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Exercise Analysis #1 - Squats: Should You Push Through the Heels?

How You Instruct an Exercise Can Change the Outcome

Have you ever told someone (or been told) to push through the heels while performing ground-based exercises, like the squat? We at the Cybex Research Institute (CRI) often hear anecdotes about pushing through the heels. Despite this instruction being widely used, we don’t have a great idea as to why the instruction is given in the first place.  In addition, we don’t know how this instruction might positively or negatively impact an exercise. So to attempt to answer this question, we brought people into the laboratory and asked them to squat while instructing them to push through different spots on their feet.

Three Different Squatting Instructions

The first episode of our exercise analysis series analyzed the biomechanics of the legs during the squat under the following different coaching instructions:

Condition 1. Pushing through the heel

Condition 2. Pushing through the instep

Condition 3. Pushing through the ball of the foot. 

Calf Muscles Experienced Very Different Demands Based on the Instructions

In our subsequent analysis, we found little difference at the hip and the knee between these three instructions, but saw a significant decrease in demand to the calf muscles when the exercisers were instructed to push through the heel.  If, for some reason, the exerciser wanted to avoid working the calves (perhaps due to a sore Achilles tendon) then pushing through the heel during a squat is one way to accomplish this.  If, however, the exerciser wanted to ensure this important muscle group was well trained, then it would be beneficial to discourage ‘pushing through the heel,’. Alternatively, the exerciser could incorporate additional calf-focused exercises.

You can see the full exercise analysis demonstrated in our video

A Fitness Instruction with Good Intentions

It may be that the instruction to push through the heels arose because coaches and trainers wanted to ensure that the heel did not come off the ground during the squat. This was probably because lifting the heel off the ground significantly decreased the exerciser’s base of support, and as a result, might have made the exerciser less stable and more likely to lose their balance. 

However, the exerciser can avoid loss of balance by simply keeping their heels on the ground throughout the squat.  Most importantly, if their heel is not coming off of the ground, perhaps this instruction is not needed at all.

Conclusion: Sometimes, something as simple as the instruction given during an exercise might result in significant differences in the exercise’s outcomes. 

Questions About Biomechanics?

Have questions about the biomechanics of squatting or questions about our video? Please comment below or contact us.

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