The barbell squat, a cornerstone of strength training, has long been a subject of intense debate regarding the impact of heel elevation. Some swear by it, while others remain skeptical. To settle this controversy and bring new evidence to light, researchers explored the effects of heel elevation on the hip, knee, and ankle in the barbell back squat. In this blog post, we'll delve into two intriguing studies that shed light on the topic, unraveling the potential benefits and gender differences associated with heel elevation.
The Quest for Improved Squat Technique: The Role of a Wedgie
Numerous studies have found positive effects on squat wedges with a smaller heel elevation for squat depth and technique (1-6). However, limited research has been done on higher elevations above 25 mm (1 inch). To bridge this knowledge gap, researchers conducted a compelling study investigating the impact of different heights of squat wedges on the barbell back squat.
Study #1: Examining Movement with Squat Wedges
The study involved 15 experienced recreational weightlifters who were randomly assigned to three conditions: barefoot, 25-mm wedges (1 inch), and 50-mm wedges (2 inches).
The results of the study were nothing short of remarkable. The analysis of the back squat movement revealed significant differences in trunk inclination and knee flexion between the three conditions.
- Torso Stayed More Upright With increasing wedge height, participants experienced a more upright torso during the back squat than the barefoot group. The group using the steeper 2-inch wedges demonstrated the most upright trunk position.
- Increasing Knee Range of Motion Conversely, as the wedge height increased, the knee range of motion expanded significantly. Participants with the 2-inch wedges experienced greater knee flexion during the squat compared to the barefoot and 1-inch wedge conditions.
The findings from this study have exciting implications for athletes and fitness enthusiasts looking to optimize their back squat technique and reap additional benefits:
- Back Pain Relief The increased trunk inclination observed with higher wedges suggests that squat wedges could be an effective tool for individuals with back pain or limited lumbar mobility. By promoting a more upright position, squat wedges may reduce strain on the lower back during squats.
- Knee Strengthening The enhanced knee range of motion associated with using higher wedges indicates that squat wedges can be a valuable aid for individuals aiming to strengthen their knee joints and related muscles. This is particularly relevant for athletes seeking to improve knee stability and performance in various sports.
"Higher wedges allowed positive adaptations by promoting a more upright trunk position and greater BS depth. Using a heel wedge can be a lowcost and viable strategy to optimize BS technique in a variety of training settings and contexts." -Monteiro et al. 2022
Study 2: Effect of Squat Wedges on Lower Body Muscle Activation
The second study explored the effect squat wedges had on lower body muscle activation in the back squat. To delve deep into the matter, the research team recruited 20 healthy adult participants, evenly split between males and females, with varying squatting experience levels.
- Impressive Ankle Work The study demonstrated that when the subjects heels were elevated, they experienced a significant increase in ankle work. This discovery implies that heel elevation may train the ankle more, making it an appealing technique for athletes with a history of ankle sprains or weakened joints.
- Muscle Activation Insights With raised heels, key muscles, such as the vastus lateralis (quadricep), biceps femoris (hamstring), and gastrocnemius (calf), exhibited heightened activation. Simultaneously, muscle activation of the anterior tibialis (shin) decreased, offering valuable insights into which muscles are targeted during heel-elevated squats.
"For athletes who want to improve the strength of the knee joint muscles, heel elevation can be used to increase the activation of the knee muscles to improve training results, and the activation of the ankle flexors and extensors can be an important reference for developing ankle stability training." -Lu et al. 2022
- Ankle Dorsiflexion Angle Contrary to some assumptions, the research indicated that ankle dorsiflexion angles significantly decreased with elevated heels. This observation suggests that heel elevation may be particularly advantageous for individuals with limited ankle mobility, potentially reducing discomfort during the squats.
- Gender Differences An intriguing aspect of the study was the gender-specific outcomes. Male participants displayed a significant increase in knee flexion compared to hip flexion. On the other hand, female participants didn't show as much of a difference between the knees and hips.
Conclusion: Unleash Your Squat Potential with Wedges
The two studies above show that squat wedges and slant boards can be an essential tool for back pain relief and stronger knees. Both studies revealed that steeper squat wedges promote a more upright trunk position and greater knee flexion than barefoot squatting (7,8).
So, embrace the power of a wedgie and elevate your back squat performance to new heights. Whether you aim to strengthen your knees, alleviate back pain, or enhance your overall squatting technique, slant boards are the secret weapon you've been searching for in your fitness journey.
- Sriwarno, Andar & Shimomura, Yoshihiro & Iwanaga, Koichi & Katsuura, Tetsuo. (2008). The Effects of Heel Elevation on Postural Adjustment and Activity of Lower-Extremity Muscles during Deep Squatting-to-Standing Movement in Normal Subjects. Journal of Physical Therapy Science - J PHYS THER SCI. 20. 31-38. 10.1589/jpts.20.31.
- Jagessar, Miguel. (2019). 2D Kinematic Analysis of the Effect of Heel Elevation on Squat Depth. 10.13140/RG.2.2.17688.34568.
- Sayers, Mark & Bachem, Caroline & Schütz, Pascal & Taylor, William & List, Renate & Lorenzetti, Silvio & Hosseini Nasab, Seyyed Hamed. (2020). The effect of elevating the heels on spinal kinematics and kinetics during the back squat in trained and novice weight trainers. Journal of Sports Sciences. 38. 1-9. 10.1080/02640414.2020.1738675.
- Jonathan Sinclair, Bobbie Butters, Paul John Taylor, Mark Stone, Ian Bentley & Christopher James Edmundson (2020) Effects of different footwear on kinetics, kinematics and muscle forces during the barbell back squat; an exploration using Bayesian modelling, Footwear Science, 12:3, 139-152, DOI: 10.1080/19424280.2020.1769202
- Charlton, J. M., Hammond, C. A., Cochrane, C. K., Hatfield, G. L., & Hunt, M. A. (2017). The Effects of a Heel Wedge on Hip, Pelvis and Trunk Biomechanics During Squatting in Resistance Trained Individuals. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 31(6), 1678–1687. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001655
- Johnston, Christopher; Hunt-Murray, Chase; and Hsieh, ChengTu (2017) "EFFECT OF HEEL HEIGHTS ON LOWER EXTREMITY MUSCLE ACTIVATION FOR BACK-SQUAT PERFORMANCE," ISBS Proceedings Archive: Vol. 35 : Iss. 1 , Article 176. Available at: https://commons.nmu.edu/isbs/vol35/iss1/176
- Monteiro, Pedro & Marcori, Alexandre & Nascimento, Vitor & Guimarães, Anderson & Okazaki, Victor. (2022). Comparing the kinematics of back squats performed with different heel elevations. Human Movement. 23. 10.5114/hm.2021.106164.
- Lu Z, Li X, Xuan R, Song Y, Bíró I, Liang M, Gu Y. Effect of Heel Lift Insoles on Lower Extremity Muscle Activation and Joint Work during Barbell Squats. Bioengineering (Basel). 2022 Jul 8;9(7):301. doi: 10.3390/bioengineering9070301. PMID: 35877352; PMCID: PMC9312299.