Seeing the Subtle, Simply: Squat Mechanics and You

Imagine falling down with something heavy attached to your back. That would really suck, right? Did you know that it is possible to fall down while carrying something heavy? Pretty scary. Learning how to retain balance when the body is loaded with extra mass from the training load is a fundamental challenge of lifting free weights.

Seeing The Subtle, Simply

By: Michael Burgos, BLOC Exclusive Coach, PBC

There are many factors at play to determine the correct angles of the basic barbell squat. The position and weight of the bar, the lifter’s trunk, thigh, calf lengths, and ankle flexibility, and the width of the stance and toe angle all affect how a person must move to stay balanced during the squat and how the lift will look to a coach or observer. I will illustrate this concept using for a programmable stickman model as well as the iOS Angle Meter application as a goniometer to measure joint angles. By the end of this article, at least one concept will be clear: the mass of the bar and the mass of the lifter collaboratively regulate balance over the body’s base of support during a squat. Other practice pearls and my own approach to coaching the squat will be discussed, but I will talk about balance so much that your brain’s idea of what my voice might sound like will haunt your dreams. To start, you get to attend Burgos’ Smooth Brain Functional Anatomy Class. No ugly wrinkles in here.

Imagine falling down with something heavy attached to your back. That would really suck, right? Did you know that it is possible to fall down while carrying something heavy? Pretty scary. Learning how to retain balance when the body is loaded with extra mass from the training load is a fundamental challenge of lifting free weights.

You are made of stuff. The bar is made of stuff. The more stuff in something, the more “mass” it has. All the stuff inside you, the bar and all the weights on it, and anything else with stuff in it has a center. No matter how it’s shaped, anything with mass has a central point around which there are equal amounts of mass in every direction. This point is called the “center of mass.”

If the combined center of mass of the bar and the lifter does not remain over the base of support, the lifter could fall over and crash into the safety pins. To prevent this during heavy compound lifts, like a basic barbell squat, the center of mass formed by combining the masses of the barbell and the lifter should be intentionally positioned over the base. Why? Because falling down with heavy stuff sucks.

When standing, the base of support for the body is made up by the feet. Front to back, the most balanced and stable portion of the foot is directly in the middle. The average male foot length is 27 centimeters.2 The midpoint of that distance is 13.5 centimeters. Obviously, every lifter’s midfoot balance point will be determined by foot length. That point is known as the midfoot balance point. It’s lovingly called “midfoot” by expert coaches, though that nickname is a bit of a misnomer if you’re an anatomy nerd.

The bones of the foot have three regions: the hindfoot, the midfoot, and the forefoot. The hindfoot consists of your heel bone (calcaneus) and the bone that your shin rolls on (talus). The bones of the anatomical midfoot are made of the tarsal bones. They look like a rock collection your kid put together at recess: seven small bones that would mostly fit into a Dixie cup. The forefoot is made of the long bones of the foot: the metatarsals and the phalanges.

The rear half of the base of support is underneath the midfoot and hindfoot. The front half is almost exclusively the forefoot unless you live in 10th-century China, where foot binding was a common practice. Due to the forefoot’s length-dominant contribution to the base of support, this skews the midfoot balance point toward the forefoot, not the anatomic midfoot. For those who aren’t anatomy nerds, look at the x-ray below.

Notice just how long the forefoot is compared to the bony midfoot and the hindfoot. There’s an angle that runs diagonally from the base of the metatarsal base to the small toe. I’m not sure that my lines are perfect, but the general concept remains the same. Note how the influence of the length of the forefoot, in addition to the metatarsal heads’ angle relative to the bony midfoot, places the midfoot balance point at the very forward edge of the bony midfoot, well into the forefoot. This more forward balance position is important to understand, as it paints commonly used cue strategies into what they really are: heuristics.

If a lifter ties their lifting shoe’s laces at the last eyelet on the shoe, midfoot balance probably isn’t under the shoelace knot. It’s probably at or just forward of the velcro strap on the lifting shoe. On a sneaker, it’s about one to two finger-widths forward of the shoelace knot. More practically, this means that a lifter in balance will feel evenly distributed pressure in the balls of the foot and heel at the same time, not some nebulous “midfoot.” If pressure is greater on the toes or the heel, then the lifter is not balanced.

Need a different example? If you coach people to position the barbell in a deadlift exactly one inch from the front surface of the shin no matter who they are, you are bound to coach someone onto their heel with too high of a hip position to pull from eventually. I see this commonly when colleagues coach exceptionally tall people or people with comically long feet for their height. Overreliance on a discrete distance in your coaching model can produce results that consist of—

  • An enormous butt. (This may be a value add. It also may not be.)
  • Under-developed quadriceps muscles, especially if the squat is being executed with heel balance in tandem.
  • Stubborn knee or back pain if local fatigue, mechanical stresses, and training exertion or effort are unmonitored and overdosed.

For the remainder of the article below, the midpoint of the base of support is represented by the vertical gray line in the images below (hereafter referred to as the midfoot balance point and colloquially as “midfoot”).

Class dismissed, go to recess.

The Model™

If you want to follow along, my body’s settings for the web app are below. Keep in mind this is just a model. It may not be completely accurate to the real human body. This will be truer if your client has reduced strength, less developed lifting skill, or diminished range of motion in their back or legs due to injury, inactivity, disease, or otherwise.

In fact, there are many weaknesses to models like this one. One obvious consideration is that this model isn’t a person. I imagine that if I peeled all of your skin off, I wouldn’t find a bunch of sticks and circles underneath. The human body is made of all kinds of tissues, and they all have different characteristics that together form the general shape of a person.

Additionally, the back segment isn’t a given. The lifter must work to hold the back straight during the set. Not everyone has the anatomy or aptitude to do that as precisely as the model demands. Bar placement can affect the postural alignment of the back segment as well. Basic barbell squats, especially the high bar squat, are prone to roll up the lifter’s back if the lifter flops forward out of the bottom. Low bar squats demonstrate the opposite. The bar rolls down the back when it is placed poorly, the back segment is positioned too vertically, or it rolls in either direction when upper back tightness is insufficient to retain the barbell’s seat.

Shoulder flexibility aside, a person’s upper back development affects behaviors around upper back tightness. Trainees with well-developed King Cobra traps have the advantage of being able to position a high bar squat centrally on the peak of the upper trapezius muscle. Less developed athletes or athletes that are “all press, no pulls” do not possess this boon and have to rely on mental toughness and proper moisturizing of their supple, unmarred, and virgin skin as their weak and useless body adapts to the process of training. Alternatively, they can outsource that adaptation to an attachable barbell pad. I generally do not recommend this practice. Learning how to position and operate one’s body in the environment is a fundamental skill for survival and activities of daily living. (Tell your clients not to flee from developing motor skills and other associated attributes.)

Finally, consider that the human body has a pelvic girdle, and this model does not. The back segment’s bony foundation does not intersect with the hip’s sockets. They are instead saddled together by the pelvic bones, which expand away from the midline and curve in many directions. The model is not representative of the actual human body.

Models have many weaknesses, and beyond that, actual coaching practice requires frequent edumacated guesstimations to inform decisions in real time. Coaches can’t see the pelvis, hip sockets, or spine. Unless we have x-ray vision (I don’t), we use surface landmarks on the body or overlaying clothing that approximate where rotation at the hip is occurring. Interpret conclusions from any stick figure models with thorough criticism.

Burgos’ Baseline 275-lb. High Bar Squat

People seem to really like stick figures of low bar squats. I like the high bar squat better, so let’s use that basic squat variation today. To obtain my measurements, I had my wife measure my segment lengths with a tape measure. It wasn’t all that scientific. Unless you suck at anatomy, then I guess it is scientific. I stood up and had her measure in centimeters from:

  • My acromion process to my greater trochanter
  • My greater trochanter to the superior ridge of my lateral tibial condyle
  • The superior ridge of my lateral tibial condyle to my lateral malleolus
  • The posterior-most point of my calcaneus to the anterior-most tip of the hallux

To complete the rest of the fields, I then stood on a scale and assessed my body weight in freedom units. I had to convert the value to kommiegrams by dividing by 2.2. I generally use a ~30° toe angle when teaching the barbell squat because I read in a book that it’s a good starting point. My coaching eyeball tends to want to put the knee just above the toe or horizontally just a wee bit past that point when I’m looking at the squat from the side. It squirts the happy juice in my brain. Using my measured segment lengths, squat coaching preferences, and obesity diagnosis, I plugged the following settings into the website’s form.

Baseline Settings

  • Foot: 26cm (don’t judge me)
  • Tibia: 43cm
  • Femur: 40cm
  • Torso: 69cm (Haha, nice. By the way, I’m 6’3” on Tinder and Grindr. HMU bb)
  • High -> Low Bar: 0cm
  • Body Weight: 108 kg
  • Bar Weight: 125 kg
  • Max Ankle Flexion: 30°
  • Depth: -5°
  • Stance Angle: 30°
  • Squat Position: Drag the slider fully to the right

These settings produced the baseline model below.

The iOS Angle Meter app was used to emulate goniometry. I established the diagnostic joint angles listed below by placing the component legs of each joint’s angle along the body segments on either side of the app: the joint itself. For the ankle joint, one component leg runs parallel to the plane of the floor—perpendicular to the gray line in the center of the model.


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°


High Bar vs. Low Bar


  • High -> Low Bar: 6cm.
  • “Why 6cm?”: I needed a way to gauge the distance between where the bar sits during the high bar squat versus where it is placed in the low bar squat. I found an article that describes cervical vertebral segments running about 1~2 cm from spinous process to spinous process in a person. I looked at the pretty pictures and ran with it. I did not read a single word of the article. I guesstimated that a high bar generally sits around C5 when the traps squeeze together to form the shelf. The low bar I guesstimated sits around T2. Any conclusions I make here assume that vertebral segments run 1.5cm between bony landmarks, which they may or may not. I also assume that my guesstimations are 100% precise. They probably aren’t.


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • Low Bar Hip/Back Angle: 47°
  • Difference: -3°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • Low Bar Knee Angle: 43°
  • Knee Difference: 0°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Bar Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Difference: 0°

Key Takeaway: Changing bar position alone, from high bar position to low bar position, doesn’t seem to change the diagnostic angles of the squat all that much.

Burgos’ Practice Recommendations: Based on the above, if you use the same foot placement for high bar work as you do with low bar work, then you probably aren’t changing much of anything. To add more variance to the hip/back angle between high and low bar squats, you must also change the toe angle, stance width, and/or ankle angle.

Realize also that the low bar position varies depending on the client. God’s favorites, like the young, lean, and aggressively handsome, have surface anatomy that is easy to read. Finding structures like the rear deltoid muscle or a bony ridge like the spine of the scapula is a simple task in this population: just look at the area, and there it is. For the high-caloried, well-marbled, youth-deprived, or kyphosis-inclined, a spot that’s close enough where the lifter is comfortable and the bar doesn’t slide downward might be the best you can do.

Light, Moderate, and Heavy Bar Loads


  • High -> Low Bar: 0cm
  • Bar Weight: 25 kg; then 250 kg


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • Light Hip/Back Angle: 44°
  • Heavy Hip/Back Angle: 52°
  • Baseline vs. Light Difference: -6°
  • Baseline vs. Heavy Difference: +2°
  • Light vs. Heavy Difference: +8°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • Light Knee Angle: 46°°
  • Heavy Knee Angle: 42°
  • Baseline vs. Light Difference: 0°
  • Baseline vs. Heavy Difference: -1°
  • Light vs. Heavy Difference: -1°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Light Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Heavy Ankle Angle: 45°
  • Baseline vs. Light Difference: 0°
  • Baseline vs. Heavy Difference: -1°
  • Light vs. Heavy Difference: -1°

Key Takeaway: At loads lighter than the lifter’s body weight, the back angle will be more horizontal. At loads heavier than the lifter, the back angle will be more vertical. The knee and ankle angles are consistent at light, moderate, and heavy loads.

Discussion: A human’s center of mass is a few inches forward of the sacrum, more so if they carry more fat on the front side of the body and less so if they’re bigger out back. Remember from earlier as well that the mass of the bar and the mass of the lifter form a linked system, simultaneously constraining balance over the body’s base of support when squatting.

When the bar is lighter than the lifter, the lifter’s mass influences balance more than the bar’s mass. Note how the barbell (the end of the green line) is more forward of midfoot when the bar is light. The lifter will place more of their center of mass over the midfoot. (It’s the base of support when standing, remember?) Why would the lifter do that? Simple: to keep from falling.

When the bar is loaded heavier than the lifter (2.33x heavier than the lifter’s bodyweight in this illustration), the barbell’s mass influences balance more than the lifter’s mass. To the lifter and gravity, a heavy barbell is a bigger priority to balance and skews the center of mass in its direction. Since the bar is above the lifter’s back, the center of mass gets skewed upward and backward. As a result, the lifter is forced to position their back segment more upward and backward, moving the back segment more upright. It is the only gravitationally responsible course of action.

Burgos’ Practice Recommendations: Stronger lifters will be more upright in the bottom than weaker lifters of the same or comparable proportions.

Similarly, trying to match a back angle from a warm-up set to a heavy working set back angle will not work. This becomes truer when the lifter starts warming up with an empty bar, is quite strong, and the working bar load is heavier than the person lifting it.

Also, I try to keep the knee’s forward travel consistent for the chosen squat variation regardless of the load. Stopping the knee more backward or forward of the final position will alter the lift. What constitutes an appropriate magnitude of forward knee travel is the subject of much discussion. As I said before, I prefer a forward knee position at or just beyond the toe for most basic barbell exercises because it makes me happy.

If it matters to you, it probably balances the opposing forces of the quads and hamstrings around the knee joint. It might also produce a better stretch reflex on the quadriceps, giving more oomph out of the bottom position. This assumes the lifter had the correct back angle to not fall over and was holding themselves tight enough to stretch the quads—not the knees’ ACLs instead.

These days, I prefer to think of variations in forward knee travel from my preferred position as key components of squat variations away from the basic high bar or low bar squats. The spectrum of variation swings from suggesting the knees should travel far beyond the toes (as in an arms-forward, toes-forward physiotherapy clinic goblet/bodyweight squat) to the other side of the spectrum where you’ll find a very vertical shin reminiscent of box squats from the Westside Barbell instructional VHS tapes.

All squat variations are squats. Saying that some squats are not squats is a matter of rhetoric and religion. Different knee positions serve to bias different functions. There are no “good” or “bad” squat variations. Squats are amoral. The attributes you are looking to develop in your client will govern your squat selection, and I think everyone agrees on that premise.

Proportional Thigh and Calf Lengths (Thigh = Calf)


  • Bar Weight: 125 kg
  • Tibia: 41 cm
  • Femur: 42 cm
  • Torso: 69 cm


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • Proportional Leg Hip/Back Angle: 46°
  • Difference: -4°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • Proportional Leg Knee Angle: 42°
  • Difference: -1°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Proportional Leg Ankle Angle: 45°
  • Difference: -1°

Key Takeaway: Making slightly less proportional thigh and calf segments slightly more proportional does not seem to affect knee or ankle angles. The back leaned over slightly. Based on these findings alone, it may not be clear why that is.

Burgos’ Practice Recommendations: Read slower. I said there wasn’t that big a change this time, and it’s not that clear why there was even a change to begin with. How can you expect me to infer or recommend anything useful from a weak incidental finding like that?

Discussion: The disappointing magnitude of change here occurred because I have relatively proportional lower limb lengths to begin with. It follows that the level of change observed is going to be less noticeable if we impose less change overall. Let’s mess with the segment lengths more significantly. Maybe we’ll find something interesting.

Longer Thigh, Shorter Calf (Thigh > Calf)


  • Tibia: 35 cm
  • Femur: 48 cm
  • Torso: 69 cm


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • Longer Thigh Hip/Back Angle: 35°
  • Difference: -15°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • Longer Thigh Knee Angle: 42°
  • Difference: -1°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Longer Thigh Ankle Angle: 45°
  • Difference: -1°

Key Takeaway: Longer thighs with shorter calves, in general, preclude more horizontal back angles and more closed hip angles. There does not seem to be an effect worth caring about at the knee or ankle angles.

Discussion: In this example, I took 8 cm away from my calf segment and added it to my baseline thigh segment. This caused a significant back angle change, making the back angle much more horizontal. In the previous example, when I changed my proportions to roughly equal to each other, I ended up making my thigh 4cm longer. The prior examples’ slightly longer thigh and this example’s much longer thigh demonstrate the resolution of the exact same gravitational problem as before: forcing the lifter to lean over more and safely placing the combined centers of mass over the base of support. The proportion change that was less dramatic demonstrated a less obvious effect, as expected.

Burgos’ Practice Recommendations: If you notice someone is unexpectedly short when they sit down, they will probably present like this when they squat. They’ve probably been poisoned with the old adage “Lift with your legs, not your back” and will elect to try and squat more upright than their body’s lengths would suggest. When they attempt to place more stress on the legs and less on their back, they may eventually complain of pain in one or both of their knees.

If they are powerlifters and squat correctly, they will complain incessantly about their weak squat destroying their total. These people are instead really good at sports like Soccer (a.k.a. Communist Kickball) and Olympic Taekwondo (a.k.a. Padded Foot Slap Fighting).

The spec bonuses to stride length and reach from being born as a four-legged spider are blessings in those sports. If you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, try a different where. There are so many wheres out there; you fit into at least one. But regardless of your where, you should train a basic barbell squat.

Longer Calf, Shorter Thigh (Calf > Thigh)


  • Tibia: 48 cm
  • Femur: 35 cm
  • Torso: 69 cm


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • Calf > Thigh Hip/Back Angle: 61°
  • Difference: +11°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • Calf > Thigh Knee Angle: 43°
  • Difference: 0°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Calf > Thigh Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Difference: 0°

Key Takeaway: Shorter thighs with longer calves, in general, are associated with more upright postures. This should not be surprising.

Discussion: Why is that?…Because this is the opposite of the previous scenario. Longer thighs and shorter calves make for leaning over more, right? That’s what you learned a second ago. If you do the opposite thing and instead have shorter thighs and longer calves, the effect you observe will also be the opposite. This isn’t that hard. You are really smart. And so pretty. Don’t be confused. Stay with me. You got this!

Shorter Back


  • Tibia: 52cm
  • Femur: 49cm
  • Torso: 51cm


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • Shorter Back Hip/Back Angle: 33°
  • Difference: 17°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • Shorter Back Knee Angle: 43°
  • Difference: 0°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Shorter Back Ankle Angle: 46°
  • Difference: 0°

Key Takeaway: Shorter backs, like long thighs and short calves, seem to force a more closed hip angle and a more horizontal back angle. In a modeled vacuum, it seems that shorter back segments have a more significant effect than longer thighs.

Discussion: At this point, you should be kind of surprised if the “why” changes at all. The basic premise of this article is not falling down while squatting by staying in balance. To do that, the body is positioned under the barbell to place the two unified centers of mass within the safe and stable confines of the base of support: the middle of the foot. How many more times do I have to revisit the same concept with you?

Two more times, actually.

Ankle Dorsiflexion


  • Tibia: 43cm
  • Femur: 40cm
  • Torso: 69cm
  • Max Ankle Flexion: 15°, then 45°


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • 15° Dorsiflexion Hip/Back Angle: 43°
  • 45° Dorsiflexion Hip/Back Angle: 67°
  • Baseline vs. 15° Difference: -7°
  • Baseline vs. 45° Difference: +17°
  • 15° vs. 15° Difference: +24°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • 15° Dorsiflexion Knee Angle: 65°
  • 45° Dorsiflexion Knee Angle: 32°
  • Baseline vs. 15° Difference: +22
  • Baseline vs. 45° Difference: -11°
  • 15° vs. 45° Difference: +33°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • 15° Dorsiflexion Ankle Angle: 69°
  • 45° Dorsiflexion Ankle Angle: 35°
  • Baseline vs. 15° Difference: 23°
  • Baseline vs. 45° Difference: -11°
  • 15° vs. 45° Difference: -34°

Literally, You: “Oh my God, everything changed so much, all at once.” “The 15° dorsiflexion ankle angle is 69°?” What does that even mean?! He said I got it, but I don’t got it! I’m such a fraud! What was I thinking, trying to learn college-level functional anatomy and applied physics with my background? So stupid. Why would anyone entertain that idea in this economy?! I can’t pay my bills with hopes and dreams. I’m so stressed out now. I need to call my therapist. No. I just need a minute to breathe and calm down. I’m in my head. I’ll try going slowly through the Key Takeaway. Oh, there are two Key Takeaways. Take it slow, me. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and they’ll click.

Key Takeaway #1: The more bent forward the shin is, the more forward the knee travels. Doing so places more stress on the quads.

Key Takeaway #2: The more forward the knee travels, the more vertical the back angle. This reduces stress on the hips and back.

Discussion: It really is that simple. See? You got it.

Burgos’ Practice Recommendations:

If you so much as whisper the words “ankle mobility” around a low bar squat enthusiast, they will roast you as if you crapped your pants at prom. There just isn’t that much tibial incline in a well-executed low bar squat. As such, ankle mobility isn’t a significant factor for that squat variation.

However, around Olympic weightlifters, martial artists, movement gurus, mobility coaches, Allied Health professionals, and cash-based clinical practitioners masquerading as such, they will wax eloquent about the unsung hero of ankle mobility. They truly believe they are Enlightened. I elect not to choose sides in this matter.

The definition of a deep squat is also argued frequently. In my coaching practice, I use a squat depth model based on anatomy that I stole from a former colleague and early mentor. I still do not have x-ray vision, so I have to use the apex of the side seam on a lifter’s pants as a proxy for the greater trochanter and hip joint. I coach my lifters to get that bony landmark below the superior ridge of the patella at the bottom of the squat using lay terminology. I abuse the cue phrase, “Get your nuts as low as the middle of your calves.” (My female clients love when I talk about their scrota.)

I selected this position because it seems to require more muscular tension from the hip girdle to occupy and sustain volitional control at that height. My hypothesis is that squatting to this depth allows a trainee to cultivate more strength as compared to one that requires relaxing of the seat and sinking ass-to-grass (ATG). This depth preference also satisfies my tendency to select a depth that emphasizes as much of the development of the hips and quads as I can, without regard for what squat variation I am using.

However, this default squat height of mine is higher than giraffe buttcheeks by competitive powerlifting standards. Competitive standards depend on the federation and the judges’ eyes that day, if I can be frank. The general consensus in the powerlifting community is that the hip crease must descend below the kneecap to be a legal squat within most popular competitive rulesets. Desired target attributes require a judicious selection of squat depth.

Here are my guidelines for understanding the role of the ankle in the squat:

  1. If the person has even a modicum of passive ankle dorsiflexion, and most do, try training a basic barbell squat. I only really need about 10-15° of passive dorsiflexion (maybe less) on average for the green light. My mental 15ish° prerequisite is entirely arbitrary. I made it up a long time ago, and it’s served me fairly well. Further, progressively heavier loads encourage more dorsiflexion and, subsequently, more robust squat depth by smooshing those with lower mobility into their soon-to-be-previously passive range of motion.

Low bar squats will be more achievable if 15° or less is the absolute limit of passive flexibility, but be aware that shoulder mobility may be a short-term barrier to low bar squatting for the untrained or deconditioned athlete. One of the simplest methods of addressing low bar squat-specific shoulder mobility is with Paul Horn’s low bar squat position stretch. Generally, this process is sufficient to address the needs of training low bar squat position. There are many ways to improve shoulder extension, horizontal adduction, external rotation, and scapular retraction to facilitate this position. Those methods are beyond the scope of this article.

The person squatting may not have sufficient strength to squat to depth on day one; they need to keep training and/or try solution #2 below.

2. If the person does not have at least 15° of passive ankle dorsiflexion and/or cannot squat to their selected definition of depth, try using lifting shoes or higher-heeled dress shoes.

In the stickman illustrations so far, the sole of the foot has been flat against the ground. The sole of the foot can be shimmed higher at the heel with a modification to footwear. When outsourcing ankle position with specialized equipment by pitching the top of the foot forward with a raised heel, the angle of incline at the tibia can be made artificially more forward. This will “replace” diminished ankle dorsiflexion.

I do not recommend placing plates under the heels if ankle dorsiflexion is a problem. Even with a partner to assist with placement, it’s still more dangerous than useful. What if the plates slip on the platform while your client is squatting? This would displace the base of support during the rep. Falling down with heavy stuff sucks, remember? You could, perhaps, find a way to ensure the plate doesn’t move. You know what’s easier? Putting on heeled shoes. If your client would rather cut corners on a safety issue instead of spending 70 USD on a pair of entry-level lifting shoes or stretching their stiff, sedentary, rusty, crusty, and dusty cankles, then they have their priorities mixed up.

If a person has decided that it is important to them to increase their ankle dorsiflexion, use a minimalist shoe, or experience strength with only their bare feet and no supportive gear, then consider trying solution #3.

  1. If lifting shoes didn’t seem to help achieve the desired squat depth, precede squat training with targeted ankle mobility training.

I tell my clients to go barefoot or don any deformable shoes they’d like (i.e., not rigid-soled lifting shoes) and then stand on a stable, elevated surface—like a stair step, a wooden plyo box, or a few rubber bumper plates stacked on top of each other. The balls of their feet will be in contact with the edge of the elevated surface, with their midfoot and heel hanging off the edge. The trainee then allows their weight to sink into their heels and actively pulls back on the top of their foot with the muscles of the shin. They hold that active position for several 15- to 60-second intervals of passive calf stretching combined with non-stop volitional ankle dorsiflexion.

This can be done to both legs simultaneously for less stretch intensity or one leg at a time for more intensity. The toe angle can turn in or out with locked knees to stretch the medial or lateral head of the gastrocnemius muscle, respectively. If the knee is bent and the toe angles are played around with, one can stretch different parts of the soleus muscle. For incredibly stiff ankles, I’ll have the client do a few of both to hit the entire gastroc-soleus complex. After a time, I reassess the passive ankle range of motion (in-person or online) and determine if soleus or gastrocnemius is the bigger problem and focus their practice on the toe angle and knee position necessary to fry the bigger fish.

I have coached hundreds of people’s squats. I have met exactly one person who could not squat to depth due to a passive limitation to both ankles’ dorsiflexion. It’s this guy. He’s already close to squatting to depth after four weeks of targeted stretching. Written above is his calf stretch programming prior to high bar squatting. He already knows to actively contract the muscle on his shin (tibialis anterior), so that is not written on his program.

This technique works because of a concept known as “reciprocal inhibition.” Basically, for the tibialis anterior muscle to contract and lift the top of the foot into ankle dorsiflexion, the nervous system relaxes and elongates the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) concurrently to allow the motion. If the calf muscles are unable to relax and elongate due to spasticity or are adaptively shortened—for example, from a prior injury or surgical scar tissue—the ankle won’t be able to dorsiflex well. The less ankle dorsiflexion, the less tibial incline, the less forward knee position, and the less quad stress from squat variations.

  1. Regarding balance, the prevailing concept of not falling over is still true. If the ankle dorsiflexes during the squat, and it almost always will to some extent, then allow an appropriate amount of forward knee travel. The more dorsiflexion, the more forward travel is encouraged. How much does your client need specifically? That’s your job to figure out, homie.

Stance Considerations

This section is a bit more complicated, but if you can understand it after several read-throughs, you’re doing pretty good. If you can see this stuff in a single rep, respond with an appropriate one- to two-word verbal cue, and as a result, elicit a movement response in the lifter that improves the stability, balance, and execution of a barbell squat as it’s happening in real time, you’re an incredible coach for the basics of squat technique. At Barbell Logic, we can all do that. Every last one of us. I’m not joking; we are actually that good at our jobs. That aside, don’t sweat this more complicated section if it’s difficult at first. You’ve already gotten the main ideas. Feel confident in your ability as it currently is, and try to deepen your understanding at your own pace. It comes at different times for everyone.

Up to this point, our stickman model has only been seen from the side. This view is called the “sagittal plane.” To understand this next section, you need to consider both the sagittal plane and the “transverse plane.” The transverse plane can be easily seen if you think about a bird’s eye view, staring straight down at the top of a person’s head. In the original Grand Theft Auto game, the camera looked straight down on the player’s character: I’m talking about that view.

The MySquatMechanics model conflates a few things in the transverse plane. The Stance Angle setting moves the thigh segment laterally away from the midline. Because the feet aren’t shown in the transverse plane view, I can only assume that the toe angle and thigh angle are the same angle. If you build a better squat mechanics app that includes toe angle separately as part of your model, let me know. Until then, we will operate under the assumption that the lifter has sufficient strength, skill, and range of motion to drive their knees outward and away from the midline such that the long axis of the thigh segment runs parallel with the long axis of the middle toe when viewed from directly above.

Discussion will consider stance width and toe angle as the same thing, but they are not. I cannot emphasize that enough. The tibia rotates in place at its contact points with the femur if the toe angle does not match the thigh angle at the bottom position of a squat. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is worthy of acknowledgment. Do not make the mistake of conflating the two things in your head. I repeat: toe angle and stance width are not the same. I am speaking as if they are because I don’t have another choice, given the tools I used to write this article. Sue me.


  • Tibia: 43cm
  • Femur: 40cm
  • Torso: 69cm
  • Max Ankle Flexion: 30°
  • Stance Angle: 15°; then 45°


  • Baseline Hip/Back Angle: 50°
  • 15° Toe Angle/Stance Width Hip/Back Angle: 47°
  • 45° Toe Angle/Stance Width Hip/Back Angle: 55°
  • Baseline vs. 15° Difference: -3°
  • Baseline vs. 45° Difference: +5°
  • 15° vs. 45° Difference: +8°
  • Baseline Knee Angle: 43°
  • 15° Toe Angle/Stance Width Knee Angle: 40°
  • 45° Toe Angle/Stance Width Knee Angle: 47°
  • Baseline vs. 15° Difference: -3°
  • Baseline vs. 45° Difference: +4°
  • 15° vs. 45° Difference: +7°
  • Baseline Ankle Angle: 46°
  • 15° Toe Angle/Stance Width Ankle Angle: 43°
  • 45° Toe Angle/Stance Width Ankle Angle: 51°
  • Baseline vs. 15° Difference: -3°
  • Baseline vs. 45° Difference: +5°
  • 15° vs. 45° Difference: +8°

Key Takeaway: When using wider stances and toe angles, the back angle tends to become more upright/vertical, and the hip, knee, and ankle angles all open. This reduces the stress on the posterior chain muscles by trading off that stress for more mechanical compression along the trunk instead of rotational forces along the length of the back segment and the hip, knee, and ankle joints.

Discussion: Notice how the stickman model gets progressively “thinner” in the wider stances above. When using a wider stance/toe angle and when the thigh segment is constrained over midfoot, the thigh segment will appear shorter. There is something happening in the transverse plane that isn’t fully appreciated from that view: the thigh segment is foreshortening. It’s an illusion. The length went toward widening the stance in the transverse plane.

Burgos’ Practice Recommendations: A moderate stance width places the heels under the shoulder joints when viewed from behind. A moderate toe angle is ~30°.

For high bar squats, I prefer narrower-than-moderate stances, less-than-moderate toe angles, and donning lifting shoes, if possible, for the passive bonus to quad stress.

For low bar work, I prefer a moderate stance and toe angle for most of the general population, people with non-competitive or longevity-related goals, and clients for whom strength training is not a major component of their occupational identity. Why do they pay me for coaching? I don’t know. Maybe the same reason Jessica Rabbit married Roger: I make them laugh. Three Benjamins per month, and you, too, can get made fun of two to seven times per week. If you’re local to the 757 area code, hit me up.

I intermittently use wider stances and toe angles for low bar squats as well. Usually, these variations appear during my Conjugate Method programming, primarily as modifications to support glute development in the squat during dynamic effort training or as lower-stress max effort variations. I also do this to change it up for people from time to time. Flat shoes or lifting shoes are both fine with me for low bar squats; I don’t have a clear preference at this time.

A Critical Aside Regarding Hip Drive

As I said before, I want to coach positions that optimize quad stress with respect to hamstring and hip stress for the chosen squat variation. But, several years of teaching the squat using the concept of hip drive has created significant confusion among the people that I coach or among new clients that have been coached by my peers in the greater barbell strength coaching community. I’ll clear this up as best as I can.

“Hip drive” is an observable movement where the pelvic girdle is displaced upward out of the bottom position of the squat. Hip extension is often thought to be the first movement out of the bottom, and I don’t think that’s true. Hip extension, by name, refers to the hip angle. When the hips extend, the hip angle becomes more open. The back segment would become more vertical out of the bottom by driving the pelvis forward and up, instead of just up. This is a less common error and is emphatically not the action I am looking to observe. Conversely, if the hip angle closes and the back angle becomes more horizontal, the knee joints have extended, and the knee angles have opened with comparatively little upward movement of the bar. We squat to lift the weight upward, not to pull stripper moves with heavy weight loaded on the back.

So, what is hip drive if not describing a hip action? The only means of displacing the hips upward without perturbing the base of support is to maintain the back angle out of the bottom position and drive the legs into the Earth. Doing so would open the knee angles as the quads extend the knee joints. If the back angle is maintained with muscular effort from the gluteal, hamstring, and back extensor groups, then the back segment (and the hips that are attached to the bottom end of it) would travel upward. Personally, I think “hip drive” should be named “leg drive.” Let’s explore some examples.

Above is a lifter executing the final rep of a set of heavy low bar squats. She is using a moderate stance width with her heels under her armpits/shoulder joints. Her toe angle is ~30°. Her back, thigh, and calf segments are fairly proportional. Note the change in the more closed hip angle and more horizontal back angle during her ascent on the right as compared to her bottom position on the left. You’ll also notice very vertical shins, resulting in a more open knee angle. She has rearwardly displaced her hip girdle during her initial rise instead of driving straight upward, resulting in what a former colleague called “the stripper move.”

The barbell will feel quite heavy on the lower back and hips during this execution error. In the worst case,  the bar could roll up the lifter’s neck. In the event of a missed rep without safety attachments, this movement error can, and has, resulted in severe maiming and death. It is concerning how common a practice it is to squat without safeties, given how prevalent this movement error is among new and trained clients alike. Coaches, command your clients to put their safeties up. If you don’t, I will.

Below is a different lifter who is also low bar squatting. This man is using a similar stance and toe angle as the woman above. Unlike the previous lifter, this lifter has a longer back segment and shorter thigh segment. If you think he is high bar squatting, his proportions are throwing off your coaching eye. Notice the very subtle change in verticality along the back segment after the drive.

This error is much less common in my experience. Usually, this error occurs when the lifter tries to avoid leaning over when squatting, likely due to fear or inexperience. This is not the case for this lifter. This is the second rep of a heavy double (a set of 2 reps) and is likely loaded, at minimum, above 405 lbs. He is not afraid of squatting and is one of the most experienced lifters among current Barbell Logic clients. It is characteristic of heavy loads and higher efforts to expect some subtle variation between individual reps of a set.

Finally, let’s examine a criminally good-looking person squat with good back angle management. This absolute gusher of a stud lifter nailed the back angle out of the bottom of a paused high bar squat, maintaining the same back angle on the drive as in the bottom. In case you haven’t figured it out, this is me, Burgos, the author. Shocking, I know. How can someone skirt the gray area between delicate feminine grace and immense toxic masculinity? This is a nigh impossible task, but God gives His hardest problems to His silliest geese.

In truth, this image only exists due to the magic of video editing and pause buttons. I actually screwed this set up by sinking too deep into the bottom position across all the reps. Getting loose at the bottom costs more fatigue. When the effort hits a peak, I demonstrate the first error above (closing the hip angle) and reveal that I am merely human.

Bringing It All into Balance

The basic barbell squat is a simple and beautiful exercise. At its core, it is a loaded version of a fundamental human movement. Most babies can squat their body weight fairly easily. This should be surprising because they can barely do anything correctly on their own.

All humans should squat if they have the limbs and potential to do so. Rather than trying to define one particular squat variation as “the squat” and attempting to argue optimality from that position, I personally choose not to care. If my client pays their membership fee on time, I will use whatever variations keep them excited to squat because, again, all humans that can squat probably should.

No matter your approach to teaching the squat, make sure you don’t fall down. And by “don’t fall down,” I mean “don’t fall down into the endless pit of minutia.” Your exercise selection should be a reflection of your client’s goals. Their goals belong to them—nobody else. Not even you.

Besides, you and your client are going to die regardless of which squat you choose for them. This is true without exception. No matter what we do, we are going to die. In the grand scheme of things, your fervor about your default squat variation serves only an imagined purpose. It does not matter. Since purpose can be imagined, your purpose can also be imagined. If your purpose revolves around teaching the basic barbell squat, then I recommend imagining a chill world where people can squat a bunch of different ways without the barbell nerd police raising a ruckus about it. No one cares how anyone else squats. Even if anyone did care, it ultimately doesn’t matter anyway. They’ll eventually die, too.

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