It is easy to be contrarian nowadays and try to be popular online. So, I get why people may think when I say that heel elevated squats are NOT great for your knees they may think I am trying to be such a contrarian, or this is just click bait. The truth is, it is neither!
People can get very upset about heel elevated squats not being awesome for the knees because it makes squatting easier and it seems like everyone is doing it. Well, unfortunately that doesn’t mean you are getting the benefits you may believe. Let’s look at why heel elevated squats could actually cause problems for your knees.
One of the biggest keys for healthy knees is having good ankle mobility. Why? For one, it means when we walk, run, or do most functional daily activities that the force that comes up from our body is being dispersed appropriately. If the ankles don’t move well, the next joint up, your knees, take quite a beating. What most people need is what is known as good ankle dorsiflexion.
In a natural squat, you would see LOTS of this dorsiflexion of the ankle. Think of it as when you pull your foot up towards your body, that is dorsiflexion. This ability allows our foot to not only move naturally when we squat, but also during locomotion which is key in building healthy knees.
Heel elevated squats create an artificial environment for such ankle mobility. That is why drills like we show below are actually attacking the issue so that we can better movement not just for a squat, but for anything we do in real life and sport!
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Research actually shows, “In the present study, it was observed that as heel height increased, participants exhibited progressively greater ankle plantarflexion and progressively less ankle dorsiflexion during the barbell squat, which was consistent with our hypothesis. When the heel is raised, the ankle is forced into a higher degree of plantar flexion, decreasing the ankle dorsiflexion angle .”
In other words, we get the OPPOSITE training effect we want in the ankle joint. So, how is this helping our knees exactly?
We Need More VMO & Quads
A common thing that I heard in the 90’s then died off until recently was that we need to perform heel elevated squats because we need more VMO. Well, this is a pretty outdated idea on multiple levels. For one, research has shown repeatedly that it is really difficult to significantly isolate the VMO from other muscles.
The bigger question is why would we want to in the first place? The VMO and the quads are no more important to our effort to build healthy knees as is foot stability, ankle mobility, the posterior chain, the hips, and core.
Still think we can isolate or activate more VMO than other muscles?
We Need More Knee Mobility
I don’t know where this idea started that so many people who have knee issues also have knee mobility problems. My best guess is that it is attached to the, again, outdated idea that if something doesn’t move well then it is a problem with the joint. The issue is that when someone has pain or discomfort, the brain recognizes this and shuts down the ability to use the area the same way, this is the simplest way to describing guarding by the nervous system.
When the pain or discomfort subsides, often people get their range of motion back. Trying to crank or your knee mobility when you have pain or discomfort is about as opposite of what you should be doing to solve the issue. Providing better foot stability, ankle mobility, hip and hamstring strength, and core stability are all far superior ways to regain the mobility of the knee because we are providing an environment where the brain can see there is no more danger in allowing the knee to move.
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Physical Therapist, Jessica Bento, shows some pretty effective and tough ways to see if the whole body is working as well as it should.
BUT, Everyone Says That Heel Elevated Squats FIXED Their Knees
I can understand when you see so many people say one thing, it is hard not to think it is true. Even though most of us have been taught to have some pretty healthy skepticism when it comes to “truths” on the internet. In some cases, some people may have been working on other attributes on accident like foot stability, ankle mobility, better hamstring strength, greater glute activation, core stability and they happen to also be doing heel elevated squats. Not sure I would say the benefits came from the heel elevated squats though.
But it didn’t hurt them right? Listen, I am not going to say that if you go perform heel elevated squats you are going to hurt your knees the minute you do them. I AM saying that you aren’t solving any of the real issues that are commonly related to knee health even when it comes to squatting. There would be a strong chance too that if you performed heel elevated squats for a prolonged period of time you COULD definitely start to experience some aches and pains in the knees.
Most of all though, it doesn’t help us move better in life, sport, or other aspects of the gym. Heel elevated squats don’t address our movement needs, fix the issues contributing to most knee issues, and on the most foundational level, doesn’t teach us how to squat well.
I explain a lot of this and give you better solutions in the post below!
Learn how you can actually build better knees with physical therapist, Jessica Bento’s DVRT Rx Knee Course HERE. You can also just grab her great corrective exercise workout programs HERE and everything (including our Ultimate Sandbags) are 25% off with code “winter” HERE
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