What’s The Plate Under The Heel For?

Hi Shane,

Sometimes I see people put a plate under their heels when squatting. I tried it and found that I could squat more deeply than normal. I know you’re a proponent of deep squatting, so at first I thought it was a good idea, but lately I’ve seen you having your clients squat without their shoes on at all. So what’s the deal then.. shoes off or a plate under the heels and why?

Thanks,
Dale

Hi Dale,

Thanks for your question… it’s a real good one. The plate under the heels is definitely a common sight in most gyms. In fact I used to do it myself years ago, and along with a slew of other bad habits I used to have, I give it partial credit for some of the laxity of my knee ligaments.

The squat when done properly is a deep squat. The safety issue of the depth of the squat is really a non-issue and is rather an issue on misunderstanding the mechanics of the muscles that act upon the knee during a squat.

When most people try to squat deeply, they do it with poor technique, allowing their lumbar spine to lose it’s natural arch, and their knees to move too far forward, with the pull of the quadriceps on the tibia unrestrained except for the role of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). Both of these technique flaws increase the risk of injury to the lumbar dics and knee joints. BUT… for those without the flexibility in the ankles, hamstrings and hips, this will be the only way they will be able to squat deeply.

So knowing they shouldn’t let their low back lose the arch, some bright fella has come along at some point and showed young Jimmy that if he places some plates under his heels that he can now squat deeply without losing the arch in his back.

Feeling confident now, young Jimmy is off squatting deeply with a plate under his heels.

The problem is that what really happens when you put a plate under your heels is that you’re circumventing the problem of tight hamstrings which prevent you from squatting deeply. Usually you’ll find young Jimmy off stretching his hamstrings at the end of his workout anyway, which won’t do much to lengthen them permanently. And of course by virtue of circumventing the position in the squat where your hamstrings reach the end of their functional range of motion under load, you remove likely the most effective way to increase hamstring flexibility. Done correctly, the squat when taken to the point where the hamstrings become taught under load, over weeks and months of practice will increase in length to accommodate the deeper hip position required to squat deeply and safely.

The plate under the heel merely raises the ankle joint which allows the knees to travel forwards further (this motion if it occurs should come from increased ankle mobility, not raising the heel). But when the knee moves forward, the insertion point of the hamstring on the hip also moves forward, allowing the hamstring to remain loose enough for the hips to go deep.

Back to the original question… Why is it bad? It is bad because when the hamstrings stay loose as the hips descend, they do not restrain the tibia under the forward moving knee. So the only restraint engaged is the ACL. You won’t often hear of ACL rupture from this, but over the years you’ll definitely increase the laxity of the ACL and in turn compromise joint stability.

The second part of the question (much shorter answer I promise!) was about my clients not wearing their shoes when they squat. The primary reason is because most people come to the gym with either absolutely awful shoes that are ready for the garbage (You know who you are! ;p) or with fancy-schmancy running shoes which have great big cushy heels (which are perfect for absorption of forces during heel strike when running)… but are lousy for transferring loads effectively through the foot to the floor during a squat. When you’re squatting the last thing you want is to have something under your foot that’s going to absorb the force you’re trying to create and transfer to the floor. Especially when the absorption may not be perfectly even from left to right foot. Running shoes can create a scary wobbly feel under you when squatting with any decent loads. So short of having my clients go out and buy thin, hard sole shoes, I just have them squat with their shoes off. This way all the force that their muscles create is transferred directly to the floor. Safer, and more effective.

Finally, it makes it a little tougher to get deeper into the squat and thus encourages increased hamstring flexibility.

So either get some thin, hard soled shoes, or take off the running shoe. I promise you’ll notice a positive difference right away!

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Shane

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