What would a workout be without squats? Squats are the king of lower body exercises because they work so many muscles at the same time. Plus, they’re a functional movement that mimics the movements you do every day. By doing squats, you build stronger quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, although squats are more of a quad-centric exercise than one that targets the hamstrings and glutes.
Another benefit of squats is they burn more calories than many other strength-training exercises since they target the large muscles in your lower body and work multiple muscles at the same time. Plus, you can even make squats dynamic by doing exercises like jump squats. Who says you can’t get a cardiovascular workout with squats? Jump squats can accomplish that.
The Mechanics of Squats
If there’s one exercise you need to use good form for, it’s the squat. By using impeccable form throughout the movement, you maximize muscle activation and reduce the risk of injury. However, there are several ways you can approach a squat. You can use no resistance when you first start out or increase the challenge by holding dumbbells or placing a barbell on your shoulders.
Depending on where you place the barbell, in front of your shoulders, or behind them, you can do a front squat or a back squat. The front squat is more challenging but also places less stress on your back as you hold the barbell in front of your collarbone rather than against the upper spine.
You can also shift the focus of a squat by altering your stance and making it wider or narrower or by changing the depth to which you descend. A deep squat where you go below parallel has advantages but you also get slightly different benefits when you do a partial squat, but it’s best not to make half squats the bulk of the squats you do, as you’ll get more benefits by maximizing the range-of-motion of your squats.
Elevating Your Heels
There’s another variation on squatting that you hear less about. Some sources recommend elevating your heels when you squat. When you raise your heels up, your knees push forward more when you descend into a squat and this places you in a more upright position. The more erect position switches the emphasis of the exercise to your quads and away from your hamstrings. If your goal is anterior thigh strengthening, raising your heels benefits you as it shifts the focus of the exercise to the quads. But if you want to target your hamstrings, you’ll get more hamstring focus if you elevate your toes instead.
Keep Your Lower Body Workouts Balanced
For muscle balance, your posterior chain should be as strong as your anterior chain. That means your quads shouldn’t be stronger than your glutes and hamstrings and vice versa. The way to avoid this is to train in a way that corrects muscle imbalances and builds greater stability. Most people have stronger quads than they do hamstrings and could benefit from more hamstring training. In fact, weak hamstrings are a major contributor to sports-related injuries.
According to the Journal of Athletic Training, the ratio of strength between quads and hamstrings should be between 50% and 80%. If the hamstrings are weaker than this, it places more stress on the hammies, particularly when running or jumping and this increases the risk of a hamstring tear. If you have stronger quads than hamstrings, elevating your heels when you squat may not be the best option since you’re strengthening your quads more than your hamstrings in this position. However, if you have quad weakness, elevating your heels for some of your squat sessions is a better idea.
The more upright position of your torso when you elevate your heels also reduces pressure on the lower back. Therefore elevating your heels may be a better option if you have a history of lower back pain. Some experts believe that squatting with heels elevated is also hard on the knees. If you elevate your heels, slow down the tempo of your squats and maintain suitable form and control. If you have a history of knee injury or knee pain, it’s best to avoid squatting with your heels elevated.
How to Elevate Your Heels?
You can raise your heels up in two ways. One is to place a metal plate under your heels to lift them up. Another is to wear weight training shoes that have an elevated heel. If you don’t have a plate or a pair of weight training shoes, you can use a wooden block to increase the height of your heels. You may discover that when you elevate your heels, you can use more resistance. When your heels are higher, the ball of your foot presses harder against the ground and this increases nervous system drive to your muscles, allowing you to lift more.
A Few Precautions about Elevating Your Heels
Squats are a “must do” exercise for lower body strength, but you can shift the focus of the exercise by altering variables such as your stance, how deep you go, and whether you use barbells or dumbbells. Elevating your heels shifts the focus more toward your quads and that’s helpful if you need extra quadriceps work. However, heel-elevated squats aren’t a good variation when you’re first starting out. It requires a certain degree of ankle flexibility. If you haven’t developed that, heel-elevated squats may be hard to do. Regardless, be sure to keep your torso upright as you descend and ascend. Practice without weight first and only when you’re comfortable with the exercise, use dumbbells or a barbell.
- Elevating your heels shifts the focus of squats to the quads more than the hamstrings.
- Make sure you’ve mastered squat form before elevating your heels and start with light or no weight.
- Focus on form and on keeping your torso straight when you do heel-elevated squats.
- Do a variety of squats to stimulate your muscles differently.
- Escamilla R. et al. (2001). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of the squat during varying stance widths. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33, 6, 984-998.
- BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2018; 10: 14.Published online 2018 Jul 17. doi: 10.1186/s13102-018-0103-7.
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