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Exercise Analysis #1 - Squats: Should you push through the heels?


Exercise Analysis #1 - Squats: Should you push through the heels?

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Have you ever told someone (or been told) to push through the heels while performing ground-based exercises, like the squat?  We at the Cybex Research Institute (CRI) often hear anecdotes about pushing through the heels.  Despite this instruction being widely used, we don’t have a great idea as to why the instruction is given in the first place.  In addition, we don’t know how this instruction might positively or negatively impact an exercise.  So to attempt to answer this question, we brought people into the laboratory and asked them to squat while instructing them to push through different spots on their feet. 

The first episode of our exercise analysis series analyzed the biomechanics of the legs during the squat under the following different coaching instructions:

Condition 1. Pushing through the heel

Condition 2. Pushing through the instep

Condition 3. Pushing through the ball of the foot. 

In our subsequent analysis, we found little difference at the hip and the knee between these three instructions, but saw a significant decrease in demand to the calf muscles when the exercisers were instructed to push through the heel.  If, for some reason, the exerciser wanted to avoid working the calves (perhaps due to a sore Achilles tendon) then pushing through the heel during a squat is one way to accomplish this.  If, however, the exerciser wanted to ensure this important muscle group was well trained, then it would be beneficial to discourage ‘pushing through the heel,’. Alternatively, the exerciser could incorporate additional calf-focused exercises.

You can see the full exercise analysis demonstrated in our video:

It may be that the instruction to push through the heels arose because coaches and trainers wanted to ensure that the heel did not come off the ground during the squat.  This was probably because lifting the heel off the ground significantly decreased the exerciser’s base of support, and as a result, might have made the exerciser less stable and more likely to lose their balance. 

However, the exerciser can avoid loss of balance by simply keeping their heels on the ground throughout the squat.  Most importantly, if their heel is not coming off of the ground, perhaps this instruction is not needed at all! 

Conclusion: Sometimes, something as simple as the instruction given during an exercise might result in significant differences in the exercise’s outcomes. 

Have questions about the biomechanics of squatting or questions about our video? Please comment below or contact us.

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Thanks for the insight Cory! I would love to see this same scenario in a lunge motion performed as a split squat, reach back lunge and step forward lunge. Can we also tie in torso position over the stance (front) leg and it's implications on torque at the knee?
Posted @ Friday, January 10, 2014 11:26 AM by Scott Moody
I can see how using these different cues could put a different emphasis on ones workout. But, would it be wise to use such a cue as,"push through the ball of the foot" on a new client who either has not exercised in years or has never worked out a day in their life? I find that using the "push through your heels" cue helps me teach the proper body biomechanics to those types of populations. It also helps me teach my clients, who are predominantly completely sedentary before they come to me, what to feel in their hamstrings and glutes as they normally have long forgot what a contracting hamstring or flute feels like. 
Also, what would the significance of these cues be in regards to athletes who have undergone ACL surgery and are training to return to sport?
Posted @ Friday, January 10, 2014 1:49 PM by Shon Jones
I always thought that using this cue helped in preventing bad form. If a person squatting was on their toes then they had a tendency to lean forward which could have a horrific outcome either by not controlling the weight and leaning forward or putting too much pressure on the knees. Maybe I am too old school!! I remember putting a small board or even a 5lb plate under my heels. But heck, to be honest, I was never very good at squats.
Posted @ Friday, January 10, 2014 7:52 PM by Brian Butler
Cory - Did one technique increase amount the subject could squat?
Posted @ Thursday, January 16, 2014 1:18 AM by rob potash
Rob, I am also interested in what happens when you increase the load, and not to open up a whole new can of worms, but... 
When adding load, torso position and lifting style also come into play. Powerlifters seem to utilize a flatter torso approach (closer to parallel to the ground), and therefore seem to lift more weight, while Weightlifters utilize a more vertical torso approach which requires much more mobility at the hip and ankle. Can we also compare this to a leg press? All styles have probably used the cue "drive through the heels" at some level, in an attempt to reduce torque at the knee.  
In your graph in the video, there looks to be about 10-15% more torque at the knee when driving through the ball of the foot as opposed to the heel. What happens to this peak torque when heavy loads are added, and although we can all agree that the instep is probably the best cueing strategy, is there a reason why we should ever cue the ball or the heel?
Posted @ Thursday, January 16, 2014 8:12 AM by Scott Moody
@Scott: We are currently analyzing data now for much of what you described (effects of torso position on knee torque during a step forward lunge). Stay tuned! 
@Shon: We did not test any first time exercisers in this analysis. We never say where and when to use these cues; we simply wanted to provide some data as to the biomechanical changes that may result from these different cues. Of course, armed with these data, you could use them however you see fit. 
@ Brian: This is a good point, and we address the issue of 'good form' in the above article. 
@Rob: We only measured body weight squats during this analysis. You pose an interesting question, and one that I don't know the answer to! 
@Scott: Great questions. The answers to your questions would require many more subjects and a much more advanced analysis. I am sure that the changes in torso position that you speak of will have an effect, but I am not sure exactly what that might be. If the small change that you note @ is the knee is significant, then perhaps (for a maximal squat) pushing through the heel might be a preferable strategy. All good questions, but we don't have the data to answer them!
Posted @ Friday, January 17, 2014 4:13 AM by Cory Hofmann
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