We hear the popular and broadly used squat cues time and time again that goes something like, “drive through your heels” or “sit back into the heels”, and it’s time they receive a rethink. In strength training, coaches and athletes are constantly learning new ways to train and cue movements for better mechanics.
After hearing one of the trainers at my local gym instruct a newer lifter to drive through their heels during a squat, it got me thinking and watching. The athlete — to no surprise — did as they were told and the weight moved fine, but so did their toes off the ground as the their full focus shifted to the heel in the concentric (stand up portion of the squat).
The heels cue, while not inherently wrong in nature, often gets misused in practice and I’m here to make a case about there being better ways to get the desired squat coaching points across. Typically, these cues will be used to teach the squat, or to communicate the importance of driving up through the bar to create more power in a population that’s coming up onto their toes. Like most great lifting cues, the context in which they are used is the most important characteristic to consider.
Where Did These Cues Originate?
Before exploring potentially better ways to cue lifters to obtain the desired outcomes at hand (even, efficient force production), let’s take a look at where these cues most likely originated. While it’s impossible to pinpoint where any one cue started, more than likely, these cues originated in settings where coaches were teaching newer lifters the concept and idea of sitting back in the squat — aka breaking at the hips at the same time or just before the knees.
At their roots, the “sit back into the heels” and “drive through the heels” cues are often used as ways to hypercorrect an issue. In this case, that issue is coming up onto the toes during a squat — a problem most beginner lifters have. For a beginner, these cues make sense for a short period of time if they have problems with coming up onto the toes, as movement patterns and safety are the two primary focuses for this demographic. However, their usefulness are capped by one’s learning abilities.
Cues Worth a Rethink
- Sit back into the heels
- Drive through the heels
Again, these cues are not wrong in nature, but when cues have their roots in hypercorrection for a beginner issue and are then applied to a recreational lifter with relatively decent form, then messaging could be easily misconstrued. Not to mention, in proper squat patterning inn every level athlete there’s never a time when weight should be fully shifted to the heels.
So if there are better ways to get a desired point across to improve performance, why not apply those?
What to Try Instead
Squat Movement Patterns and the Feet
When the above cues get used for squats, what tends to follow is a squat that has the knees tracking over or behind the toes, which can be counterproductive for force production and efficient movement patterns. Knee tracking will vary based on multiple factors such as a lifter’s squat style, anthropometrics, and mobility.
If one forces all of their emphasis and weight into the heels, then the knee and ankle are then not being accounted for properly. A better way to approach this concept is to shift focus from the heel to the full foot.
In the squat, the feet play an incredibly important role for two major reasons. First, the feet help root the lifter to the ground providing them with a stable base. Kabuki Strength’s coaches do a phenomenal job of providing a rooting how-to and conveying the importance of this concept in their video below.
Second, the feet serve as tools to displace force evenly amongst the body during the eccentric to the concentric. This displacement allows lifters to use the leg muscles accordingly to move efficiently and strongly. Consider the feet the mediators to yourself and the external weight on your back.
How we load the feet will translate to how we use the leg musculature to move weight. Chad Wesley Smith from Juggernaut Training told us that one of his favorite cues for the squat is, “Find Your Bid Toe”.
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2 Squat Tips From Chad Wesley Smith! 1. Push Your Obliques Out – This cue goes to how the athlete will breathe and brace. A common breathing cue is big air into your belly or push your abs into your belt but if the focus is on pushing the abs forward into the belt, there will likely be too much lumbar extension to create optimal pressure through circumferential expansion through the trunk. Focusing on pushing air down and out into the obliques helps reinforce this and should also avoid the athlete breathing too much into their chest and shoulders. ——– 2. Find Your Big Toe – A common mistake in the squat is for the athlete to shift too much weight on their heels throughout the lift, particularly as their first move out of the hole. This causes the knees to move backwards and limits their ability to effectively push with their quads. We cue the lifter to feel weight evenly on the big toe, little toe and heel (possibly more on the big toe if they really have a tendency to be on the heel) to improve knee position and sequencing of the lift. A big thank you to strength coach & BarBend Expert Chad Wesley Smith for sharing his favorite squat tips!
Smith told us, “A common mistake in the squat is for the athlete to shift too much weight on their heels throughout the lift, particularly as their first move out of the hole. This causes the knees to move backwards and limits their ability to effectively push with their quads.
We cue the lifter to feel weight evenly on the big toe, little toe and heel (possibly more on the big toe if they really have a tendency to be on the heel) to improve knee position and sequencing of the lift.”
The event displacement between the big toe, little toe, and heel that Smith is references above is typically called a tripod foot position. These three points of contact in the foot create a stronger arch and improve our ability to grip the floor, which will have carryover to balance and force production across all athletic movements.
Instead of shifting weight into the heels, coaches and athletes can try a few of the cues below to provide a better means for getting their message across.
Cues to Try Instead
- Grip the floor
- Find your big toe (Chad Wesley Smith’s cue)
- Screw the feet into the floor
- Stack the ankles (Kabuki Strength cue)
- Drive through the mid-foot
The goal of the above cues are to provide an athlete with a better understanding of where weight should be displaced over the foot when squatting. In the back squat, ideal bar path will fall in-line with the mid-foot, and producing force through the full foot — as opposed to the heel alone — will provide the athlete the best means possible to move weight efficiently and strongly.
Is one cue above better than another? That depends. The cues above are all somewhat synonymous in nature, but might resonate differently among various athletes. My advice, if you’re using the heels cue now, then try out a few of the above cues and see which you prefer. If one cue makes more sense to you than another, then proceed and experiment with that cue further.
Lifting cues can be some of the most important tools an athlete can possess in the gym. The best lifting cues are the cues that will resonate the most with an athlete to get a desired point across. As strength sports continue to grow, so does our understanding of how to coach, cue, and move efficiently.
Are the heels cues referenced above wrong in nature — not at all — but when used in the wrong context for the wrong athletes, then they can be problematic for teaching and engraining proper movement patterns in growing athlete.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from IvanRiver / Shutterstock