Vary foot position for better leg development

May 3, 2014

Q: I have heard that changing the way you position your feet while working legs can be important. Can you explain this in detail and give any recommendation for what works best?

A: Today, it’s the fancy bells and whistles of the fitness industry that get all the attention, but sometimes some of the best-kept secrets are the simple things that most people never think about, like how you position your feet during leg training for best results.

Safety first

First off, leg training requires the use of one of the most injured joints in the human body - the knee. Train correctly and develop, strengthen and improve the muscles that surround the joint, making it stronger, more shapely and capable of greater mobility. Train incorrectly, and you’ll wear out your knees like an old hinge on a rusty door. Although not all accidents can be prevented, there are certain techniques and precautions that promote safety. When doing any leg exercise, remember to angle your toes slightly outward to take the strain off the knee joint, never let your knees track past your toes when squatting and leg pressing, and don’t go below a 90-degree bend.

Work all muscles equally

The muscles in the front of the leg are called quadriceps because they’re a combination of four different muscles including the rectus femoris, middle thigh; the vastus medialis, inner thigh; vastus lateralis, outer thigh; and the vastus intermedius, the middle of the upper leg. All these muscles work together, but can be targeted separately for optimum results.

Narrow stance for outer sweep

To shift the focus of the exercise and concentrate on the vastus lateralis or outer quad, use a narrower stance, less than shoulders' width, with feet spread 6 to 8 inches apart. This can be done with close-stance barbell squats, leg press or front squats and leg extensions.

Wide feet for inner quad

As I mentioned above, changing your foot position can dramatically alter the development of your legs, and positioning your feet wider than your shoulders with your toes angled wider toward the corners of the room will develop the vastus medialis or inner thigh. This exercise can be targeted with exercises like plie squats, side lunges, wide-stance barbell squats and leg extensions.

Shoulder width for strength, overall development

Just like the legs of a table provide stability, a shoulder-width stance is the best for strength and overall leg development. So if your goal is to lift more weight or grow bigger muscles, a moderate stance with your toes slightly angled outward works best. This type of stance allows you to place the balance of the weight squarely on the legs, hitting all the quad muscles at the same time, and lift weight heavy enough to force the body to release muscle-building hormones. Good examples are barbell squats, dumbbell squats, leg press, hack squats and front squats.

So the next time you work legs, remember to periodically shift your foot and toe position for a more comprehensive workout that hits all parts of the quadriceps instead of just one. Remember for most people, working out is a mindless pursuit, but for those of us who consider it a science, the way you position your feet can make a big difference in leg development, strength and knee health.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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