Are you an athlete looking to increase your leg strength, power and explosiveness? Are you mom or female exerciser working out in the gym and hoping to firm up your legs and improve a jiggly butt and reduce the visibility of cellulite on the back of your thighs and butt?
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If you look around the internet at various training websites including youtube videos, you will hear numerous experts explain proper squatting technique touting squat technique as the answer to your dreams. The truth about fitness is that there is only one squatting technique. The best technique for squatting is the one you were born with and used until a fitness expert tried to instruct you, you read an article in a fitness magazine, or followed the advice of a friend.
If you watch children up until the age that they begin organized training, their bodies develop at a rate in which we perceive is balance between strength and flexibility. Coordination, however, takes a while to catch up for those children of all ages who experience a growth spurt or constant changes in activity.
In fact, a developing toddler to adolescent is capable of demonstrating strength and flexibility while constantly battling coordination mainly because they have no perception of failure or understanding of instructions given to them on how to walk, run, squat, or throw. They just do it. In fact, the first signs of struggle we see from children while performing physical activities is after their first words of instructions.
Recently i began to instruct my teenage daughter on how to play a new sport. The more practice and instruction I provide, the more she struggles. The more I allow her body to do what she does naturally, the better her performance and the better the result. My goal is to provide her with the strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility to assist her body in performing the task and allow the skill to benefit from her body having the strength, coordination, and flexibility to perform the skills necessary to play the sport. With those things, I am instructing around one weakness or another.
Have you ever heard a strength coach or a fitness professional say, you’re going to struggle until you learn proper squatting technique. I’m glad no one sad that the kid in the pictures. Who knows how long it would have taken him to get up and move on to the next toy. Over the next few minutes I hope to shed a little light on a topic that has finally started to negatively impact, sports, fitness, and life.
I wanted to keep this post brief with the idea of making several points. Here’s how the body works when you perform a squat or for that matter any task on your feet:
1. The first segment of the body to store absorb, and transfer forces absorbed from the ground is the big toe on both feet while performing any activity while standing, walking, running, jumping or lunging. That force is transfer through the joint between the big toe and the foot (the interphalangeal joint). This is the first joint to store and release energy into the entire foot as it passes through the foot and ankle. As forces pass through the toe, it is the bottom of the foot (not the top) that must properly absorb the force and pass it on to the ankle.As a result of forces applied to the ground, the soft tissue of the bottom of the foot contracts and releases efficiently in order to properly move the forces out of the foot or injury may occur.
2. The next segment of the body to absorb, store, and transfer energy is the entire lower leg. The muscles which must first absorb the force as it comes out of the ankle is the gastrocnemius/soleus complex (posterior compartment of the lower leg also knows as the calves) but only after the force passes through the Achilles tendon which connects the ankle to the posterior (back) lower leg muscles.
3. The gastroc/soleus provides the necessary muscle contraction to transfer the forces properly out of the lower leg and next segment, the femur and the muscles of that segment which begins with the hamstrings and glutes. The glutes and hamstrings help to stabilize the pelvis and put it into position to complete the entire squat. The quadriceps act as a stabilizer and help to extend the knee during when elevating the body from the squat position. The quadriceps are triggered to extend the knee and are stimulated by any other anterior muscle contraction in the lower leg or foot.
In the 1960s/1970s/1980s and even the early 1990s, weightlifting was done primarily by body builders including Arnold Schwarzenegger. The legendary body builders focused on squatting through the forefoot. In the mid 1990’s some so called expert (no one will ever take credit for it now) began to instruct people to squat, lunge, leg press, etc while pushing through the heels of the feet. In fact, if you watch just about every fitness video, or so called expert in glute training, every one stresses pushing the the heels.
Here’s a test for you to run through your common sense meter. Perform a toe raise by shifting the weight towards the heels. In performing toe raise, notice the increase intensity in your quadriceps contraction and some contraction of your glutes. Shift the weight into your heels by raising your the entire front part of your foot off the ground, step, or where ever you are doing this test. In doing so you may feel a some contraction in the glutes.
However, you should notice that the more you try to squeeze your qlutes, the more you squeeze your qaudriceps (thighs) instead.
Earlier, I mentioned the role of the big toe. If the weight is in the heel, what happens to the big toe? It lifts off of the ground as the top of the foot and toes extend upwards, initiating the front side contraction of the entire leg.
Now try this test. Perform a standing calf raise (heel lift). As you lift your heel, try to contract your glutes (squeeze your butt). Were you successful? If you were, your kinetic chain and kinematic sequence are correct. Your kinetic chain and kinematic sequence are easily explained as the flow of energy and order (sequence) of muscle contraction.
What you feel here is the muscles contraction and areas of intensity you should feel when are at the top of your squat. While in performing the heel raise, you should have noticed a significant difference in muscle contraction on the calves, hamstrings, and glutes.
But is the contraction greater or less than the Toe Raise (heel press) rather than the Calf Press (heel lift).
In Biomechanics and Kinesiology, in order to push through the heels a person must first shift the weight backwards. To do so, requires a contraction of the muscles on the front of the lower leg. In EMG research testing in my lab, the entire anterior compartment of the lower leg (shin) contracts once the weight shifts behind the mid point of the foot.
The gastroc/soleus complex also contracts but only acts more as a stabilizer than a primary mover. This means the calves neither receive nor deliver any force to the middle of the foot or the big toe when pushing through the heels. In other words if the weight is in the heels and the lifter pushes through the heels, the entire front of the leg contracts to help with the squat. NOT THE BACK OF THE LEG!
As a result of the single exercise cue “Push through the heels” sports and fitness professionals have inadvertently contributed to an increase in Achilles tendon injuries, knee injuries, low back pain and injuries, tight hips, and numerous other injuries. It’s time for a change in the industry and it starts with exercise professionals. I have come to that conclusion based not on opinion but after evaluation of the Biomechanics data of over 50,000 athletes and exercisers over the past 18 years.
By the repetition and migration of injuries to different parts of the body, it’s easy to conclude that many professional athletes like Greg Oden, Tiger Woods and others were instructed to push through their heels while squatting and lunging during rehab. Because it is clearly a cue given as an industry standard, I can imagine that even Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, as he rehabs in hopes to return to play this season has been repeatedly instructed to push through his heels. Even though Adrian Peterson had an incredible 2012 NFL season, he still exhibits signs of a weakened left foot and left ankle demonstrating that he may have been pushing through his heels while training.
Here’s the problem: When you apply force back into the heels, you disable the foot and ankle’s ability to resist internal tibia (lower leg) rotation. In doing so, the athlete’s body is inadvertently ENABLING that same rotation that the foot could be preventing. It is that rotation that cause stress in the Achilles tendon and may cause medial and even lateral knee pain. In addition, the same rotation is what contributes to patella femoral syndrome and can lead to patella tendon ruptures. In previous chapter, I discussed Greg Oden’s injuries and what could have been done to prevent all of his injuries from 2008 to present. It is this simple cue that may have contributed to his repeated injuries. I am able to conclude this because of the presence of rotational stability issues in while he performed running and squatting Biomechanics tests. Brandon Roy, currently signed to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves also exhibited signs of rotational instability. And in numerous exercise videos on the internet Roy can be seen showing those same signs of knee rotational instability due to weight in his heels in various youtube videos. Later in this book, I will share research data from over 1,000 individuals performing squats and other exercisers in evidence of my findings.
Personally, I used to recommend pushing through the heels, as well. In fact, in my early days in the industryI used it as a common exercise cue believing what at the time made sense. However, looking back, my reason for suggesting it didn’t make “common” sense and as I began to apply more of the principles of Kinesiology, I knew I needed to change many of my exercise cues which came from the still evolving fitness industry. From 1997 on, I advocated mid-foot striking while on long distance runs and mid to forefoot pressing while performing strength training and conditioning. I switched to this cue as a way to allow the body to develop and utilize the foot as it was intended: a shock absorber. In order for the foot to assist in absorbing shock with high, low, or no impact activity, the forces start at the segment nears the end (distal) part of the foot, not in the heel.
As a former hurdler, I NEVER ran on my heels. However distance runners (more in the US than other countries) were instructed to run with a heel strike. Here’s a common sense question, if pushing through your heels help increase glute muscle contraction, wouldn’t distance runners have large glutes and strong hamstrings? In addition, would sprinters (who incidentally run on the balls of their feet) have small glutes and stronger quads when compared hamstrings? Instead, its just the opposite. Distance runners have large quads and non-existent glute muscle development when compared to sprinters.
The bottom line is time for a change in this simple cue. Please stop instructing clients to push through their heels unless you are trying to develop strong anterior (front side) leg muscles. Because as a cue to develop more glute strength or get rid of cellulite on the butt, it’s just not gonna happen.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book: Absolute Kinetix: Fitness From the Ground Up. To be added to the list to receive a copy of the book, post a comment or reply to this article or send a tweet mentioning Absolute Kineix: Fitness From the Ground Up! @zigSports.
Zig Ziegler, The Sports Kinesiologist can be followed on Twitter @zig_ziegler and on http://www.facebook.com/iwannabeaworldclassathlete