There are many different ways to squat. You can squat like a powerlifter with your feet wide and your hips pushed back. You can squat like an Olympic weightlifter where your butt almost touches the ground in the bottom position. You can even squat with different specialty bars like the safety squat bar or the cambered bar.
However, one of the strategies for building bigger, stronger legs is to squat with your heels elevated.
Heels elevated squats change the angle of your feet which helps you to squat all the way down while keeping your spine in a more upright position. Many fitness experts use heels elevated squats because they force your quadriceps to work harder while decreasing the stress on your lower back.
Here is a perfect demonstration of the heels elevated squat:
As you can see the athlete is squatting with his heels elevated on a small wooden platform. He is also wearing special squatting shoes which further elevates his heels.
There are several different ways you can elevate your heels during a squat:
- You can squat with Olympic weightlifting shoes that elevate your heels
- You can squat with small 2.5 or 5 pound plates under your heels
- You can even squat with a small wooden board under your heels
The heels elevated squat is an extremely effective exercise. There are three big reasons you should use heels elevated squats in your training program:
- They improve your squatting depth
- They make your quadriceps work harder
- They put less stress on your lower back
Let’s take a closer look at each of these advantages.
Advantage #1: Heels Elevated Squats Improve Your Squatting Depth
Many beginner, intermediate and even advanced athletes find that they have a hard time squatting with a full range of motion. According to the world’s greatest strength coach Charles Poliquin a full range of motion squat means your hamstrings are covering your calves in the bottom position.
Charles used to joke that “your ass should leave a stain on the gym floor” during a set of squats!
Here is a good demonstration of a full range of motion squat by the Olympic Weightlifting superstar Dmitry Klokov:
Squatting with a full range of motion is so important because it is the only way to maximally train the muscles of the lower body including the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
Full squats place these muscles in a deep loaded stretch which is absolutely key for building size and strength. Full squats are especially important for training the vastus medialis oblique, the teardrop-shaped quadriceps muscle located on the medial side of your knee.
If you are a powerlifter getting ready for your next powerlifting competition then “parallel” squats are the way to go. However, for building size and strength there is no substitute for full range of motion squats.
One of the reasons people have a hard time squatting all the way down is their calves are too tight. If your calves are too tight then your heels will literally lift off the ground before you go all the way down in a squat.
One of the big advantages of the heels elevated squat is it lets you squat all the way down even if you are not very flexible! Your calves and hips are under a much smaller stretch in the bottom position of a squat when you elevate your heels.
This makes heels elevated squats a perfect choice for people who want to squat with a full range of motion while working on their flexibility.
Advantage #2: Heels Elevated Squats Make Your Quadriceps Work Harder
Squats are one of those exercises where a small change in your technique can have a dramatic impact on which muscle groups are trained. When you squat with your heels elevated your quadriceps have to work WAY harder than normal. Just take a look at the following video:
When you squat with your heels elevated your knees are pushed forward over your toes in the bottom position. This is radically different from a powerlifting-style squat where your knees actually stay behind your toes in the bottom position.
When your knees travel over your toes your quadricep muscles have to work much harder. Your vastus medialis muscle (one of the 4 quadricep muscles) has to work especially hard during heels elevated squats.
The vastus medialis is placed under an enormous stretch in the very bottom position of heels elevated squats and has to work extra hard to stabilize the knee joint. This is a good thing because the vastus medialis is a weak muscle group for most trainees.
If you are a bodybuilder and you feel back squats more in your glutes than your quads then you have to give heels elevated squats a shot. They shift all the emphasis onto your quads which is exactly what you want!
Advantage #3: Heels Elevated Squats Put Less Stress On Your Lower Back
Many taller lifters have a hard time performing back squats. The bodybuilder Dorian Yates dropped back squats from his leg routine because they placed too much stress on his lower back and not enough stress on his legs.
One of the really cool things about heels elevated squats is they place less stress on your lower back and your lumbar spine. Just take a look at the following video:
As you can see the athlete’s torso stays almost completely vertical as he squats down. This is normal for this type of squat.
When you squat with your heels elevated your knees travel over your toes and your upper body stays more upright. This decreases the compression forces on our lumbar spine and lowers the recruitment of the lower back musculature.
Heels elevated squats are great for preventing lower back injuries but they are also great for speeding up your recovery ability. You may find that you can squat or deadlift more frequently because your lower back isn’t taking such a beating from your squat workouts.
Unfortunately heels elevated squats are not all rainbows and sunshine. They also have a few disadvantages that you need to be aware of:
- They put more stress on your knee joints
- They place less emphasis on your posterior chain
- They are not ideal for powerlifters
Let’s take a closer look at each of these disadvantages.
Disadvantage #1: Heels Elevated Squats Put More Stress On Your Knee Joints
This is the BIG disadvantage of heels elevated squats: they put more stress on your knees. If you have healthy knees and a strong vastus medialis muscle then heels elevated squats will be no problem for you. However, if your knees are not in good shape then this exercise may be difficult for you to perform (at least for right now).
There are a few strategies that you can use to perform this exercise without any knee pain. First of all you can try squatting for higher rep ranges. There is a BIG difference between squatting for a 3-rep max and a 12-rep max. If you use higher rep ranges then the stress on your knees will go way down and you can still get the benefits of this exercise.
Another option is to perform front squats with your heels elevated. For example:
Research and real-world experience have proven that front squats place way less stress on your knees than traditional back squats. Actually front squats place less stress on all of the major joints including your knees, hips and lower back.
A great strategy is to perform heels elevated back squats for higher reps and heels elevated front squats for lower reps. That way you can train any rep range while minimizing the stress on your knees.
Disadvantage #2: Heels Elevated Squats Place Less Emphasis On Your Posterior Chain
Your posterior chain is a family of three muscle groups located on the back side of your body:
- Your hamstrings
- Your glutes
- Your lower back
All three of these muscles work together to help you perform hip extension exercises like the squat, deadlift and good morning. Squatting with your heels elevated places more stress on your quadriceps but it also places less stress on your hamstrings, glutes and lower back.
If you use this exercise in your routine then you will have to focus more on posterior chain exercises like leg curls, deadlifts, back extensions etc. to make sure they receive enough stimulation.
Disadvantage #3: Heels Elevated Squats Are Not Ideal For Powerlifters
If you are a powerlifter preparing for a powerlifting meet then you have to “practice how you play.” In other words you need to practice the competition lift itself. There are some powerlifters who squat with elevated heels using Olympic weightlifting shoes.
For example you can click right here for a video of Chad Wesley Smith squatting 905 pounds in competition with his heels elevated. However, most powerlifters are stronger squatting with their heels flat.
The heels elevated squat can be a great exercise to use in your offseason when your goal is to improve muscular size and build a good foundation of strength. However, when it comes to peaking your strength for competition you really have to practice how you play.
The Best Heels Elevated Squat Variations
There are many different variations of the heels elevated squat that you may want to try. Here are some of the most effective variations for building bigger, stronger legs:
- Dumbbell squats
- Front squats and back squat
- Cyclist squats
- 1.25 squats
- Klokov squat
Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercise variations.
Exercise Variation #1: Dumbbell Squats
The dumbbell squat is an underrated exercise variation. The idea is simple: you perform a squat while holding a pair of dumbbells in your hands. Here is a good video of the heels elevated dumbbell squat:
When you perform the dumbbell squat your center of mass is much lower compared to a traditional back squat. This makes the exercise less taxing on your legs and lower back. The lower center of mass also gives this exercise a completely different feel vs regular squats.
In my experience this can be a good exercise to use at the end of a lower body tri-set or giant set. You can really focus on fatiguing your muscles without having to worry about balancing a barbell on your back or getting short of breath.
Unfortunately it is hard to perform this exercise with heavy loads so it shouldn’t be your primary lower body exercise.
Exercise Variation #2: Front squats and back squat
When most people think of the heels elevated squat they think of the back squat. The back squat is a great exercise. However, most people would get better results if they spent an equal amount of time training their back squat AND their front squat.
In my experience the heels elevated front squat is especially effective for training the lower body. Here is a great video:
The front squat places more stress on your quads compared to the back squat. It is also easier on your knees, hips and lower back which is important regardless of your training goal.
The major disadvantage of the front squat is it cannot be performed for higher reps. If you try to perform more than 6 reps per set then your upper back muscles might “tap out” before your legs and your upper body may roll forward, forcing you to drop the bar off your shoulders.
Exercise Variation #3: Cyclist squats
Squatting with your heels elevated is great because it forces your quadriceps to work harder than normal. If you really want to murder your quadriceps then you have to try the narrow-stance heels elevated squat. For example:
This is often called the “cyclist squat” because many world-class cyclists have used it to increase the size and strength of their quadriceps. It is sometimes called the “quad squat” for similar reasons.
The narrow stance forces your quad muscles and especially your vastus medialis to work harder than normal. Squatting with your heels elevated and close together is like pure torture for your quads!
Just make sure you don’t squat with your heels too close together. I wouldn’t go any closer than 4 inches apart for safety reasons.
Exercise Variation #4: 1.25 squats
The next heels elevated squat variation I want to teach you is called 1.25 squats or “one-and-a-quarter squats.” This is a reasonably complicated technique so here is a training video:
As you can see the athlete squats all the way down, comes up a quarter of the way, squats all the way down and then squats all the way back up to lockout.
All together this counts as 1 rep. 1.25 squats work for building bigger, stronger legs because they increase the amount of time you spend in the bottom position of the exercise. They are perfect for making you stronger in the bottom position and they help you to overload your quadriceps muscles.
Combining heels elevated squats and 1.25 squats is an excellent strength and size plateau buster!
Exercise Variation #5: Klokov Squats
Dmitry Klokov is a former Olympic Weightlifting world champion. He popularized a style of squatting where you use a very slow eccentric phase and a long pause in the bottom position. Here is a perfect example:
The athlete in this video is squatting on a 7/6/X/0 tempo. In other words he is squatting with a 7 second lowering phase, a 6-second pause in the bottom position and an explosive lifting phase.
Klokov squats are so effective because they overload your eccentric strength. The long isometric pause in the bottom position is also great because it eliminates the stretch reflex and forces you to use nothing but your muscles to lift the weight to lockout.
The athlete in the video is performing Klokov squats with his heels elevated to make his quadriceps and especially his Vastus Medialis muscle work even harder in the bottom position.
The Best Heels Elevated Squat Routines
Heels elevated squats can be used with almost any squat routine you can think of. They can be used for everything from high-rep hypertrophy routines to low-rep strength routines.
Because I’m such a nice guy I’m going to teach you 2 awesome heels elevated squat routines that you can start using today to build bigger, stronger legs. Here are the names of the two routines:
- Post-Exhaustion Supersets
- Klokov Squats
These routines were picked because they go together perfectly with heels elevated squats. Now let’s take a closer look at each of these routines.
Routine #1: Post-Exhaustion Supersets
Post-exhaustion supersets are an awesome way to train for muscular hypertrophy. The idea is simple: you perform a superset with a compound and an isolation exercise. Here is the exact protocol:
- Perform a compound exercise just shy of failure, then rest 10 seconds
- Perform an isolation exercise just shy of failure, then rest 2-4 minutes and repeat!
Research has demonstrated that post-exhaustion supersets are superior to pre-exhaustion supersets in most cases. They recruit more motor units in the target muscle groups and do a better job at stimulating size and strength gains. Here is a heels elevated squats post-exhaustion routine that you may want to try. Check it out:
Post-Exhaustion Supersets Routine
- A1: Back squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), 3-5 x 8-10, 3/0/X/1, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Machine leg extension, 3-5 x 15-20, 2/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Bilateral seated leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed in), 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Romanian deadlift, 3-5 x 12-15, 2/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.
This routine features two post-exhaustion supersets: one for the quadriceps and one for the hamstrings. This routine can be performed anywhere from once every 3-7 days depending on your recovery ability.
I know some of you are probably looking at this routine and saying “that’s not enough volume.” Trust me, if you perform 5 all-out supersets for your quads and 5 all-out supersets for your hamstrings then you are going to be crawling out of the gym!
This routine is a great option for a bodybuilder looking to break through a hypertrophy plateau in the legs.
Routine #2: Klokov Squats
I already introduced you to Klokov squats earlier in this article. They are an excellent plateau buster for the squat and are a great choice if you like to squat with your heels elevated. Klokov squats are performed for single repetitions but the tempo is very slow so it is less taxing on your nervous system than a true 1-rep max.
Here is a heels elevated Klokov squat routine you may want to try. Check it out:
Klokov Squats Routine
- A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels elevated), 6-8 x 1, 7/6/X/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree leg press against bands, 2 x 8-10, 4/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: 45 degree back extension against bands, 2 x 8-10, 3/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Cable pull through (sumo stance), 2 x 8-10, 4/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1.
For this routine I recommend you perform 6-8 singles on the heels elevated squat. You should NOT use a true 1-rep max for this exercise.
Instead I recommend you use a weight you could perform about 2 repetitions with using the same 7/6/X/0 tempo. This might be around 85-90% of your regular 1-rep max. I really want you to give a maximum effort on the heels elevated squats.
The rest of the routine can be considered accessory work. You still want to push yourself on the accessory exercises but they are less important than the 6-8 sets of squats.
The heels elevated squat is an extremely valuable exercise variation that you should be using in your training program. It has many advantages over traditional squats:
- Increases your squatting depth
- Works your quadriceps harder
- Puts less stress on your lower back
It’s hard to believe that elevating your heels on the squat can make such a big difference! I’m not trying to argue that squatting with your heels flat is dangerous or ineffective. However, the heels elevated squat is a very valuable exercise that can help you reach your size and strength goals faster.
I recommend you rotate heels elevated squats in and out of your routine over time for optimal results. For example you might squat with your heels flat for 2-4 weeks and then squat with your heels elevated for 2-4 weeks.
You may also want to elevate your heels during more specialized squatting variations such as the cyclist squat, 1.25 squat and the Klokov squat. If you are mentally bored of your routine then your body is probably bored, too.
Sometimes the best way to make progress is to expose your body to a new type of training stimulus to force it to adapt. The powerlifting guru Louie Simmons has a one-liner that is very appropriate here:
“When your body has all the answers you must change all of the questions!”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best amount of luck with your strength training journey!
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