There are many viable ways to squat. All of them have their own advantages and disadvantages. However, one of the best strategies for building bigger, stronger legs is to squat with your heels slightly elevated.
There are several different ways to do this. You could stand on small 2.5 or 5 pound plates. You could stand with your heels on a small wooden board like Arnold Schwarzenegger and his friends used to do.
The heels elevated squat has three major advantages over traditional squats:
- Advantage #1: Improves Your Squatting Depth
- Advantage #2: Targets The Vastus Medialis Muscle
- Advantage #3: Reduces Your Lower Back Stress
Let’s take a closer look at each of these advantages to the heels elevated squat.
Advantage 1: Improved Squatting Depth
Many of my first-time trainees struggle with achieving full depth in the front or back squat.
What is a full depth squat?
Former Olympic Weightlifting world champion Dmitry Klokov shows us the way:
If you watch carefully you will notice Dmitry’s hamstrings are covering his calves in the bottom position!
There are many causes of poor squatting depth, including structural weaknesses in the VMO, a tight piriformis muscle, or even an unchecked ego in the gym.
However, in my experience one of the most common reasons for poor squatting depth is actually tight calves!
It is true – if your calves are too tight, then you will never be able to achieve full squatting depth with your heels flat on the ground.
I immediately place these clients on a specific weighted stretching protocol to improve their ankle flexibility. However, in the meantime it is important to get them squatting to full depth as quickly as possible.
One option is to wear specialized squatting shoes. These shoes include a heel that is raised anywhere from one half inch to one full inch.
This solution works great for many people. However, not everyone has the budget to go out and purchase a new pair of shoes just for squatting.
In these cases, I immediately prescribe squats with their heels elevated on small 5-10 lb plates.
Who said tall lifters can’t squat, or can’t squat deep?
The bottom line is that the heels elevated squat is an excellent way to start squatting to proper depth right away while you address your flexibility deficits.
Advantage #2: Increased VMO Activation
The VMO, or the vastus medialis, is the large tear-drop shaped muscle on the inside of your knee.
The VMO is the quadricep muscle responsible for stabilizing your knee during squats and it is easily the #1 most common structural imbalance in the lower body.
Learning how to train the VMO properly should be a big priority if you want big, strong, healthy legs!
There are many ways design exercises to further recruit the VMO
Some fantastic options include step ups, split squats, and lunges. However, there are also ways to modify barbell squats to more effectively recruit the VMO.
Heels elevated squats are one of the best tools for this objective!
Why do heels elevated squats work the VMO more?
The reason is simple: the more that your knees travel over your toes, the more you recruit the vastus medialis.
In practice this means the more you elevate your heels (using taller squat shoes, using a higher platform etc.), the more the vastus medialis is recruited!
Advantage #3: Reduced Lumbar Spine Stress
One of the great drawbacks of squats is that they increase the compression forces on the lumbar spine.
Think about it – there is no way you can avoid increased lumbar stress if you are placing a 300 – 500+ pound barbell on your back!
It is simply impossible!
If you are a strong squatter and want to stay in the iron game for a long time then you need to find ways to periodically reduce the stress on your lower back from squatting.
I have written before about how exercises such as the 45 degree back extension, 90 degree back extension, and reverse hyper are excellent for decompressing the lumbar spine.
These are all great options, but another useful tool is simply elevating your heels during squats!
When you elevate your heels you automatically force yourself to squat with a more upright torso.
And when your torso is more vertical you reduce the shearing forces your lower back is exposed to!
Here is an extreme example of a heels elevated back squat. Notice how vertical his back remains throughout the movement:
There is another reason heels elevated squats are easier on the lumbar spine: you can’t lift as much weight on them!
The exercise is just much harder to do than a regular squat which means the load on the bar is reduced, but your legs get smoked all the same.
This sounds like a win-win situation to me!
You now know of 3 key heels elevated squat benefits to kick-start your lower body gains!
Of course you do not have to give up heels flat squats entirely.
Rather, incorporating heels elevated squats will be advantageous, both from an injury prevention standpoint and from a muscle building and strength building standpoint.
Now you have no excuse to skip your next leg day!
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training endeavors!
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