A favorite cue for coaches to say when their athletes are squatting is, “Stay back on your heels.” Now, this may be an appropriate cue to say when an athlete is dive bombing on their toes and heels are two inches off the ground in the descent of their squat, but this should not be the end-all-be-all cue. Actually if this were happening there would probably be much more at play and that cue would be lazy coaching. I digress… the reason this cue became what is today is because of two reasons: (1) It’s believed squatting with your knees over, or even well over, your toes is detrimental to knee health due to sheer force and (2) its thought squatting is a hamstring dominant lift. Let’s talk about how reason number one is false and save two for a different blog post :).
In 2003 a study by Dr. Andrew Fry et al posted in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research he demonstrated how this is in fact false. He had two groups of experienced lifters with the control group squatting with a board in front of them limiting the knee from moving past their toes (forcing hips back or weight in heels) and the experimental group was allowed to freely move the knees past the toe. To summarize his findings he writes:
“Although restricting forward movement of the knees may minimize stress on the knees, it is likely that forces are inappropriately transferred to the hips and low-back region. Thus, appropriate joint loading during this exercise may require the knees to move slightly past the toes.” (Fry et al., 2003)
Watch videos of Olympic weightlifters today and see their knee placement. You will find that most track knees well in front of their toes which is totally fine. I, for one, like to use three points of performance (POPs) when assessing new and experienced lifters that walk through Packerland CrossFit. They are:
1. Are they squatting to proper depth?
2. Is the spine in a safe neutral position?
3. Is their weight evenly distributed in the foot?
If someone is completely new to squats there are some generalizations to get them on their way to squatting with a barbell. With that said we must keep in mind that no squat is the same and we should not force someone into a position because we think it is correct. Those generalizations are:
1. Feet shoulder width apart
2. Toes pointed out in the range of 0-45 degrees.
3. Knees tracking over toes wherever degree they point
If all that is uncomfortable for our athlete to achieve the POPs comfortably then we can assess their hip range of motion from a supine position (lying on their back) because this has no load, automatically puts them in a neutral spine, and allows us to freely play with foot placement to achieve the depth we are looking for safely. From there we can slowly work up to standing then reinforce with counter balance tempo to holds and eventually freestanding.
So let’s lay off of telling our athletes to sit back and their heels. Let's band together and start saying something like… “Weight on your mid foot” or “Big toe planted.” Hope this helps and intrigues you to get out there and continue learning!