Science on Squat Cues – Is on your heels or evenly spread weight better? A Simple Experiment

Kat Dalecki doing 55kg squats for peak EMG measurements

Kat Dalecki doing 55kg squats for peak EMG measurements

Science on the Squat… controversial (for some) – It would seem that weight all on the heels is WEAKER and results in less activation of your hamstrings and quads!!!
For a while now, I have been wondering about the cue to remain on your heel, wriggle your toes etc etc. Apparently this is to increase the “posterior chain” activation…but pulling you toes up activates your anterior muscles…So, to end the speculation, I thought I would try a preliminary experiment to see if it was worthy of further study – don’t be rough on me – I acknowledge that this is not a high quality study but it was an interesting one to see if it was worthy of further study.

Method:
I did the following twice – once for biceps femoris and once for quads (I only had a single channel surface EMG unit)…1. 55kg squat is just below body weight for Kathryn Dalecki
2. 5 reps to warm up
3. 5 reps with weight on heels, toes up
4. 5 reps with weight evenly through the foot with ball of foot and big toe definitely down, weight through the centre of the logo on the tongue of Kat’s Reebok Nanos

Biceps femoris and quads (VMO/rectus femoris bias) were measured for peak EMG during the concentric (drive up) phase.

My theory was that evenly distributed weight would activate the posterior chain more…which would also increase the quads activation…plantarflexion of the 1st ray is a key component of the foot stability mechanism and activates and stiffens the posterior chain via the plantar fascia into the Achilles tendon.

Results:
1. Hamstrings peaked between 192 and 212 with toes up, between 232 and 250 with even foot
2. Quads peaked at around 280 with toes up and around 340 with even foot

Conclusions:
1. It is likely that an even foot distribution leads to better recruitment of hamstring and quadriceps muscles during a bodyweight squat
2. Toes up cue results in less activation of hamstrings and quads
3. Gluts would be interesting to assess with EMG – next time!
4. Further study on this is warranted
5. One subject does not make a solid conclusion and the study design can be improved etc etc etc – don’t hate on me, it was just to see what happened – I understand the limitations!
6. Try it for yourself!!!

Guess what Darren CoughlanCrossFit Football and I have been independently teaching for years?? 

So, place your feet on the ground. Keep the weight even throughout the whole foot ensuring that the big toe pad and ball of the foot (aka first ray), the ball of the outside of your foot and heel is in contact with the ground the whole time. If you do this, the centre of mass should be on the front of your ankle crease. I am looking forward to seeing if this makes a difference in activation in the sedentary, amateur, athletic and professional populations 🙂
Any comments, questions or discussion is welcome 🙂
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About Antony Lo
Antony Lo is an APA Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist based in Sydney. His website is www.MyPhysios.com.au. He specializes in the management, treatment and prevention of pain and dysfunction, particularly of the pelvis and ribcage. His sub-specialties include Crossfit and Exercise Performance Optimization, Ante-Natal and Post-Natal Care and difficult cases that have failed treatment elsewhere.

8 Responses to Science on Squat Cues – Is on your heels or evenly spread weight better? A Simple Experiment

  1. Bungy Sheep says:

    Great article, would be interested in your results on glutes!
    From a coaching POV I regard the weight-on-heels-toes-up as cue to stop beginners rocking forward onto the forefoot with heel off the ground.
    It would seem unlikely that one could get increased posterior chain activation using this cue, as you say you activate anterior muscles and i’d expect reciprocal inhibition interferes with any triple extension type of movement.
    One trick to feel this is to lie on your back and squeeze the bum as hard as poss with dorsi and then plantar flexed feet and feel the difference… not a scientific test though 🙂

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    • Antony Lo says:

      Yeah Bungy Sheep (you will have to tell me the origin of that name some day!), I agree – do your test with surface EMG perhaps? It isn’t a particularly functional position unless you are measuring up for a new bed or something 😉

      I understand that the cue is to prevent people rocking forwards too far…but to tell people that it increases posterior chain activation is misleading at best. The main reason why I think people rock forwards (apart from a lack of mobility) is simply because they are searching for extra power/strength and rocking forwards will activate your plantarflexors harder but at the expense of a stable position…but that is opinion, not fact…where exactly do people find these ‘facts’ from anyway? I have done a cursory search of pubmed – not much there :/

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  2. Bungy Sheep says:

    I like your theory about increased activation rocking forward, maybe there is a study there 🙂 Not found any scientific source for ‘these facts’ either… will let you know if I come across anything, in the meantime i’m off to find an EMG to wire myself up to 😛

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  3. Michael says:

    Hi Antony!

    The best summary of the state of science about the Squat I’ve seen was published in 2010. You can find a PDF of the full review online here –

    http://www.dentonisd.org/cms/lib/tx21000245/centricity/Domain/700/Everything_you_need_to_know_about_Squatting.pdf

    It also provides reference to a series of fantastic studies investigating a range of issues with many varieties of the squat motion.

    Needless to say, more has been done in the last 3 years, but that article is usually my ‘start position’ whenever I’m investigating something about the squat.

    I hope that can help you with deciding out what you want to look at next!

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