I like to start each blog post with a story. Mostly because I hate blog posts that seem like the individual never makes a mistake or has done one thing, got more information, and changed their mind. Something I can really relate upon in this manner is elevating the heel during squats.
Before I got into fitness, I played competitive basketball for almost 10 years. A sport that due to the running and jumping along with injuries to the feet and ankles, does little to help proper motion of the foot and ankle. In fact, in college, we had scheduled times to get tapped for our ankles. I got taped so much during the years that my feet now sit in a position where the foot and ankle are in dorsiflexion (pointing up towards my body).
You can imagine then when I started to focus on more deep squatting (which was a very controversial idea in the late 90’s early 2000’s), I HATED it!!!! The limitation in my ankles and feet made my squat feel horrible and weak, I often leaned far more over because of the restrictions and would end up with tons of discomfort in my low back because of it.
Most people don’t realize that when you have an injury to the foot/ankle complex it changes how your body even uses your glutes!
I started to try to find ways to help me in my squats such as elevating my heels. Ah, so much better, but here is the thing, I really wasn’t getting any better without the elevation and over time I started to have some discomfort in my knees that I hadn’t had before because of the extra shear force that elevating the heels causes on the knee.
It wasn’t till I had a therapist do some really great soft-tissue work in my calves and feet did I all of a sudden have the range of motion to squat deeply without any elevation of my heels. The experience was TOTALLY new to me and it became my mission to squat deeply without the artificial support of something under my heels.
Sadly, several years ago I found out how bad my feet were because of my basketball career. Apparently at some point I had broken my talus bone in my foot (an important bone), but was never aware of it so didn’t address it and the broken bone became fused with other bones in my foot. Meaning structurally, I couldn’t move my foot as well. Did that mean I had to give up my dream of achieving the depth of my squats that I had hoped?
While creating DVRT I started to find ways of holding and creating tension on the Ultimate Sandbag that would allow me perform squats in the manner that I really wanted. That and realizing what helped me from the top down would also help me from the bottom up during squats. What do I mean? Well, it takes us to our first point!
If you think this is JUST about counterbalance, keep reading because it isn’t!
Proximal Stability for Distal Mobility
If you have followed our DVRT work for awhile or maybe other programs like Functional Movement Screen (FMS), you have heard the concept of proximal stability for distal mobility. The classic example is that if my core isn’t able to provide stability for my spine, the nervous system perceives this as a threat and reduces the range of motion of the shoulders and hips. If I improve core stability (proximal) I then often see more mobility in my shoulders and hips (distal).
While this is absolutely true, what most overlook is that this concept doesn’t only apply to the spine. For me, I started using this concept with my feet. Since the ankle is suppose to be a mobile joint and the foot more stable, it made sense then if I could create stability with my feet I could create mobility in my ankle. That is just what happened!
Understanding concepts like the joint by joint approach helps illustrate why proximal stability works so well.
Instead of coaching people to “sit back in their hips”, or “push their knees forward” the first thing we do is get their feet active and that makes a dramatic difference in the great majority of squats. This is important because we are teaching our own body how to control movement better and not relying on artificial support which changes our nervous system’s dynamics of motor control (oooops, I just get to geeky there?)
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Physical therapist, Jessica Bento does a great job explaining how we do this in a practical sense.
I do joke a bit about getting too geeky but the truth is that if we want to get people or even ourselves better results we do have to possess a deeper understanding of how the body functions. We try our best here to make complex subjects very digestible so one that fits right in is that our body activates the core from “the bottom up” (the feet) and “top down” (really the hands and lats).
Most therapists actually discuss the body in relationship of quadrants, not really individual muscles or joints because everything is connected.
Remember I said using the Ultimate Sandbag really helped me in the squat too? It isn’t so much about having a counter balance (I’m sure to some small degree but I’ll explain why) because if I hold the weight in front of my body or push it out without creating that proximal stability, I don’t get better in my squats. So, if it was just about counterbalance then it shouldn’t matter what I do with the weight right?
DVRT Master, Cory Cripe helps us explain why there is more intent behind these DVRT squats than most realize!
The fact we have minimally 5 different ways to position the Ultimate Sandbag in front of our body to not only have the option of going heavier, but also changing the stress to my core for that proximal stability, means that I can progressively teach how to become more reflexive in how I use my core for that proximal stability which relates to automatically having better squats without the addition that extra tension.
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Is That It?
Will these ideas fix everything with your squats? No, it won’t! It will help about 90-95% of the squats you see though. One of the other really important concepts is how we deliberately create the tension in our feet and then push our knees outwards. This is really important because as renown expert, Dr. Stuart McGill comments about squats and using the glutes in that the glutes are only really a big part of squats the deeper we go into the movement. That is due to the greater external rotation of the hip that occurs to “make space” for the pelvis to sit. Of course, for most people this means we really have to cue these concepts in order to have people understand how to use their body better in squats and get more out of them.
When you watch Cory break down these DVRT squats with Megan Berner don’t just watch the movement, listen carefully to the cues and intent he is putting behind how Megan uses her body. When you combine the right cues/intent with the right tools you can get some amazing results. Helping people see that exercise doesn’t have to be painful is removing a MAJOR roadblock for so many people. Take your time practicing these squats and being more mindful how we communicate the goals of the movement. Then you will find you won’t need that heel lift! Check out some amazing ankle mobility drills you can use along with these concepts of better squats by Jessica and an important description by corrective exercise expert, Chuck Wolf, on how elevating the heels can cause a disruption in proper squat patterns below!
You can check out more how we teach better squats in our DVRT Online Education programs, you can also find out these concepts and how we combine other great functional training tools in our L.I.F.T. squat module you can find HERE for 25% off with code “save25”
“I have seen many trainers place a heel wedge under the client’s rear foot so they may be able to attain greater depth for increased tension on the legs. Is this defeating the purpose of the mechanics of the squat? When a wedge is placed under the rear foot, the foot is now placed in a relatively plantar flexed position. This will create a chain reaction of relative calcaneal inversion and tibial external rotation. Yet, as the client squats, pronation must occur, which creates calcaneal eversion, tibial, femoral, and hip internal rotation. Where does the conflict seem to take place in the chain? Quite possibly the knee, as the tibia “wants” to internally rotate when ankle dorsiflexion and knee flexion occurs, yet the tibia is placed into a relatively externally rotated position with a heel wedge; while during the squat, the femur internally rotates as the hip flexes.
The mechanics of the knee requires the “cooperation” of the tibia and femur to allow proper internal and external rotation. In flexion, the tibia will internally rotate slightly faster than the femur. Yet with a heel wedge, the internal rotation will be compromised, and the mechanics of the squat are now altered. Limitations in range of motion of the calf, quadriceps, gluteals, or back can create limited motion during the squat. The remedy may not necessarily be the heel wedge, rather an integrated assessment of the entire kinetic chain of the client.”
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