Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Creator DVRT Restoration Certification, Knees Over Toes Course, DVRT Rx Shoulder, Knees, Pelvic Control, & Gait Courses)
The internet is an “interesting” place. If you challenge a popular idea, you are a “hater”. If you question a concept you should, “just focus on yourself”. If you ask for research or any literature on a topic and there isn’t any, then “we are just too far ahead of the research.”
This reminds me of a concept known as social identity theory. What’s that?
“Henri Tajfel’s greatest contribution to psychology was social identity theory. Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).
Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.
We divided the world into “them” and “us” based through a process of social categorization (i.e. we put people into social groups).
This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them). The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.”
My point? When people become invested (financially, emotionally, both) into a concept it can be VERY hard to change their mind in light of any actual evidence. So, if you are hardcore sold on the idea of elevating your heels when you squat chances are I am not going to convince you otherwise. However, I have to be hopeful that more information can impact people whether you casually see such training ideas and wonder if there are good, or if your favorite coach recommends them and it confuses you to as to why and ask yourself if it is still a good idea.
What is my issue with heel elevated squats? Well, we don’t have time to go into all of them, but let’s highlight my top 3.
Ankle Mobility Is Essential & Heel Elevated Squats Don’t Fix That!
I’ve never had anyone argue with me that ankle mobility isn’t important. Especially what is known as ankle dorsiflexion is essential in everything to how well we run, jump, and walk to knee and low back health. Yet, I hear people say that heel elevated squats actually fix this type of ankle mobility, but that doesn’t make any sense.
The most obvious issue is the position itself. Instead of giving what may sound like my opinion, let me actually give some research on the topic. Especially from this study below…
This was a study using a very small heel elevation by today’s standards, only UP to a 1 inch heel elevation. What was found?
“The major finding of this current study was that mean muscle activation was significantly higher at medial gastrocnemius and lateral gastrocnemius in 0.75- and 1-inch conditions when compared to no raised heel height (P < 0.01). The difference was about 12 to 60% among four different heel heights. This finding supports the results of Sriwarno et al. (2008) who reported that peak gastrocnemius activation was increased as the heel height increases during a deep squat movement.”
So, not only did this study, but it references another study (there are others) that show our calves become MORE active when we go heel elevated squats, even in rather small elevations. This is a problem for our goal of increasing ankle mobility because if the calves are very active they create the opposite action which is plantar flexion. In other words, this does not address or help ankle dorsiflexion, but it may actually make the lack of mobility even worse!!!
We Don’t Get Significantly MORE VMO Activation & It Doesn’t Even Matter
Another reason people say they do heel elevated squats is they want to work more of the VMO. This is a muscle that in early research was thought to be a common cause of patellar femoral problems of the knee. That is because this muscle was thought to help balance the movement of the patella. However, much of the more current research has both pointed to the fact that the VMO is no more important than any other muscle, isolating the VMO is very difficult to impossible, and elevating the heels doesn’t significantly increase VMO activation compared to other muscles.
As the above study states, “Although there was a small increase of mean VM and VL activity (4 to 13%) with raised heel, the increase of muscle activity was not significant among all the conditions (P > 0.05). This finding supports the study (Edward et al., 2008) that examined a similar movement with four different heel heights in women and found no significant mean VM and VL activity between barefoot and heel heights that below 3 cm.”
What we do see is a decrease in gluteal activity in most heel elevated squats. That is because as people perform heel elevated squats they don’t abduct their hips very much because the artificial position allows people to bring their feet in and have their knees go straight ahead which they wouldn’t be able to do with their feet flat on the ground. Not abducting the hips lowers glute activation and therefore removes a key component in the control of the knee during dynamic actions which is hip control.
The Stacking Of The Trunk
To be honest, the idea of “stacking” the trunk/core is maybe the most confusing for me. In my 20 years of being a clinician, going to physical therapy school, attending different continuing education courses, I have NEVER heard of the term of “stacking”. So, if my interpretation is incorrect, please send me the research or any information on the topic. I’m always open to looking at ideas, but there has to be something behind them.
What I did find was this quote from a strong proponent of the stacking concept…
“For example, try this….
Stand up and set your feet shoulder-to-hip width apart and then arch your back as hard as you can.
Now try to squat down, and get a feel for not only how far you can squat, but how hard you have to work to achieve that depth.
Chances are you felt blocked or restricted going down, and you had to fight your body to get that low.
Now, let’s try this by stacking our body more effectively.
Unlock the knees slightly, feel the whole foot, and reach the arms long in front of the body.
Now squat down as low as you can.
Feel a difference?
Of course you did”
From that description, I’m left to think what is really meant by “stacking” is actually neutral spine. Any large deviation of the spine from neutral will negatively impact our ability to perform and/or be strong in most functional patterns. However, heel elevated squats are NOT the solution. Instead, we should be asking WHY do people have such large deviations from their neutral spinal position (neutral is a term used being relative to the individual, yes, everyone has slightly different neutral positions)?
The most obvious answer is that they don’t know how to use their core to prevent their spine from going into these positions. That is why we spend SO much time coaching hands and feet with people, this is the way we control our core and therefore our spine without any artificial environment being created. In the case of the squat, we don’t have our hands at our disposal so using load in very specific ways like Josh and I break down below is why we use the squat progressions we do.
You see it is rather easy to debunk heel elevated squats (not to mention I left out at least 2-3 more pretty significant issues) and if we can’t fix some of these issues we should simply reduce the range of motion of the squat rather than unnaturally altering the squat pattern. One can be progressed and made better, the other (heel elevated squats) can continue to mask pretty severe movement compensations.
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