The squat is regarded as one of the “must-do” exercises for those looking to build, shape, and tone their bodies -- hence, its moniker as the “king” of all exercises. And, it’s true, the squat is a fantastic exercise for building muscle and strength as it recruits a tremendous amount of muscle tissue in the body, particularly that of the quads, adductors, and glutes.
Unfortunately, as great as the traditional barbell back squat is, it’s not an ideal exercise for everyone due to a whole host of issues including training history, personal preference, anatomy, and biomechanics.
Simply put, some people just aren’t built to squat with a barbell on their back.
Today, we’re going to look a little deeper into one of those anatomical anomalies that can hamper an individual’s performance in the squat -- flat feet.
What are “Flat Feet”, Anyway?
The term “flat feet” (also known as pes planus or fallen arches) describes a postural deformity in which the arch of the foot collapses causing the entire sole of the foot to come into complete contact with the ground. It is estimated that between 20–30% of the general population have an arch that never fully develops in one or both feet.
Interestingly, we’re all born with flat feet, and it is not until the age of three, that we begin to develop an arch.
Flat feet are caused by loose ligaments in the feet, resulting in a flattened arch. They can be hereditary or brought on by bone breaks, bone dislocation, tendon tears, and/or arthritis. Furthermore, flat feet can also develop as a result of a sedentary lifestyle or excessive weight gain, particularly in adults 40 years of age and older.
The condition is usually not painful or non-life threatening, but you may notice especially sore or tender feet following bouts of prolonged physical activity, such as endurance training or high-intensity workouts.
How Flat Feet Hurt Your Squat
To understand how flat feet kill your squat performance, it helps to have a general idea of the anatomy of the foot.
Each foot contains 26 different bones held together by 33 joints. It also contains over 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
The purpose of the arch in your foot is to provide a bit of a “spring” to your step and help to evenly distribute the weight of your body across both feet and legs.
Having flat feet may cause the feet to roll to the inner side when standing or walking, leading to excessive outward pointing of the feet, a condition known as overpronation. This also leads to uneven distribution of body weight across the legs and feet, which can result in muscle imbalances and overuse injuries.
Flat feet can also place unusual stress on the ankles, knees, and hips -- all of which are involved in the squat.
Based on all of this, it’s no surprise that having flat feet can seriously impair your ability to perform a squat pain-free, let alone proficiently.
Essentially, having flat feet causes outward rotation of the feet and an inward rotation of the knee, which upsets the natural alignment of the lower leg, leading to unnecessary torquing in the knee joint.
Note, that this occurs when you are just standing still.
When you begin to squat down, the problem compounds due to the fact that your lower body now has the added compressive force of a barbell on the back coupled with trying to stabilize and keep you upright.
Over time, the continued torquing forces on the knee can damage the ligaments, particularly the medial collateral ligament (MCL), potentially leading to a partial or complete torn ligament.
So, is there anything you can do to combat flat feet and safely train your lower body?
How to Work Around Flat Feet
Increase Foot Strength
To start improving the quality of your foot arch, you need to activate and strengthen the muscles in the foot. While there are 20 different muscles in the foot, the two you really need to be concerned with are the muscles of the big toe and the posterior tibialis.
The posterior tibialis is a key muscle that impacts stabilization as well as plantar flexion of the foot. It also serves a major role in supporting the medial arch of the foot, making it imperative that you keep it strong and supple just like every other muscle in your body.
Two of our favorite exercises for strengthening the muscles of the feet are the “coin” exercise and an exercise specifically tailored for the posterior tibialis.
To perform the coin exercise:
- Place a quarter on the ground and step on it with the big bone of your big toe
- Press down as hard as you can with your toes, trying to create an arch in the foot.
- As your foot begins to arch, makes sure that the ball and heel of your foot are still in contact with the ground
- Hold this position for 20 seconds, then perform on the other foot.
- Repeat 4-5 times daily.
To perform the posterior tibialis exercise:
- Anchor a resistance band around a stationary object
- Position your body such that the resistance band is on the outside of the foot you’re training
- Stand on one leg and draw the band across your body. Doing so, activates the posterior tibialis as it tries to stop you from falling over
- Perform 10-15 repetitions on one side before switching sides and repeating for the same number of reps
- This exercise can be performed 3-5 times per week
Strengthen Your Abductors
The adductors are the muscles on the outside of the hip (gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and Tensor Fasciae Latae) that assist in moving the leg away from the centerline of the body. Weakness in these muscles can lead knee valgus during squatting, further contributing to unwanted stress on the knee, hip, and ankle joints.
One of the easiest (and most effective) ways to strengthen the abductors is to perform lateral mini-band walks.
To perform mini-band walks:
- Wrap a mini band around your legs just above your knees.
- Drop into a quarter squat and take 10 steps to your left, controlling the movement of your legs and never losing tension on the band.
- Perform 10 reps to the right under control.
- Rest for 30-60 seconds and repeat for a total of 3-5 times per day.
Part and parcel with strengthening the muscles of your feet and hips are using the proper cues during the squat. Even if you don’t have flat arches, cueing can help reinforce good technique during squatting and help avoid stress in places you’d rather not have it (knees, low back, etc.).
A couple of our favorite squatting cues are:
- Keep the knees in line with the toes during the squat
- Drive your knees out when squatting
- Spread the floor apart with your feet when squatting (this helps externally rotate the feet and hips).
- Focus on pressing through the outside of your heels during the squat, which helps engage the stabilizing muscles thereby keeping the knee in proper alignment.
Flat feet is a common disorder of the foot affecting a significant portion of the population. It’s not life-threatening, but it can lead to pain, discomfort, and potentially injury when squatting. If you deal with flat feet, use the tips in this article to help improve the quality of your feet and be on your way to pain-free performance in the squat!
- Pita-Fernandez S, Gonzalez-Martin C, Alonso-Tajes F, et al. Flat Foot in a Random Population and its Impact on Quality of Life and Functionality. J Clin Diagn Res. 2017;11(4):LC22–LC27. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2017/24362.9697
- Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust. "Foot Information - Foot and Ankle." Oxford University Hospitals, 2019.