Movement Myth #2 of 7: Push Through the Heels

Learn why this is not a good idea and what you should do instead

By Coach E

pushing through heels when squatting

When you think of how to squat, where do you push through?

If you’re like most people who “know” how to squat, the answer is through your HEELS.

Is that what you said?

Because if it is, I’m here to throw some ice cold water on the notion that squatting should always be performed with heel drive and teach you what to do instead.

If you ever talk to someone “in the know” who is an advocate of pushing through the heels, the main benefit often cited is clear to see if you’re on Instagram (I’ve been off it since May and don’t see myself returning) because you’re sure to encounter the “Top 5 Exercises for a Big Booty” and will invariably see squats on the list.

First, squats are not and should not be thought of as a glute exercise.

They are a fundamental movement pattern that work a ton of muscles in a functional way, and by functional I mean a pattern that is useful in everyday life and sport.

So the glutes are working, but so should pretty much every other muscle in your body e.g. muscles on the back and front of your torso, your quads, hamstrings, deep hip stabilizers, calves and feet and in males, even your cremaster should fire up a little bit.

But when you focus on pushing through your heels, you take everything in front of the heel i.e. the arch muscles of the foot, completely out of the equation and everything that is connected to the arch muscles will also be inhibited to some degree. This means inhibition of your calves – both single-joint (soleus) and 2-joint (gastrocnemius) – as well as your hamstrings.

And this is a problem, because what is one of the biggest pains that stops people from squatting?

If you said patellar/anterior knee pain, BINGO.

If you’re squatting heavy and pushing through your heels, there are 2 mechanisms that will make you more likely to experience this type of knee pain – greater shear forces on the knee and a decreased ability to resist pronation/knee valgus during the squats themselves as well as in your other sports/activities.

Here are a couple of professional illustrations by yours truly to help you visualize how your knees will experience greater shear forces when pushing through the heels:

pushing through heels when squatting

Wherever you push through to squat, the quads will fire because they’re primary knee extensors. But as discussed earlier, when you push through the heels you decrease hamstring/calf activation and as you can clearly see, there will be increased shear forces going through the knee.

This results in less “cinching” of the knee joint and there’s a greater potential of anterior translation of the tibia due to the increased shear forces. With greater hamstring and gastrocnemius activation, the shear forces on the knee from the quads are counterbalanced by the forces generated by the hamstrings and gastrocnemius, resulting in a tighter and more stable knee just like what happens when you tie your shoes tight.

The result is increased compression on the knee but less shear and the good news is that shear always has a higher potential to damage a joint (any joint) compared to compression, which our joints are well-designed to withstand.

As for the second point about a decreased ability to resist pronation/knee valgus, when we train and strengthen our squat but remove the arch can calf muscles by pushing through the heels, we’re developing a relative strength imbalance since if we don’t use it we lose it. Thus, this great opportunity to strengthen our body in a balanced way is lost and our feet and calves get weak relative to the glutes and quads.

Then, let’s say you go to jump and because you can jump higher because you’ve increased your squat, but your arch and calves aren’t as developed because you’ve been pushing through your heels the whole time, when you land your feet will flatten out and your knees will cave in, putting great stress on the ACL and meniscus and – over time – can result in a tear in one or both structures.

Eeeek!

“So where should I push through when I squat then?”

Your foot is made up of 3 arches – medial, lateral and transverse – whose functions include absorbing ground reaction forces and creating elastic energy to be used to generate power.

Your foot is made up of 3 arches - medial, lateral and transverse - whose functions include absorbing ground reaction forces and creating elastic energy to be used to generate power.

As you can see, there are 3 main points of contact and these are the 3 areas to push through when squatting, lunging and deadlifting.

Do so and you’ll fire up the muscles that create these arches, ensure proper activation of the associated calves and hamstrings and train a pattern that develops your body in a balanced and functional M/AP keeping your knees stable and healthy.

And don’t worry – you’ll still get good glute activation to lift that booty of yours.

Unfortunately, many people’s arch muscles have become weak and stupid because their poor feet are stuffed into fancy shoes all day, then when you go to workout the poor feet are transferred into another coffin but this one has a half inch of foam doing what the arch should be doing.

So trying to activate something that’s dead can be tough, especially when adding additional load via barbells and dumbbells.

One way to start to wake these muscles up is to start moving and exercising with bare feet (I’d avoid running for the first few months because it’s way too impactful).

Just like any muscle, start light and work your way up. While you may be able to squat 200 pounds, if you’ve done so only wearing shoes and pushing through your heels your arch muscles haven’t built up any strength so start with bodyweight to ensure you don’t fall into a poor pattern because the arch can’t keep up (literally).

Another way and the one I’d recommend to you (if I liked you and you asked for my opinion of course) would be to follow Lower Limb Control.

Lower Limb Control will reactivate and restore strength to every muscle and the mobility for every range of your feet, ankles and knees in a progressive and comprehensive fashion.

Whether you’ve got issues like flat feet, plantar fasciitis, chronic achilles strains or anterior knee pain or you know you haven’t been exercising or moving properly and you want to prevent issues before they begin – LLC is the path forward.

It’s no miracle pill and will take time and effort but if you’re sick of band-aids and want to address the root cause, begin the journey today. There truly is nothing more freeing than the feeling that you finally understand what’s at the source of the issues and knowing you’re on the right path to fixing it.

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.

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