Ever wedge a couple plates under your heels for squats? Or maybe you saw someone else doing that and thought, “What’s the point?”
Well, lifters usually elevate their heels during barbell back squats for three reasons:
- To increase their squat depth
- Because it feels better to them
- To keep their torso more upright which increases demand on the quads
Although heel-elevated (or heel-raised) squats are a great exercise to use, there are some coaches who say you shouldn’t use them. These are the three most common reasons they give:
- “It reinforces dysfunctional movement, which could increase your injury risk.”
- “It teaches your body how to squat wrong. Why not teach your body how to squat with your feet flat?”
- “It will ruin your athletic performance.”
Are they right?
Just remember, no matter how good an exercise is, some trainers will claim it’s bad for basically these same three reasons listed above. And although we’re just looking at the heel-raised squat, the same points you’ll see here can refute arguments against other “bad” exercises.
So let’s cut through the confusion, and then you can decide whether elevating your heel during squats is a thing you’d benefit from doing.
They DON’T Reinforce Dysfunctional Movement
The reason why some trainers say it does is because squatting with your heels elevated basically eliminates ankle dorsiflexion (when you bend at your ankle). Whereas, squatting with your feet flat forces your ankles to move into dorsiflexion. This is why people with restricted ankle dorsiflexion feel like they can keep their knees and torso in better alignment when using a heel lift.
So, it’s not that this is reinforcing their ankle restriction because it’s not causing them to restrict any further. Heel-raised squats are simply a technique that allows people to squat in a way that feels better to them while working around their limitation.
Now, I absolutely agree with the concern about not addressing restricted ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. It’s been associated with issues such as ankle injuries (1), knee injuries (2), and may also lead to abnormal lower extremity biomechanics during multi-joint strengthening exercises.
So, clearly, it’s important to work on improving ankle dorsiflexion if it’s limited, and to work to maintain your current range of motion if you don’t have any restricted ankle range of motion.
However, this in no way means heel-raised squats are a bad exercise that people must avoid, regardless of their current available ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. It just means that you need to do other exercises that involve moving or loading your ankle complex in the ranges not accessed during heel-raised squats.
In other words, it’s not that heel-raised squats will cause you to lose your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. It’s that you’ll lose it from not doing anything that regularly involves ankle dorsiflexion.
This is why we do multiple exercises for all areas of our body: one exercise allows you to train in ranges of motion missed by another exercise.
That said, go ahead and do heel-raised squats as you see fit. Just make sure you also do some calf and ankle complex exercises that allow you to access the ranges of motion you missed in the heel-raised squats.
Try the calf exercises I designed to increase your range of motion and build strength throughout it.
They DON’T Make You Less Capable of Squatting Without a Lift
Some lifters who can do regular squats (no heel raise) perfectly fine also like to use an elevated heel to squat because it’ll hit their quads more. Some do it because it involves less of the lower back allowing them to go deep and still maintain a more upright torso.
But critics will argue against these reasons stating that the heel raise teaches your body to squat this way and, as a result, you’ll lose your ability to squat well with heels on the ground.
This are several problems with this line of thinking.
Using their logic, I could say that trainers should never have clients or athletes ride a bike because it teaches them to move forward this way, therefore making them less able to walk or run properly. Each step you’d take would be in an (attempted) circular fashion if this were the case.
Luckily, we all know that just because the body learns how to ride a bike, it in no way means that the body forgets how to walk or run the way it normally does.
Learning how to do new things doesn’t detract from other skills you’ve acquired because the human body is highly adaptable. It can learn lots of ways to move without one thing interfering with another.
Multi-sport athletes are a glaring example. In fact, they’re more functional – not less – when they’ve exposed their bodies to many different forms of movement.
That said, it’s a different story if all you ever do is squat with your heels raised. Then yes, you’ll get used to squatting that way.
The best approach is to expose yourself to different squat variations to make your body more adaptable. That way you won’t reduce your ability to squat well when your feet are flat by mixing in some heel-raised squats, as long as you’re also mixing in regular squats.
They WON’T Ruin Sports Performance
The first arguments against elevating the heel are basically claiming it will ruin your functional performance ability. This is where things go beyond the squat rack since you can’t post any exercise video without some smarty pants claiming, “This will ruin his running speed, jump height, golf swing…” or some other element of sports performance.
The trainers who claim that an exercise like heel-raised squats will make you less functional for a given sport can’t possibly think the CNS is so fragile that a few sets of any exercise (done in a safe manner) each week will somehow offset the functional abilities and movement skills acquired from hours and hours of sports practice and competition that athletes rack up each week.
In reality, you won’t lose the athletic ability you need if you’re regularly doing those athletic movements when you practice and play the sports you enjoy.
True functional training comes from practicing and playing your sport. Everything we do in the gym is artificial. There’s a big difference between lifting patterns, which are constrained and robotic, and sports movements patterns, which are fluid and dynamic.
Lastly, doing an exercise a certain way to gain strength or size won’t automatically turn you into a one-trick pony. I’ve said this before in my Functional Bodybuilding article and I’ll say it again here:
Many coaches claim they don’t use bodybuilding concepts because they don’t want their athletes to become like bodybuilders. This view lacks common sense because anyone in their right mind knows damn well that doing some biceps curls and leg extensions won’t turn you into Ronnie Coleman any more than running hill sprints and wearing 80s sweatbands will turn you into Walter Payton!
“Dangerous” Exercises and Try-Hard Trainers
So what’s with all the heel-raised-squat hate, anyway? I get that trainers are looking for the best way to help people. They analyze things, and I’m glad they’re looking to do no harm.
However, when those desires are taken too far, we get the “everything causes dysfunction” mentality. And no matter how basic or battle-tested the exercise, there’s always someone out there with a video claiming it causes dysfunction, or will ruin your gains, or cause injury… you get the picture.
And they’ll often do so while throwing together a word salad of fancy, five-syllable terms that sound advanced and official on the surface. (Kinda makes you wonder if they’re really wanting to help people or just impress them.)
They show their superiority by making lifters feel dumb for using the tools and techniques that often work quite well. The impression they try to give you is this: “You’re stupid if you don’t exercise the way that I think you should exercise.”
But improving the way we train isn’t nearly as complex and the human body is capable of doing so much more than try-hard, elitist trainers give it credit for.
- Calatayud J, Martin F, Gargallo P, et al. : The validity and reliability of a new instrumented device for measuring ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. Int J Sports Phys Ther, 2015, 10: 197-202.
- Malliaras P, Cook JL, Kent P: Reduced ankle dorsiflexion range may increase the risk of patellar tendon injury among volleyball players. J Sci Med Sport, 2006, 9: 304-309.
- Dill KE, Begalle RL, Frank BS, et al. : Altered knee and ankle kinematics during squatting in those with limited weight-bearing-lunge ankle-dorsiflexion range of motion. J Athl Train, 2014, 49: 723-732.