles and hips.
Practically speaking, I’ve seen several examples of powerlifters getting strong in both narrow and wide squat stance. So just know that if squatting wide doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t worry, you can still increase strength in the squat in a narrower stance.
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