Functional Training Institute

To Heel Wedge, or Not to Heel Wedge

To Heel Wedge, or Not to Heel Wedge

To Heel Wedge, or Not to Heel Wedge

In the fitness industry, debates about the best techniques and tools are common, and one such debate centres around the use of heel wedges or weight plates to elevate the heels during squats. While some argue that this method allows for a deeper range of motion in the hips without demanding significant ankle dorsiflexion, it’s important to consider whether this is truly beneficial in the long run. 

Let’s explore why elevating the heels might not be the best idea.

Many fitness enthusiasts and trainers advocate for heel elevation during squats for several reasons. One of the primary reasons is to compensate for limited ankle mobility. Some individuals struggle with limited ankle dorsiflexion, which makes it difficult to perform a deep squat. Elevating the heels can help bypass this limitation, allowing for a deeper squat without requiring significant ankle flexibility. Additionally, elevating the heels can facilitate a greater range of motion in the hips, making it easier to achieve a deeper squat position. This is often seen as beneficial for targeting different muscle groups, particularly the quadriceps.

For beginners or those with mobility issues, heel elevation can make squatting feel more accessible and less intimidating. It provides an immediate solution to achieving a deeper squat without extensive mobility work. Some athletes also find that elevating their heels allows them to lift heavier weights with better form, as it helps maintain an upright torso position and reduces the risk of leaning too far forward.

While these reasons might seem compelling, they overlook some critical aspects of biomechanics and long-term joint health. Elevating the heels shifts your weight forward, requiring you to lean backward to maintain balance. This unnatural shift disrupts the body’s natural centre of mass, leading to inefficient movement patterns and increased muscle co-contraction. It’s similar to trying to squat with someone pushing against your back, forcing your muscles to work harder to stabilise, which can hinder long-term mobility and lead to compensatory movement patterns and potential injuries.

To Heel Wedge, or Not to Heel Wedge

A well-balanced squat involves even pressure on all five points of the foot: the medial and lateral sides of the heel, the medial and lateral sides of the forefoot, and the big toe. Heel elevation disrupts this balance, compromising the input the brain receives from the foot. According to the principle of “proximal stability for distal mobility,” the foot must be stable to allow for proper mobility in the ankle, hip, and beyond. By removing heel elevation, we can address the root cause of mobility issues—often a lack of stability in the foot. Ensuring foot stability promotes better alignment and functional movement patterns.

As trainers, we often advise against wearing high heels due to the negative impact on foot and ankle health. Yet, advocating for heel elevation during squats seems contradictory. Ankle dorsiflexion is crucial for an efficient walking gait, so why is it acceptable to bypass this important movement in the gym, a place dedicated to improving functional movement? Encouraging proper ankle dorsiflexion in training can translate to better overall movement quality and injury prevention in daily activities.

To Heel Wedge, or Not to Heel Wedge

Relying on heel elevation as a crutch can mask underlying mobility issues rather than addressing them. Over time, this can lead to a lack of progress in improving overall functional mobility. It’s essential to identify and correct the root causes of mobility limitations to achieve long-term benefits. Instead of relying on heel elevation as a crutch, trainers should focus on addressing the underlying issues of mobility and stability. This includes techniques such as self-myofascial release, which can help release tight muscles and improve flexibility.

Strengthening the muscles in the foot can enhance overall stability, leading to better mobility in the ankles and hips. Additionally, building a library of squat variations that promote foot stability and proper centre of mass alignment can help clients find their optimal squatting form without relying on heel elevation. Examples include goblet squats, box squats, and Bulgarian split squats, which can help build strength and stability in different ways.

While heel elevation might offer a short-term solution for achieving a deeper squat, it is not a sustainable or effective long-term strategy. As fitness professionals, we must address the root causes of mobility issues and focus on building stability from the ground up. By doing so, we can help our clients achieve better movement patterns, enhanced mobility, and overall improved functional fitness. 

So, would I use a heel elevated squat? Not particularly. I might consider it for rare cases, but only as a very short-term band-aid while working on improving the client’s own mobility and stability.

In conclusion, the key to effective squatting lies in addressing the foundational elements of balance, mobility and stability. By prioritising these aspects, we can ensure that our clients develop strong, functional movement patterns that will serve them well both in and out of the gym. Let’s move beyond temporary fixes and focus on long-term solutions that promote optimal health and performance.

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