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Proper Foot Position in the Squat
Greg Everett  |  General Training  |  May 3 2011

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Proper Foot Position in the Squat, Greg Everett,
There is some current discussion on foot position in the squat following a post by Kelly Starrett, and I’ve been asked to comment. This article is not intended to criticize him or anyone else, nor is it intended to stand as irrefutable fact. Its purpose is to quickly organize my thoughts on the topic and answer the requests for my input; I'm sure I've left out a number of things I want to say. Use the available information to make your own decisions on training and coaching.


Arguments for Toes Forward

The following is a quick and very basic summary of the arguments for squatting with the toes forward as presented by Kelly Starrett (view the post and video here).
  • Potential knee injury magnitude is reduced with a reduced valgus/rotational force.
  • Squatting toes forward is motor learning to ensure this stance when jumping and landing; squatting with toes out teaches athletes to jump and land with the sub-optimal toes-out position.
  • Landing with feet out means potential for valgus knee movement.
  • Squatting with feet/knees out requires constant focus to maintain position—loss of focus means valgus knee movement.
  • We need to prepare athletes in a way that limits the magnitude of potential injuries.

Toes-Out Squatting

The first question to ask is why do we squat with the toes out? There are two basic possible answers. The first is that we rotate the feet outward to match the direction of the thighs to ensure the knee is hinging soundly rather than twisting. The second is that the individual has flexibility limitations (namely limited ankle dorsiflexion, and/or tight adductors and/or internal hip rotators) and is forced to excessively turn the toes out and roll onto the inside edges of the feet to circumvent normal ankle and hip movement when trying to achieve a deep squat position. Clearly the latter is not a legitimate reason to squat with the toes out, but this also has no bearing on the argument because it’s entirely unrelated—this is excessive and unintentional outward rotation.

While the hips have a large range of possible motion, there is a fairly narrow plane in which they can flex maximally. This plane varies slightly among individuals based on anatomical differences, but it’s always a position of some external rotation. This is easily demonstrated by squatting to full depth in a narrow stance with the feet straight forward—you’ll find it impossible to maintain an extended lumbar spine as the femurs hit the end range of motion against the pelvis. Now take the feet out a bit wider and turn them out a little and notice the feeling in your hips—the femurs will more freely move up in the hips. This can also be demonstrated in a seated position by pulling your knee straight up and back to your chest—you’ll feel the hip max out. Now from this position, bring the knee out to the side and you’ll find you’re able to pull it farther back without feeling the compression of the femur against the pelvis.

This is why we squat with the knees out to some degree (that degree, as mentioned previously, a bit different from athlete to athlete)—to allow the fullest hip range of motion possible, which means the greatest depth possible while maintaining proper spinal extension.

Which brings us back to the feet. As I stated above, we turn the feet out to match the direction of the thighs. That is, if the thigh is exiting the hip at about 25 degrees from the centerline, we turn the feet out about 25 degrees from the centerline. If the feet are also placed at the correct width, this means that the knee hinges as it’s intended rather than being twisted as it flexes. Below is a photo showing what happens to the knee when the feet are straight forward (or nearly so) and the stance is not narrow with the knees straight forward as well. Now we’re not talking about potential catastrophic valgus knee failure—we’re talking about repeated stretching of inelastic connective tissue surrounding the knee, leading to chronic knee pain, joint laxity and the resulting increased injury potential, as well as the potential with each squat of an acute injury. This photo is of a relatively wide stance, but you should be able to visualize a narrower stance.


Photo by Rob Macklem, best weightlifting photographer EVER

Clearly the above photo is a maximal-depth squat as performed by weightlifters. So what about non-weightlifters? The short answer is that the shallower the squat, the less relevant the toe position is. You can do a quarter squat with your toes turned in without hurting yourself, although this isn’t exactly a great idea. An athlete who is squatting only to horizontal or barely breaking horizontal, particularly with the hips-back, limited-knee flexion posture typically used with such squatting, will usually be able to do this with the toes forward because the flexion of the knees is minimal and consequently, the rotation never reaches the degree it would with complete knee flexion (as pictured above). If you insist on squatting with the toes forward, I would recommend keeping the depth limited.

Consider a powerlifting squat (or an archetypal one at least)—the feet are extremely wide, the toes possibly turned out less than many weightlifters’, and the depth to horizontal thighs at the greatest. The potential for a knee to drop inward abruptly and injuriously is a real possibility in such a stance because the feet are far outside the knees, meaning the joint is not directly supported by the lower leg. Further, with the toes and knees pointed straight forward, think of the lateral force on the knee (imagine what you would feel in your knees if doing the side splits with your feet elevated and toes straight forward). If you’re not very actively pushing out and engaging the lateral hip musculature, you’re in trouble. This wide stance and limited outward rotation of the feet also binds up the hip capsule and makes it easier to support the bottom position of the squat. Try a squat with an extremely wide stance and you’ll feel what I mean—you’ll find that you’re forced to stop around parallel because your hips bottom out.

I don’t teach a powerlifting squat for a number of reasons not requiring discussion here. My lifters squat with their feet under their thighs. Remember our discussion about aligning the feet and the thigh to ensure proper hinging of the knee—this only works if the feet are under the legs. If they’re outside or inside the leg significantly, even with the foot parallel with the thigh, the knee will be forced to rotate. I actually like my lifters’ stance to be very slightly outside directly under the legs—this allows the hips to sit slightly between the thighs to help absorb the force at the bottom of the squat somewhat rather than a more abrupt, jarring stop at the bottom as occurs if the thigh and lower leg are perfectly stacked. But this is an extremely minor deviation and creates insignificant rotation at the knee.

Without getting entangled in the interminable weightlifters vs. powerlifters argument, let’s consider the weights squatted by each, the positions of those squats and the gear involved. The world record powerlifting squat is over 1000 lbs (more or less depending on the federation). This is fully geared and to approximately parallel depth with a wide stance. Now consider some squats done by weightlifters. One that comes to mind was done by Pat Mendes—an 800-lb squat to full depth with nothing other than neoprene knee sleeves. For those who will argue that it was just bouncing his ass off his calves, how about Mikael Koklyaev squatting 794 lbs relatively slowly with a weightlifting singlet, belt and neoprene knee sleeves—and some impressive depth to boot. The point is simple: even though the absolute weights squatted by weightlifters are lower than the top weights lifted by fully geared powerlifters, weightlifters’ knees, hips and ankles are moving through much greater ranges of motion with nearly as much weight and with virtually no supportive gear, and as a consequence, it seems reasonable to state that no other athletes are putting those joints through as much work in the squat. Where are their feet? Nearly invariably pointed out.

In fact, let’s not even limit ourselves to weightlifters or deep squats. Take a look at Chuck Vogelphol squatting 1175 or Mike Miller squatting 1220. Feet? Pointed out.

The knees going valgus during a squat has a couple possible causes. One is a squat stance wider than flexibility or anatomy can support—that is, the feet are outside the knees and the knees simply cannot be pushed out far enough to remain over the feet. Another is ankle inflexibility; this will also be accompanied by a wider than desirable stance along with excessive external rotation. In both of these cases, the valgus knee movement will occur during both the eccentric and concentric portions of the squat.

More common is valgus knee movement during only the recovery from the bottom of the squat. If the leg position is correct on the way down, flexibility and stance can’t be the problem; in this case, the issue is related to strength and activation of the lateral hip musculature. The athlete is either weak here or for some reason is not properly engaging the muscles necessary to maintain proper positioning and movement. If the athlete is strong and properly engages, there is no need for a particularly high degree of focus on preventing valgus knees; no more focus on this is required than on extending the knees to stand from a squat if the movement is learned and practiced correctly and weaknesses are addressed.

Finally, if the stance is of proper width, valgus knee movement, while not ideal and certainly offering a potential for strain in various locations, is by no means any particularly great opportunity for serious acute injury. The knees are still supported to a large degree by the lower leg vertically—they’re not unsupported and buckling in as they would with a squat stance too wide.

Spend some time on youtube watching the elite level weightlifters. You’ll notice the overwhelming majority squat with the toes out. Yet ACL tears and strains and other serious acute knee injuries are extremely uncommon among weightlifters, despite the ballistic nature of the majority of their squats.

In short, squatting with the toes out to a correct degree (i.e. not excessive rotation to accommodate ankle inflexibility) and with a proper stance width will not set an athlete up for sudden valgus knee failure, and will in fact help keep the joints moving through their intended planes of motion safely.


Jumping, Landing and Field Play

My knowledge and interest does not extend very far into athletic endeavors outside of competitive weightlifting; however, there are a few points I want to address with regard to this part of the argument.

If we agree that jumping and landing and similar sport-specific actions are best performed with the toes forward, this does not mean we have to agree that the toes-forward position is how we should be squatting. I won’t argue with this notion, because not only is this not an area in which I have extensive knowledge, I also have no objection to it.

But gym training does not and cannot perfectly mimic play on the field. If we had to perform exactly in the gym as we did on the field, we could do virtually nothing in the gym. Strength training and the like is intended to develop basic athletic qualities, not finer sport-specific motor patterns—the latter are learned, developed and practiced with sport-specific training on the field. If we’re going to say that because we want our football players defaulting to a toes-forward stance, we’re going to have them squat this way, that same rationale would need to be applied across the board, which would mean, for example, that we would need them to squat on the balls of their feet rather than with more pressure on their heels because no one sprints or cuts or jumps flat-footed.

To compare the squat to sprinting, jumping and landing is somewhat problematic because of both depth and stance. While landing from a jump may be done in a squat-width stance, both sprinting and jumping will nearly always be performed with a narrower stance. Further, these athletes are not absorbing the force of landing from a jump by squatting—knee and hip flexion is of a limited range of motion. Likewise, neither the support nor the drive of a sprint involves anywhere near the degree of knee and hip flexion seen in a squat. And finally, jumping is not performed from a deep squat position.

Additionally, most of these actions involve primarily single-leg support and drive—the positions of a unilateral leg movement are not identical to a bilateral one. For example, even though I teach my lifters to squat with the toes out, they don’t do single-leg work, such as lunging (or splitting in the jerk) with the toes out—but these are different activities that require and allow different positioning. The key to stable unilateral movement and support is strength and control at the hip and ankle—learning to engage the muscles that keep the leg where we want it and making them strong. Interestingly enough, the kind of lateral hip engagement and strength that prevents the knee from going valgus in a single leg support is very similar if not the same used to keep the knees out over externally rotated feet during a bilateral squat.

As far as motor learning goes, consider repetition volume. How many times in a given period is an athlete squatting with the toes out, and how many times in that same period (or over a career) is that athlete jumping, landing or planting a foot and driving in a sprint with the toes oriented as they should be? The volume of the latter eclipses the former by orders of magnitude, and as a consequence, there should be no concern about the motor patterns being altered undesirably.

Athletes need to be taught and practice proper jumping, landing, cutting and footwork mechanics in their sport-specific training, not in the weight room.


Training for Success

The primary goal for any coach or trainer is to prevent your athletes from getting injured. Injured athletes can’t play or train. This should always be kept in mind when deciding how to train an athlete. However, there’s a difference between training in a manner that prevents injury and one that plans for failure. I prefer the former. In other words, train wisely and safely for success rather than modifying your training to prepare you for impending doom.

Squat in the way you believe and demonstrate to be the safest and most effective for you, and teach your athletes to do the same.
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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.
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27 Comments
Steve W 1 | 2011-05-03
I think the way you naturally stand has to factor into it in some way. From videos it appears Kelly's feet naturally point straight ahead. Mine don't so I turn mine out slightly like Greg describes.
Jon Clarke 2 | 2011-05-03
That is such an Awesome shock that you think Rob Macklem is the best Weightlifting photographer in the world! Not only is he (he is!) But he tells me how much swing I am putting in my Snatch! He has some super cool shots of the Worlds in Turkey.
Ricky Frausto 3 | 2011-05-03
Greg, This is strength and performance speak and how we train athletes. I am with your view and believe KStar's to be very clinical. It may even hold tru during unloaded squats but not during loaded squats. It is in my estimation that a volleyball player tearing the ACL from landing is either a fault of not teaching athletes proper landing or lack of strength and not because feet are pointed out. Good stuff Greg.
Ichiro W 4 | 2011-05-05
I agree with you, Greg. Jumping/landing have completely different motor pattern from squatting and therefore there is minimal transfer between these movements due to different speed, ROM, loading mechanism and etc, meaning you have to learn how to jump/land by jumping/landing and not by squatting with toes forward.
Shawn G 5 | 2011-05-05
Thanks Greg! Super legit!
Chuck J 6 | 2011-05-05
Hey Greg Your site is one of only a few that I check EVERY SINGLE DAY I log on the net. Keep up the good work. Chuck
Mike B 7 | 2011-05-06
I understand most of what Greg is saying and it makes sense to me. Kelly on the other hand has officially confused me. Loaded, unloaded, availability, FMS? He lost me. I just remember reading this Gray Cook article a couple of years ago: http://www.sbcoachescollege.com/articles/MyStanceonSquatStance.html "This is also the reason why we teach the loaded squat the way great lifters squat. The test squat and the loaded squat are two different patterns needed for two different skills."
BFG 8 | 2011-05-07
Hmm, in the shown weightlifter picture, it sure looks like his knee would collapse if his feet weren't straight forward. This raises a question of cause and effect - do his thighs point straight forward because his feet are straight forward, or do his feet point straight forward because his hips and thighs default to that position when receiving a heavy snatch and feet forward is the only way to support that position?
Mark H 9 | 2011-05-07
I think the most important thing to remember is the last thing Greg said, "Squat in the way you believe and demonstrate to be the safest and most effective for you, and teach your athletes to do the same." I would even underline the "for you" part. I can honestly say I learnt to squat with toes out and i even had the correct range of motion until i stood up and then my knees would start tracking in a bit. In more recent times, that is 1.5 months ago, i tried a less of a toes out squat, similar to the Snatch above only with my feet under my thigh in correct alignment, and both my front squat position and Back squat position has bettered and the squat gone up 20kg and no knees tracking in. It works for me and it was something i tried, by chance, before these articles came out. Don't dismiss what Kelly says nor what Greg says but listen to what greg said last and decide for yourself.
Ian Carver 10 | 2011-05-08
Great article as usual, Greg. This topic has been a hot one as of late. It came up at my gym a few months back after another gym owner told one of my clients she was squatting incorrectly (yes, this pissed me off), depsite rock solid form/ROM, no injury/pain, and the ability to move large poundages. Despite the initial info coming from K Starr, whom I respect tremendously for his breadth and depth of knowledge, I vehemently argued the point and defended the "toes out" position for the reasons you outlined as well as the fact that for most people, it is an anatomically correct position and is biomechanically efficient and safe position when under load. Notice I said MOST people, for as Mark H. pointed out, there are a few for whom a toes out position degrades the efficiency and safety to some extent due to anatomical reasons. So, in the end I would suggest only a small percentage of lifters to go toes straight, so long as the knee and hip didn't suffer at the expense of the position. In the end I agree that sports specific applications and squatting are two separate things with their own inherent movement patterns. Trying to box the vast majority of people squatting in an unnatural position to compliment other sporting endeavors may not be the wisest thing to do, although the local PT's might like it!
Mark H 11 | 2011-05-08
Well Said, Ian. I forgot to say I agreed with Greg on the sports application bit. I also failed to mention I teach all my new lifters and clients toes out squatting and adjust later if needed. However, most don't.
saulj 12 | 2011-05-08
Nice commentary by two great coaches talking about the same thing but in two very different contexts. Looking forward to hearing more on the next Robb Wolf podcast. Both pieces of commentary have challenged me to both revisit videos of elite weightlifters, read up on the mechanics of squatting and hip internal/external rotation and continue to experiment with my squatting stance.
Shane Miller 13 | 2011-05-10
It is correct for an individual to be able to squat with the toes forward. If you cannot perform an unloaded overhead squat while keeping the toes forward there is a flexibility/mobility issue that can and will restrict performance. That is what he is talking about when he refers to the FMS(functional movement screen). If those restrictions are present, such as foot eversion, foot pronation, valgus knees, lateral shifting of the hips, etc...., you are at higher risk for injury and probably are not lifting as much as you could otherwise. However, Gray Cook and Lee Burton, developers of the FMS, clearly state that a loaded squat should be performed with the toes out. I agree with everything this guy said except for squating under load.
Matt Schwartz 14 | 2011-06-03
Great article Greg. While I respect Kelly Starrett's knowledge a lot, I think he is either dead wrong on this subject or not making his point clearly. Squatting deep in a wider stance is not equivalent to an unweighted resting squat with one's feet under the hips (the Paleo chair). And even more different than running or jumping from a hip-width quarter squat. In all those cases however, the feet and thighs must track. If not, there is a twisting force on the knee, and that causes problems. It's that simple. Squatting with the feet straight is a bad idea. No one at a high level does it, and it will injure trainees who squat this way. I've tried squatting this way based on K-Star's advice. My knee joints were in pain for about a week after a single workout. And I never have knee pain from squatting. It was very bad medicine. Don't do it. Thanks again for your article. Matt
Latricia 15 | 2011-07-02
You're the greatset! JMHO
kecks 16 | 2012-03-03
I am a weightlifter, former track athlete. There is a huge carryover effect from full depth weightlifting squats to jumping - there's a German study about it which was quite impressive (compared quarter squats often used in track with full depth squats high bar in regard to their carryover to jump and reach?!). I'll look it up. The toe position is just irrelevant here. Yes, you jump with your toes forward. But you carry no weight when doing so and you do a quarter squat at best. That's just a different motion than squatting full depth with load and your body is able to understand that. No problem here.
Shoshie 17 | 2012-03-30
I'm a woman with very broad hips an a pronounced Q-joint. I found squatting to be very difficult until I tried doing it with a wide stance and toes out. Now it's pretty much my favorite exercise and I can do it for high reps without pain and under load. It feels like a very natural movement with the points of least stress being at the top and bottom. Squatting with my feet forward feels much less natural for me and if I do it enough or under load, my knees definitely start to complain. I think what you said about taking anatomical differences into account is really really important. FWIW, my toes point out when I stand naturally.
Ollie 18 | 2013-01-21
I may have missunderstood. But it seems to me you can have various squat widths and still keep the feet under thighs and toes at the angle of the thigh. In other words as you got wider you would have to rotate the feet out more... Any advice on what width is strongest given a good base of flexibility?
Greg Everett 19 | 2013-01-22
Ollie - Try a variety of positions and I think this will make more sense. Yes you can change the width and angle of the feet to some degree and still have the legs stacked over the feet - but you have to factor in the rest of the posiiton/movement, not just the legs and feet in isolation. In terms of what is strongest, that will depend on the strengths of each athlete with regard to hip vs quad strength and the like.
JN 20 | 2013-05-09
Was reading K Starrs new book last night and it completely confused me and what I have always learned and taught. I myself find it impossible to squat with toes straight, personally, however some people have no problem with it. I am glad I found this post because after reading his book, which I do love, I was so confused and felt that everything I learned and taught was wrong. I just don't see how many people are able to squat with toes straight and get that proper depth, it seemed near impossible to me.
SR 21 | 2013-06-27
JN - How can you love his book if you don't even know what it says? The whole point to neutral foot and knees out A.K.A 'K-Starr's version', is that this creates larger external rotation force at the hip, creating a stable joint positon; resists valgus force at the knee and establishing a stable arch in the foot by locking up the ankle joint. The foot is designed to absorb force by collapsing, and transmit force by stiffening up, this is why the ankle joint locks in this way! if you cannot squat this way, you are missing range somewhere and thus will need to address this IF you want to squat this way. If you don't, turn your feet out and do what is comfortable, just be aware this isn't a 'perfect-world' technical model, as described by Kelly, and your tendency to collapse into a valgus position may be slightly greater. You can still be a great athlete without adopting a 100% biomechanically optimal technique. Your willingness to adopt this 'optimal' position just depends on your capacity to adapt and grow as an athlete. In regards to adopting these principles for Olympic lifting, it becomes more difficult to apply an optimal technical model to every athlete. Using one example, lower limb length is a huge deciding factor as to the foot placement within the set position, with many tall athletes adopting an excessively externally rotated hip position (duck feet) simply to clear the knees during first pull. This is far from 'optimal' but allows the athlete to complete the movement. Within that, the coach should seek to improve mobility and capacity to create torque where possible, but how far do you think a 6ft 5 basketball player will have to drive his knees out if using a neutral foot postion!? Probably not going to happen. Just my thoughts..
kt 22 | 2013-06-27
SR, Thank you for your follow up comment. I've never understood the reasoning behind KStar's recommendation until now. Now I understand because of your sound structural explanation. I will reassert my efforts to mobilize and achieve optimal positioning; given that I am quite short, I do not think it will be a problem for me in lifts, etc. Best and thanks again, Kristina
Greg Everett 23 | 2013-06-27
SR - So you're creating a "stable joint position" at the hip by sacrificing the mechanics of the knee? I don't understand why the concern for torque at the hip (which is arguably not that important if you consider the combined enormous squat weights and the common foot position of world class competitive weightlifters) eclipses the concern for functioning knees? Outside of instances in geared competitive powerlifting, how many of these catastrophic valgus knee explosions are occuring? Even IN geared competitive powerlifting? That injury is a product of a wide stance and weights that are only possible with supportive gear (and if we're being honest, other "gear"), not of the angle of the feet. Using any problems of such a squat (wide-stance competitive PL) as supporting evidence regarding how weightlifters, but especially recreational lifters of fitness enthusiasts, should squat makes absolutely no sense. There is an enormous difference between possessing the mobility to be able to sit into a squat with your feet forward (which I agree is something that athletes should be capable of doing) and actually training the squat with that stance. And there is an enormous difference between a real squat (i.e. a full-depth Olympic style squat) and a partial depth squat used by another athlete for the sake of developing basic strength (e.g. a parallel or even just below parallel squat) - the latter allows more lattitude with the angle of the feet because of the greatly limited degree of knee flexion occuring, particularly when you consider that those using such a squat are also typically keeping the shins and hips back significantly, further limiting knee flexion. Calling a toes-forward squat position "100% biomechanically optimal" is, I would say, irresponsible at best without a large amount of qualification and education.
alex 24 | 2013-07-09
there seems to be a lot of debate about this topic in general right now but i guess what I would say is depending on the squat type to some degree, whatever feels right to you is probably right. For example for me to really feel like I am able to enable my full posterior chain I basically have to align myself to squat and then clench my buttcheeks together with my toes even maybe slightly off the ground, then whatever position my feet rotate to will be the one at which my glutes are flexed and my posterior chain can activate the most. honestly some days i look at my feet and think they are probably pointing out more than others but I always feel the full activation of my posterior chain and this enabling to finish in a strong position seems to help keep my back properly aligned as well. I dont have a bunch of scientific knowledge or links to god knows where, but it seems to work for me -- i squat three to four times per week depending on training cycle and have no withstanding injuries despite doing full depth olympic style squats with 405 lbs at 165 lbs bodyweight. I dont know if this particular style of alignment works for anyone else but it seems to be working for me.
ND 25 | 2013-08-25
I loved reading (and watching) both side. I think you guys missed Kstars point about loaded squat vs unloaded squat. The guy works with powerlifters and weightlifters all the time. They go over proper toes out position in several of his videos. He also works with all sorts of main stream sports athletes and goes over default motor patterns. He was saying "toes straight" to create a default motor pattern for sports athletes that need to jump or sprint in an unloaded situation. I had to watch Kstars video a few times to catch it. Iʻm no expert but I think you guys can both agree on toes out for a loaded squats and toes straight for unloaded default motor pattern. P.S. Greg you site is amazing. Iʻm bummed it took me so long to find it. Keep the good coming.
Peter 26 | 2014-06-19
Outside of knees out and toes out, the more I emphasize distributing the weight on the outside of edges of my feet my knees appear to track more naturally (I turn my feet out). I have been dealing with pain on the outside of my knee; when I place weight on outer edge of feet, no knee pain??? Does this make sense. I do feel with weight on outer edge my knees and thighs spread out further. This is primarily for back squats but for my oly lifts is this something I should strive to achieve in the catch; it produces better traction of the knees for me?
Greg Everett 27 | 2014-06-19
Peter - If it feels better, do it.
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