October 09, 2021
You’ve probably seen people in the gym placing weights under the heels of their feet when performing a squat and wondered why. These are called heel elevated squats or raised heel squats and are a variation of the traditional squat.
To get straight to the point, by raising your heels, you'll be able to get deeper into your squat as it helps with flexibility. This is particularly useful for people with poor ankle (or hip) mobility, who'd otherwise not be able to have a large range of motion when squatting.
If you don't know, a deeper squat means more muscle fiber recruitment, which means more muscle growth and strength.
But, that's not the only reason to do heel elevated squats. A lot of people who have no issue with mobility perform heel elevated squats simply because it does a good job of emphasizing the quads, which may need more attention than they are getting from a traditional squat alone.
As with anything, there is the good and the bad, and this exercise has been surrounded by a significant amount of debate. So, let's uncover the advantages, disadvantages, and everything else you’ll need to know about this exercise, such as how to set it up, correct form, and other alternatives.
Squats are by far one of the most beneficial exercises. They almost work your entire lower body, aid in losing weight, strengthening your core, and shaping your butt. The fundamental movement performed in a squat strengthens your tendons, bones, and ligaments around the leg muscles.
As fundamental, primal, and effective as the squat is, not everyone can squat properly, and it's not the be all end all of exercises.
Now, on to heel elevated squats specifically...
Heel elevated squats are a version of flat squats, but by simply placing a weight under your heel and elevating it, you’ll experience a considerable change in the movement.
Generally, people elevate their heels with a weighted plate or small platform for three reasons:
These are all pretty great reasons to incorporate raised heel squats into your routine. For some lifters, it may also just feel better on their body to keep their torso upright and take a little stress away from the posterior side and hips.
However, raising your heels up when squatting isn’t for everyone. There are a few different reasons why you should incorporate this exercise into your routine, and they depend on your goals.
Note: Olympic lifting shoes are designed with a slight elevation in the heel. The reason weightlifting shoes are made like this is because it puts the lifter at a greater advantage through the ability to squat deeper and increase ankle range of motion. This is exactly what you are creating by raising your heels up a little using a small weight plate. So, if you have Olympic weightlifting shoes, you'll be doing the same thing, maybe just to a lesser degree depending on the shoe.
Elevating your heels when performing a squat will do two things: Increase squat depth, and transfer force and emphasis to your quadriceps.
Heels elevated squats better activate the muscle fibers of your quads because it increases the range of motion at the knee while decreasing the range of motion at the hip. By going deeper into your squat through knee flexion, you will provide your quads with incredible stretching (eccentric) contraction in addition to full range concentric muscle contraction. Achieving an optimal (full) range of motion is an essential part of building muscle and strength.
Those with poor ankle mobility can not get deep into the squat, which means they are not activating their leg muscles as well as they should. This includes the glutes. So, elevated heel squats will be more effective for the entire lower body when compared to half squats done because of poor mobility.
That said, the goal is to be able to squat with a full range of motion with your feet flat to the ground as that will provide the best overall muscle activation and is the most natural. So, you'll need to work on ankle mobility (and hip mobility) in the meantime if you are stuck only doing heel elevated squats due to form issues. When your mobility is up to par, you can squat with flat feet and then use heel elevated squats as a form of an accessory lift to hone in on greater quad development.
Squats are by far one of the most effective lower body exercises you can do. It is a multi-joint, compound exercise that works many muscles at one time, and allows for heavy loads, which is why it is so great at building strength and muscle mass, among other benefits like increasing bone density and calorie burn.
The squat is the king of lower body exercises, the bench press is the king of upper body exercises, and the deadlift is the king of posterior chain exercises.
As for muscles worked, a squat is going to work your quads, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, abductors, calves and lower back, with your quads and glutes being the primary movers and main target.
Then, you have supporting muscles that play a very important role in stabilization. The stabilizing muscles during a squat are your hamstrings (they take on an important stabilizing role on the descent), low back, spinal erectors, calves, abs, obliques, and your traps and rhomboids (scapula stabilizers).
As you can see, there are a lot of muscles at play.
With a heel elevated squat, you are working all of these same muscles too. However, you are shifting emphasis from your posterior side (glutes and hamstrings) to your quads.
Heel elevated squats are also easier on your low back because you can keep your torso in a more upright position.
For beginners, a flat foot squat is the ultimate lower body exercise and really all that's needed for quad and glute development. However, the exercise as a whole is evenly spread across many muscle groups, which is why it is so great for overall strength. So, as you become more advanced, you'll need more specificity in your workouts. By which we mean more isolated exercises. That way, you can really hone in on a muscle group to give it the volume needed to continue growing and getting stronger.
Because of that, heel elevated squats can make sense for beginners who lack mobility and more advanced trainees who need extra quad specific work.
Your quads are a big muscle group that includes the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris. They command and demand a lot of attention to grow and get stronger, which is why elevating your heels can make sense even for someone who can squat with a full range on flat feet.
There are two groups of people who should be elevating their heels with plates when squatting.
The first are people who lack ankle mobility, as the heel elevated squat will allow them to increase the depth of their squat.
The second are people who have reached a point where squats are not giving their quads quite enough activation and overload, so they need to add more quad specific exercises in their routine, in addition to regular squats. They will not stop doing standard barbell squats, they will simply add in some sets of heel elevated squats (or other quad specific squats like hack squats) after doing regular squats. For them, the heel elevated squat is simply an assistance lift/accessory exercise.
So, if you can perform a standard flat footed squat with a full range of motion and you feel your quads are getting enough activation from regular squats, then you don't need to do heel elevated squats. However, if you want to give them a try to see how it hits your quads, by all means. You can think of the heel elevated squat like you would a leg press or even a leg extension, albeit it is much more compound.
Will they improve my squats?
If you lack ankle or hip mobility and you are using heel elevated squats to make up for that, then you need to think of it as a temporary solution. You should also be working on improving the mobility/flexibility of your ankles and hips, which you can do with some simple mobility exercises.
If you are using heel elevated squats as a way to better target your quads, then it actually can help improve your regular squats as with stronger quads, you will be able to lift more. You'll just also need to be placing extra emphasis on your hamstrings and glutes with other assistance lifts (such as stiff-leg deadlifts and hip thrusts).
We've already went through the benefits of squatting with your heels elevated, but let's recap in a more clear manner for those who like to skim articles.
#1: Improves depth of squats
One of the most significant benefits of the elevated heels squat is that you can go deep into your squat due to your ankles being in a more advantageous position. Essentially, it's like a sort of crutch to lessen the demand on ankle and hip range of motion. If you have poor hip or ankle mobility, you will immediately notice the difference. You will be able to go lower into the squat.
This deep range of motion will help you to build both size and strength. When you go deeper into the squat, you provide your leg muscles (quads and glutes) with optimal stretching tension, which is necessary to build size and strength. And the deeper you can go with your squat, the more you can maximize your potential when it comes to building your leg muscles.
#2: Elevated heel squats activate your quadriceps more
By elevating your heels, you are directly impacting your quads. This is because you have a greater range of motion at the knee, which the quads control.
The vastus medialis is one of the more common muscles in the quadricep muscle group to be underdeveloped, and this exercise targets it perfectly.
#3: Reduces the stress on the lower back
Let’s face it, squats can put a great amount of strain on your lower back and lumbar spine, especially if you are going deep, heavy, and your form is not entirely on point.
Raised heel squats reduce this stress because your upper body remains way more upright throughout the squat. You don't have to worry as much about arching your back.
This is because your knees go over your toes and you will not be pushing your hips as far back. This allows your upper body to stay straight which reduces the pressure on the lumbar spine and the strain on the muscles of the lower back.
Not only does this prevent lower back injuries, but it can also be a good option for people who are worried about re-injuring their lower back yet still want to squat.
It also makes sense for some to move to heel elevated squats after doing sets of regular squats if your lower back has had enough. It can allow you to put less demand on your low back while increasing the volume of work on your legs. Often times, you low back will tire out before your quads.
While heel squats offer some important benefits there are some drawbacks to this exercise, and it’s important that you understand what they are before incorporating them into your routine.
Let’s take a look at these disadvantages,
#1: Increases stress on knee joints
If you have bad knees and poor mechanics, this exercise might not be the best option.
This is because your knees may move a bit in front of your toes as you squat down, unlike a traditional squat where your knees should remain behind or in line with your toes.
Some people bring their knees too far forward during elevated heels squats.
Furthermore, you are increasing the range of motion at the joint.
With that, it can extra strain on your knees. This is usually only an issue for people with bad knees.
On the flip side, if your knees are weak, you want to strengthen your quads. So, as contradicting as it may seem, this exercise can help with that. You just need to start light and do high reps. You can also do other knee strengthening exercises before squatting.
Also, you need to make sure you are warmed up before doing squats if your knees are bad. When the blood is flowing and your body is warm, it's likely your knees won't hurt. So, do as many warm up sets as needed before getting into working weight.
If your knees hurt after your squat session, you should stop squatting and figure out how to fix your knee pain for good before getting back under the bar. A lot of people have chronic knee pain, so they just avoid squatting in general. If this is the case, you can consult a doctor or physical therapist.
#2: Reduces activation of the posterior chain
The posterior chain includes your hamstrings, buttocks, and lower back. These three muscles work on hip extension. By elevating your heels, the stress of the load is transferred more to the quads and less to the hamstrings, glutes and lower back.
As such, if you were to do only elevated heel squats, it's not a complete enough lower body exercise. At least not compared to standard squats. You will need to do other exercises to target your hamstrings, glutes and lower back. This makes workouts a little less efficient.
That said, even with regular squats, it's still not enough for the hamstrings, so you'll need an additional hip extension exercise to target them regardless.
Hip extension exercise = deadlift, RDL, hip thrusts
The point is, a standard flat foot squat is a more complete lower body exercise than the raised heels squat.
#3: It doesn’t reinforce dysfunctional movement, but it doesn't promote it either
By squatting with your heels elevated, you are basically eliminating ankle dorsiflexion (the need to bend at your ankle), which is an essential movement to be able to do.
This doesn't mean that you are creating dysfunctional movement, but it also doesn't mean you are helping to establish good full range movement.
For people who use heel elevated squats because they lack ankle mobility, it is simply a solution to squatting until you improve your range of motion. If you were to only squat with your heels elevated, you will never improve the mobility of your ankle, which is obviously not ideal.
However, if you have some specific long term limitation, heel elevated squats are fine to do for as long as you please.
Raised squats are not bad for your knees when done properly. You just have to avoid forward knee tracking. If your form is off due to your knees coming too far past your toes, you can create wear on your knee joint.
However, with proper form, this exercise can actually strengthen your knees because it targets the muscles around your knee. If you have bad knees or previously had an injury, it's always best to go slow or look for an alternative exercise to target the same muscles that will be less strenuous on your knees.
As with any new exercise, start by first ensuring that you are performing the exercise with the correct form. Use less weight until you perfect your form and range of motion.
If you can, record your movements or have a partner watch to form check.
1. You’ll need a weighted plate, dumbbell, or squat wedge to place under your heels. You’ll place the object of your choice under your heels. Only your heels should be on the platform. Be sure that you are standing with your feet slightly wider than hip-width and your toes on the ground.
2. Engage your core and glutes to maintain an upright posture. With your weight evenly distributed throughout your feet, inhale, and lower down into a squat. When lowering, be sure to push your hips backward as if you’re going to sit on a chair.
3. When you reach the bottom of the squat, exhale as you push upwards through your heels to return to starting position. Keep your core engaged throughout. Don't let your heels come up off the plate or platform as well.
Best rep range: 5-8 for strength and hypertrophy & 8-12 for hypertrophy. Use a load that challenges you in the rep range (once you get the form down pat).
There are two different ways that you can raise your heels up. The first is to put a metal plate under your heels to lift them up. The second is you can use a wooden block. There are some blocks made specifically for this exercise.
When it comes to a weight plate, you don't want to use one that is too big. Generally, a 2.5lb or 5lb plate is enough. The thinner, the better. You can even use it as a form of progression, where you start with a thicker plates and move to a thinner plate until you can squat with no plate.
If you are doing heel elevated squats for the purpose of quad isolation, then use a 5lb plate.
Another option is to wear elevated heeled weight lifting shoes. More on this in a moment.
Following these simple tips will help to improve your form so that you can take advantage of the many benefits of this exercise and reduce the risk of injury. It’s always a good idea to record or have someone check your form when you perform any new exercise.
Proper form is always important with any exercise - it reduces the risk of injury, and targets the specific muscles. Here are the most common mistakes people make when doing the raised heel squat,
Lifting your heels:
Stability is important,, and if your heels begin to creep up,, you’ll become less steady. When you lift your heels during a squat it’s likely that the barbell is moving forward, and you’re not as stable. Plus, you’re increasing the risk of injury to your knees, hips, and lower back.
You’ll need to make sure that the barbell is aligned above your hips and ankles. Be aware of the heel, the ball of the foot, and the outer ball of the foot. They should always have contact with the floor. By spreading your toes and gluing these three points onto the floor you’ll improve your foundation and improve your form.
Lifting your toes:
Lifting your toes places too much pressure on your heels, which results in overworking your posterior chain. This can affect many of your other exercises such as back squats, Romanian deadlifts, supermans, barbell hip thrusts, and reverse hyperextensions.
In order to keep your toes from lifting off the floor, you can try to strengthen your feet by using the tripod technique.
When your arches begin to collapse you are putting your knees at the risk of caving, which creates poor form and the potential of injuring your foot or ankle. You’ll know that your arches are collapsing by looking at your inner and outer foot.
When looking at your outer foot, is it losing contact with the ground?
When looking at the inner foot, does the arch lose height at all?
You’ll need to be barefoot to see these things. Your feet will tell you a lot about your form. Ask a friend to check your form and watch your feet or record yourself and review it afterward.
A lot of people swear by weightlifting shoes. Weightlifting shoes have a raised heel and will provide you with a raised heel without adding the weight under your heel. This allows you to squat deeper, in a more upright position. The decreased demand for ankle dorsiflexion creates an increased knee flexion. The shoes also are very stable since they are perfectly flat on the bottom rather than arched like with running or basketball shoes.
Most will say to get weightlifting shoes if you can rather than squatting with your heels on a plate, but they are effectively the same. The benefit of use a weighted plate is you can control the height (making it more or less like a normal squat vs a quad specific squat) AND it costs nothing (good weightlifting shoes aren't cheap). If you are very serious about weightlifting and squatting, then it's a good investment.
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Don’t worry if you’re not able to do a raised elevated squat there are plenty of variations that you can do that will allow you the same benefits. Remember that no matter which exercise that you are performing proper form is essential. So take your time and be sure that you are mastering this before adding weights.
Dumbbell squats are an amazing exercise. They are simple to perform and places your center of mass lower, which makes going deeper easier.
Also, it places less pressure on your joints, especially your back.
You’ll start by holding a pair of dumbbells in your hands and then go down into a squat. When you perform the dumbbell squat, your center of mass is much lower compared to a traditional back squat. This allows you to fatigue your muscles without the fear of losing balance.
The downside to this variation is that you are not able to use as much weight as you can with a barbell, so this wouldn’t be a primary exercise for your lower body.
The cyclist squat is just like an elevated heel squat but your feet are closer together, and generally the heels a little higher. This places the emphasis even more on your quads (shoulder width apart is more well-rounded for the legs, but with your feet close together like a cyclist squat, your torso is even more upright and your quads are absolutely the main focus).
One of the reasons why the heels elevated squat is so great is because it targets your quadriceps and makes them work harder. That is what the cyclist squats can do for you as well. This exercise is a great alternative that will increase the size and strength of your quads.
To perform the cyclist squat you’ll start with a narrow stance and elevating your heels. With a barbell on your back, you’ll squat down, making sure that your torso is upright and your knees are forward over your toes. 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.
High Bar Back Squats
Certain squats require more ankle mobility. For example, the low bar squat requires more ankle mobility as the knees move forward more requiring more ankle dorsiflexion.
If your issue with regular squats is ankle mobility, an easy fix might be to position the bar higher your back, which is called a high bar squat.
With a high bar squat, the bar is resting on your upper traps whereas a low bar squat the bar is resting on your mid traps and just below your posterior delt.
Something to note is that while a high bar squat requires less ankle mobility, it may be less comfortable for you. We wrote an article where we go into high bar vs low back back squats in-depth (definitely a must-read for those trying to figure out how to back squat comfortably).
In any case, you need to see where your issues are. Do you have poor ankle mobility, poor hip mobility, or both? The most important thing to do is improve your mobility. Once you have normalized your joint's range of motion, you can perform squats properly. From there, if you stay consistent with squatting through a full range of motion, you will maintain good mobility as squats are a form of dynamic stretching (they move your through a normal/optimal range of motion, stretching your leg muscles).
Now that you know why heel raised squats can make sense and when you should do them, if this topic comes up with friends or at the gym, you can state the facts. This simple technique of adding something under your heels when performing a squat helps people increase their squat depth and it also can help more advanced lifters hone in on their quads because the load tension is shifted to the front and they can move through a greater range of motion at the knees. The only people who shouldn't really do heel elevated squats are those with bad knees.
Should I do heels or flat squats?
Both are really good, and squats are a staple in any exercise. Raised heel squats are great to target the quadriceps muscles and stretch the calf muscles. But, elevated heel squats shouldn’t replace your traditional squats. Think of heel elevated squats as an accessory exercise.
Are elevated heel squats for glutes?
The elevated heel squat exercise is a great lower body exercise as it allows your torso to stay upright, targeting the front of your upper legs targeting your quads more than the glutes. That said, your glutes will be targeted as well and through a fairly large range of motion.
What are some precautions I should worry about?
As with any exercise, there are some things that you need to be cautious of. Because you are elevating your heels you are shifting the focus more on your quads and that’s helpful if you need extra quadriceps work. You are also limiting the mobility of your ankles, and if you haven’t developed either it might be difficult for you to perform. You should practice this exercise without weights until you become comfortable and have proper form.
Why do raised heel squats hurt my knees?
By raising your heels, you’re increasing the range of motion at your knee. This targets more of your quadriceps muscle fibers. But if your form isn’t correct and your knees push too far forward in front of your toes, you can feel pain in your knees. But incorrect form certainly isn’t the only reason, and it could be from a previous knee injury.
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