Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Thoughts on That Heel Thing

Oh boy, here I go....

I remember the first time--it was about 4 years ago--I heard and saw a young assistant strength coach describe this "heels" method of teaching the squat. "Sit back, on your heels, drive through the heels and push the hips through." I had never seen anything like this. Why the overemphasis on the forward pelvic thrust and the slamming of the knees into hyperextension? In all my time around very talented and experienced coaches and athletes, I'd NEVER, EVER had anyone describe the squat in this way.

If you are standing still and just moving up and down with a weight on your back or in your arms to counter-balance you, you can get away with sitting back on your heels. In my opinion and experience, this is an unathletic, unnatural way to squat; and it usually involves little ankle mobility. Some people squat big weights and other swing big bells that way. That's fine if your feet are nailed to the floor.

But if you actually have to move and react to changing situations, you cannot live your life on your heels. If you have to apply force and power, within multiple planes and at a variety of speeds, you cannot be on your heels. You will be left in the dust or knocked on your ass. The well-developed athlete is balanced over the entire foot, with the center of pressure (CoP) constantly changing within the base of support (BoS), depending on where the center of mass (CoM) of the system is and what the next movement is going to be. What is the context of the situation? What is the task?

This is the concept behind the "ready position" or "athletic stance." I use the same concept when teaching a bodyweight squat, a med ball squat, a barbell squat or a deadlift; feel the floor with your entire foot. Do not simply isolate and overemphasize the "posterior chain." Coordinate the entire body to move skillfully and accomplish the task at hand. Simple squatting is one of the first steps when teaching the lower extremities to create and absorb ground-based forces--along with developing basic leg strength. None of these tasks should be done exclusively through the heels, or on the toes. What do you think all of those arches are for anyway? The human foot/ankle complex is a marvelous piece of work; learn to use it effectively.

Certainly, there are times when the CoP moves posteriorly to create more favorable leverage. There are times when you must cue novice athletes to flex at the hip to more effectively generate or absorb ground-based forces. However, you do not have to live and train on your heels to create the combined hip/knee extensor strength necessary to be a strong and coordinated athlete. And remember, it is coordination of all the hip, knee and ankle extensors.

I would really like know when/where this emphasis on the heels (in squatting, in particular) comes from. It now has a life of its own and has spread like the old "don't let the knees go over the toes" myth. Why all of this emphasis on the hamstrings and shunning of the quads with squatting? In my world, overuse of the hamstring at the knee and hip is not a good thing. The hammies are helpers and do lots of hard work in decelerating the lower extremities; they support and help control the pelvis/torso orientation. I am not so sure it is wise to view them as primary concentric hip/knee extensors. Seems like there are other single joint muscles designed to do that.

I am open to discussion and thoughts. Feel free to chime in.


Anonymous said...

while I'm thrilled to see anyone challenge anything crossfit oriented (not because I disagree with them, but because I'm tired of the crossfit me-too-isms), I think you might be reading stuff into "heels".

My take on it is just: it helps people keep from rolling up onto the ball of the foot when they're at the bottom of a squat, especially when shouldering a lot of weight, and it helps emphasize keeping the bar close as people transition from the first to second pull. I don't think anyone is suggesting athletes run, jump, block a tackle, etc., from the heels. But that's just my take.

Like a lot of rules of thumb, it's only good up to a point, and generally for beginners.

Catherine Imes said...

In regards to swinging or snatching a KB...

As I've said in commentary here, one method was taught had it's basis or roots in the PL Deadlift. That particular method calls for sitting back on the heels and thrusting with the hips.

I suppose it is an easier method to teach.

However, the method that I've come to embrace is more dynamic. As the bell swings back (on a swing or snatch), the weight is momentarily on the heels. But, as the bell moves, the weight is shifted from the heels to an optimal point for the "hip pop". When this happens right, the bell goes nearly straight up very quickly.

I've drawn similar parallels even with rowing on a C2. On the return, the weight may shift more towards the balls of the feet, when you engage for the pull, you shift the weight back to the optimal place so that you can engage the hips/glutes and quads for the explosive pop. If you always kept the weight on your heels, you would be able to row, but you wouldn't get the good pop on the pull. Same thing with a KB snatch or swing. You would find yourself "driving" through the heels, but this wouldn't facilitate any type of vertical quickness of the bell. It would just drive the bell outward.


Trihardist said...

I instruct my water aerobics students (particularly in my arthritis classes) to "push through the heels" when doing squats, because I want to try to get them to feel their glutes and not get lazy with their ankle flexibility.

I appreciate your emphasis on athleticism and skill, though; I'd like to emphasize that more effectively with my land-based clients, and you've given me some ideas on how to do that.

Steffi said...

That is interesting. I have been taught to squat by my olympic lifting coaches (both of them professionals, both successfull competitive lifters all their life in western and eastern Germany, currently training two national junior champions) exactly this way - keep your weight on your heels, push your hips forward when coming out of the hole at the bottom. (It worked out okay: ) Yesterday I asked my coach about this - he told me, his cueing depends on the athlete he is working with: If someone shows a tendency to balance on theire toes and 'folding forward' when coming up, then the cue "push through your heels" is appropriate.

Jen said...

When I did my very first body-weight squats I had my heels up just for the record and it was really hard for me to keep them down!

Now as I've been coaching Beginners It seems it's the most popular cue...only because it seems people tend to be up on there toes.

I hear what your saying and agree in many ways. Don't forget that we are working with folks that aren't "athletes" a lot of the time. Or people who have never done a squat or DL, FS, BS.

I see people doing thrusters who never touch the ground with there heels....drives me nuts!

I'm not doing a lot of Olympic lifts myself these days. I'm doing mostly Power lifting.
On my DL I do drive via my heels and was cued to do so in the beginning so that I could learn to activate my gluts and hams.

It seems to me anytime I have people do body-weight squats that the most common issues is that they have there heels up.
Or that with the FS I see many people with there weight on the balls of their feet.

It's not that I don't want folks to use there entire foot because they need to if it's a complex movement.

If your referring to the Video on CF main site I can see why your thinking what your thinking.
Over my years of listening to coach I don't think he's saying don't use your whole foot. I think he's referring to what seems to be a fact that people are quad dominate.
Good stuff!

Anonymous said...


There are/were coaches, even very very good coaches, who taught their rowers to always push with their heels. If they saw your heels come up, they'd be down your throat like a very large, angry tongue depressor. These tend to be older coaches who are used to slightly different equipment (from the 80's and earlier, say).

There are also coaches I know who coach rowers to keep their weight on the balls of their feet always. These coaches tend to put more emphasis on length. I know coaches of both kind who have coached world champions -- or at least world finalists.

After thinking about this for a while, I decided to coach my rowers just that they keep pressure on the soles of their feet throughout the drive. Tougher than it sounds, especially for beginners. I figured that's plenty of complexity for a novice.

Jerimiah said...

I find similar situations with my patients. Many have never squated properly before and when first asked to squat they automatically roll up on there toes and thrust there knees forward as they complain about knee pain so the heels method is a good cue to start them with. Once I see that they are squatting with good ROM and control, I rarely mention the heels again, partially because I am now focused on their hips. I have tried but have never been successful trying to fix someone's hip movement without first fixing their foot placement. I find it is easier to teach keeping the chest up and back extended if I can keep their heels on the floor as opposed to the other way around. I personally learned about the heals method from Crossfit, then more in depth from Dan John.

Catherine Imes said...

Thanks for the info on the rowing. My comments were based on my experience and how I relate it to "Hip Drive" I learned from the Jerk in terms of weight on the feet.. I was able to pull a 1:34/500M pace (can't maintain it for 500 yet) by focusing on exploding from the mid foot. Not sure if that is good, I'm 5'4 but a heavyweight.

Now, when I pull back the weight ends on my heel (at the end of the stroke). But, there is definitely a change of pressure from the ball (return), to the midfoot(explode on the pull) and then back to the heel..

Thanks again.


Anonymous said...


That's an extremely good split for someone 5'4". FWIW, there was an analysis a couple/five years ago that suggested that opening the back was where rowers' real speed came from, and not the initial leg drive. When I read that I started to think about o-lifts, which is why I got started. My k-bell skills are still mediocre to poor, though. Working on it.

The Iron Maven said...

Thanks for your comments everyone.

I agree, the heels cue can be very useful. And I'm all about using the Big House effectively. I guess my frustration is with people who, allow it or teach it to be extreme--the toes are unweighted and there is no ankle dorsiflexion. All this for bodyweight squats. This isn't just a CF thing; it happens in PT clinics, training rooms and weight rooms all over.

And then I guess the whole pelvic thrust should be a separate topic--many seem to exaggerate this in a squat, and it looks more like a swing (not a CI swing, but some others!)


So, what do you think it is that makes so many initially attempt to squat up on their toes?

P.S. Nice squats Steffi. Keep it up.

Jerimiah said...

My knee jerk guess is short gastrocs and hams combined with attempting to maintain COG. I don't think most if any people do it cognitely.

Steve Caddy said...

This is really about the difference between what we do and we're cued to do.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot lately because cues are so critical to effective coaching, but also the source of a great deal of misunderstanding about actual mechanics ... and from that, the seed of a great many arguments about how certain movements ought to be performed.

A movement cued with 'jump through the roof' isn't a movement 'performed by jumping through the roof'. The heels thing is the same, only the difference is more subtle.

The heels cue just gets a lot of people from biasing too much to the toes. If you can get them to think heels, you might get them to perform with their whole foot. The issue comes when the cue is so common that it's mistaken for actual mechanics (even by some coaches).

At least, that's what I think is the problem. The solution is in diligent coaching and athlete awareness (and in these kinds of discussions!)

Good thoughts everyone :)

The Iron Maven said...

Great post, Steve. You hit it right on--at least in my mind.

Boris said...

Steve said exactly what I was thinking. I had a long conversation w. Mark Rippetoe about cues as exaggeration to get athletes to perform w. proper technique vs. actual proper technique.

ja said...

Here's a thread generated from this post.