Keeping the Heels Down

Article written by Jay Stadtfeld for

Whenever I coach a client one of the first movements they learn is the squat. I have them show me how they think a squat should be performed before fixing it. One of the most common things I witness is them popping up onto their toes instead of sitting back on their heels. It may be a mobility thing (and in some it is), but it could also be something more. Nevertheless, once they learn how to squat and keep their heels on the ground, it improves and often they comment it feels better.

The reasons for this are numerous, but the largest one is hamstring tension, especially for a low bar squat and deadlift. When you raise onto your toes, you’re effectively taking hamstring tension away, and forcing the quadriceps to take the brunt of the work. Mark Rippetoe illustrates this in his second edition of Starting Strength when he says, “If your hips go forward, your knees will too, causing the weight to shift forward.. This is bad for power, because anytime the knee angle closes, the hamstrings have been shortened at the distal end… and have been removed as a power source.”

For example, let’s take an old squat called the “Sissy” squat versus the “low bar” squat.

The Sissy squat is known for its quadricep building ability, and can be seen on the left. As you can see, the individual in the picture (aside from his sweet Richard Simmons-esque shorts) has allowed his heels to come off the floor in favor of the knees tracking far beyond the toes, taking tension off the hamstrings. Thus, obviously turning this into a interesting flexibility movement, but also a quadricep dominant exercise. Now, compare that to the low bar squat on the right, and you’ll see that the bar is put over the center of gravity, and tension remains on the hamstrings due to the heels on the floor, thus allowing heavier weights to be used. This angle may change when utilizing the “high bar” squat that Olympic lifter prefer due to its position that mimics the Front and OH squat, but the idea remains the same: Tension on hamstrings results in big weight being used.

Since a majority of us on this website are strength athletes, or at the very least care about being stronger, it makes sense that we’d want the latter of the two images to be us.

This applies especially to the deadlift. Perhaps more so than the squat, even. In your set up, the bar should be placed over the mid foot, then you bend over and your shins touch. The rest I’m sure you know well. I’m sure if you’ve ever done a deadlift, you’ll experience when the bar shifts away from your center of gravity. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. Now, imagine setting up with your heels off the floor and trying to pull that way. The weight would already be out in front of your center of gravity, hamstring and most posterior chain tension would be relaxed, and the deadlift would turn into more a circus act than it would a safe, effective exercise for strength.

If you see someone squatting or deadlifting (admittedly, I have never seen the deadlift bit in action), stop them immediately if you’re a coach. If you’re not, and you train in a commercial gym, you could always just sit back and watch as their knees or spine explode like a frag grenade. And as always, wear your helmet just in case.

  1. Rippetoe, Mark, and Lon Kilgore. Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training. 2nd ed. Sted: Aasgaard, 2011. Print.

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