Toes turning out in the squats – is it tight ankles or hip capsules?

toe turn hip capsuleOften when people perform this website’s preferred style of squats (wide-stance, straight-feet squats with an emphasis on external rotation from the hips) a technique problem can be encountered when the toes turn out during the movement.

We have discussed the implications of footwear on toes turning out here, so this article focusses on the question of whether it is restricted range of motion in your ankle joints and/or restricted range of motion in your hip capsules which is contributing to the problem.

Whilst everyone is different and you should never follow blanket rules, it is more often the case in the people we train that the primary cause of the toes turning out in this style of squat is tightness in the hip capsules. Why do we say “this style” of squats? Because the dorsi-flexion demands on the ankle in a wide-stance squat are not significant, whereas in closer-stance squat training they can be and so, for closer stance squats, the general rule would follow the reverse and it would be tight ankles leading to turned out toes.

One area in wide-stance squats where the ankle range of motion is tested heavily is in the external torqueing feeling in the lower leg, and this is where intelligently applied stretching and soft-tissue rolling of the outer lower leg can be very helpful.

 

How to resolve tight hip casules

Firstly you need to check that it really is tight hip capsules that are causing the turning out toes problem and you may also need some convincing – you’re probably thinking “how can my hip capsules have anything to do with my toes turning out!?”

The easiest way to check is, fortunately, part of the solution. Wearing your squatting footwear, lay on your back with your hips one foot or so from a wall and the rest of your body perpendicular to the wall. Put your feet flat against the wall and mimic a medium width squat stance on the wall with your feet straight. Keeping your knees out above your ankles the whole time, then start to slowly walk the feet out towards your wide stance squat width inch-by-inch. The best way to do this is to swivel the heels out one inch (so they are wider than the toes) and then let the toes join them, making the feet parallel to each other again. Whilst doing this, ensure you are maintaining a slight natural arch in your lower back (i.e. do not allow your pelvis to anteriorly rotate and your lower back to round into the ground).

What most people notice when they do this is that it is very difficult to keep the feet straight and the restriction is felt right in the hip joint, the capsule of ligaments that make up the “socket” that the “ball” head of the femur is held in (the “ball and socket” joint that is the hip). If this is you, now that you understand this tightness, go to do a wide stance squat very slowly and stop your descent as soon as you feel an urge for your toes to turn out. Chances are, that now you will feel and understand the tightness in your hip capsule that is creating this.

 

Once you have checked it and proved to yourself that the tight hip capsules are causing the toes to turn out, the solution is quite straightforward, if a little uncomfortable. You need to regularly (at least before every squat session) perform the drill described above with the feet against the wall and hold the widest position you can hold for at least 2 to 3 minutes, to try to effect change in the hip capsule. Then, when you begin your squat session, do not mindlessly squat all the way to parallel each rep, if the only way to do so is by turning out your toes. Instead push the depth of each rep only to the first point where the toes wish to turn out. Once at this point, pause the squat and hold it there, focussing on feeling the stretch in the hip capsules and working to improve their flexibility.

Over time you will get there – to parallel wide stance squats with straight feet – but be warned that stretching the hip capsules is much more painful than stretching tight muscles. It is safe but it can be uncomfortable and it takes time; discomfort and time we believe is worth it though.

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  1. Hi Chris. I had hip replacement surgery 9 weeks ago and as I return to squatting, the foot of my operated leg is starting to turn out which seems very likely to be related to the surgery. Using this technique, first of all, do you think its safe to do so and secondly can I still increase the ROM now that I have an artificial hip?

    • Hi Clare, sorry for the late reply. I’m afraid without knowing the specifics of the ROM allowed by your replacement joint, it is not possible for me to comment on either whether this technique would be safe or whether ROM could be increased. I’m sorry I have been unable to help.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I have this problem a lot, and always assumed it was to do with me being ‘knock-kneed”.

    I really want to try this exercise, but I’m finding it a little hard to visualise. Any chance you could put up a photo?

    Thanks

    Sam

    • Hi Sam,
      The image posting section of the website controls is playing up at the moment.
      Think of it as replicating the bottom of the squat position except your feet are on a wall instead of on the floor and your back is laying on the ground instead of being vertical in the air.
      Then work on getting your feet and knees out wider but whilst keeping straight feet. If your hip capsules are tight, you should feel a decent stretch in them.
      Chris.