Heel Elevated Squats: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 25, 2022

Among the dozens of squat variations is the heel elevated squat, a seemingly small adjustment to the traditional weighted squat that can result in surprisingly significant alterations in the mechanics, muscle group activation and effectiveness of the squat exercise.

The heel elevated squat, just as its name implies, is a squat performed with the exerciser’s heels elevated with the use of a wedge or other solid object so as to change the angle of resistance and mechanics of the exercise - usually for the purposes of certain specific training results.

For exercisers deciding on whether they should substitute their ordinary squat with heel elevated squats, first understanding the requirements, characteristics and specifics of the exercise is of vital importance - as the heel elevated squat, much like the conventional squat, must be performed in the proper manner so as to maximize its effectiveness.

What is the Heel Elevated Squat?

The heel elevated squat in - technical terms - is a free weight compound movement of the closed kinetic chain variety, with multiple joint movement kinetics and a rate of perceived exertion usually meant to be anywhere between 5 to 9 on the modified Borg RPE scale.

heel elevated squat muscles used

This all adds up to the heel elevated squat often being used as the primary leg compound movement in a workout routine, or as a secondary compound movement performed in conjunction with less quadriceps-specific muscle group activation, such as the hack squat or lunge.

Much like other variations of the squat motion, the heel elevated squat is usually performed with the usage of additional resistance in the form of a barbell, pair of dumbbells or kettlebell so as to further intensify the training stimulus achieved.

How Does the Heel Elevated Squat Differ from the Conventional Squat?

The largest and most obvious difference between the heel elevated squat and the conventional squat is in the elevation of the exerciser’s heels - resulting in a more quadriceps femoris focused exercise that places significantly less emphasis on the posterior chain muscle groups, reducing training stimulus in the glutes and hamstrings.

barbell full squat

In addition to this, the various smaller muscles located in the hips such as the adductors and abductors also play a greater role during the heel elevated squat, as the more advantageous positioning of the ankles and knees in relation to the hips allow for greater muscle group utilization.

This coincides with the fact that the heel elevated squat allows for greater squat depth to be achieved for exercisers without the prerequisite biomechanics and mobility to do so during the conventional squat - thereby also allowing for greater muscle group activation.

Who Should Perform the Heel Elevated Squat?

The heel elevated squat is a perfectly suitable exercise for the majority of healthy individuals - though a specific set of the population may benefit in particular from the performance of said heel elevated squat.

This can be seen in athletes seeking a more quadriceps specific training stimulus for the purposes of building speed and power, or in exercisers with poor hip and ankle mobility who otherwise have trouble performing the conventional squat in a full range of motion.

In addition to the heel elevated squat’s usefulness in regards to general athleticism, strength based athletes such as powerlifters and strongmen may also utilize the heel elevated squat as a sports-specific auxiliary movement that improves their functionality, mechanics adherence and capacity to perform the conventional squat or similar exercises.

Other types of exercisers that may benefit from the heel elevated squat are novices that have yet to master proper conventional squat mechanics, individuals with particularly weak quadriceps muscles, or for exercisers wishing to place significant training stimulus upon their hip adductors and abductors.

What Muscles are Worked by the Heel Elevated Squat?

Though it has been well established in this article that the heel elevated squat primarily utilizes the quadriceps femoris as the main source of force throughout the exercise, the fact that it is a squat variation means that other muscle groups found in the lower body are recruited to a certain extent as well.

These are either in the form of secondary mover muscles wherein the muscle group aids the quadriceps femoris and hip muscles during certain parts of the repetition, or as stabilizers that ensure the exerciser’s connective and osseous tissue remains undamaged.

heel elevated squat

The secondary mover muscles involved in the heel elevated squat are simply those that would otherwise be considered primary mover muscles during a conventional squat; the gluteus muscles that make up the buttocks, the hamstrings along the back of the femur, the calves muscle group as well as the erector spinae that prevent the exerciser from leaning forward too much.

In terms of stabilizer muscle groups, the abdominal muscles, internal and external obliques, erector spinae and other similar core muscles are all utilized in order to retain proper form and ensure that the exerciser does not injure themselves.

What are the Benefits of Elevating the Heels During the Squat?

As the general benefits of the squat and its variations are already well established throughout hundreds of fitness related literature articles, we have instead elected to list the benefits of the heel elevated squat in comparison to its conventional counterpart - showcasing the particular niches that it best fulfills.

Such benefits like the aforementioned enhanced quadriceps femoris activation or the greatly improved athletic capacity that is a characteristic of all squat variations have otherwise been omitted for brevity.

Reduced Mobility and Flexibility Requirements

A major issue encountered by exercisers seeking to perform a conventional squat is in the mobility requirements of said squat, of which will require that the exerciser possess significant flexibility in the hips, knees, ankles, shoulders and lower back so as to ensure proper form is followed.

This particular problem is not present in the heel elevated squat - at the least, not to the extent that it is in other variations of the squat.

Such a benefit is due to the change in biomechanics and body kinetics with the elevation of the exerciser’s heels, resulting in the knees automatically moving at an outward angle relative to the hip joints and reducing the total range of motion involved with the femur and acetabulum.

The marked reduction in required joint mobility makes the heel elevated squat a suitable alternative to the traditional squat for individuals with poor flexibility that cannot be otherwise remedied with standard rehabilitation, such as in the case of severe injury, chronic disease or advanced age.

Reduced Spinal Column Shear Force and Pressure

A significant forward tilt during the bottom of a squat repetition can result in significant pressure and shear force being applied to the lumbar and thoracic portions of the spine as it struggles to retain its shape.

While not entirely eliminated, this issue is significantly reduced in intensity during the heel elevated squat as more of the resistance and loading is placed on the knees and hips instead of the spinal column, reducing the risk of lower back injuries and resulting in a safer exercise.

Increased Effective Range of Motion

Though the relative distance the bar travels during the conventional squat and heel elevated squat are practically the same, the effective range of motion in regards to muscle group activation is lengthened somewhat during the performance of the latter squat variation.

This is due to the increased distance the hips move during the exercise, resulting in greater muscle fiber recruitment in certain muscle groups such as the quadriceps femoris and resulting in a longer time under tension - training both types of muscle fibers more effectively.

Muscular Imbalance Rehabilitation

A rather niche benefit of the heel elevated squat is in its capacity to force an underdeveloped pair of quadriceps femoris to overpower the glutes and hamstring muscle groups, something that may be difficult with the conventional squat for individuals that possess a posterior chain muscular imbalance.

As such, when performed in a rehabilitatory manner, the heel elevated squat is capable of correcting a muscular imbalance that may lead to postural issues, hip joint angle issues and even knee extension issues - so long as the exerciser follows the direction of a licensed physical therapist while doing so.

Is the Heel Elevated Squat Performed Differently than Other Squats?

The heel elevated squat is performed much the same as any other squat variation, with the exerciser maintaining a neutral spine and bending at the hips and knees throughout the repetition, with the core braced and the head facing forward.

However, where normal squat form cues require that the exerciser’s ankles remain unbent even during the absolute bottom of the repetition, the heel elevated squat has no such cue - instead simply requiring that the exerciser does not push their hips backwards and that the heels remain in contact with the elevated platform.

Risks of the Heel Elevated Squat

Though the heel elevated squat is considerably safer than other squat variations in terms of lower back injuries, it still presents certain risks when performed with incorrect form or excessive levels of resistance.

These risks fundamentally revolve around the greatly increased amount of pressure placed on the knee joints, especially due to the fact that the heel elevated squat does not necessarily require the exerciser to prevent their knees from extending beyond the feet - a form cue present in other squat variations in order to reduce stress placed on the joint.

For exercisers with poor hip flexibility, a history of knee injuries or individuals of advanced age - the heel elevated squat is unfortunately a poor choice for lower body resistance training, and as such an alternative movement should instead be used.

Common Mistakes of the Heel Elevated Squat

Much like any other compound exercise with strict form cues, the heel elevated squat may be performed in an improper manner by individuals new to the exercise or resistance movements in general - with the most common fortunately being quite easy to remedy, if caught in time.

Internally Rotating Knees

Not only a mistake in the heel elevated squat but in general leg training itself, internally rotating or collapsing knees during a repetition of the heel elevated squat can lead to serious connective tissue injury due to the stress placed on the joint and its surrounding tendons.

squat incorrect knees

In order to prevent such an occurrence, the exerciser must ensure that their knees are always pointing at an outward angle, and that the torso does not lean forward too excessively, which will place even further stress on the knee joint.

Excessive Elevation of the Heel

Though the entire point of a heel elevated squat is the elevation of the exerciser’s heel so as to alter the mechanics of the exercise, excessively raising the heels in such a manner can not only result in undue stress being placed on the knees and ankles - but also potentially injure the exerciser as they lose their balance.

The exact height that is optimal for performing the heel elevated squat will differ between individuals, but is generally within range of approximately 1 to 3 inches - a height that essentially excludes the usage of excessively thick weight plates as possible elevation platforms to use.

Insufficient Posterior Chain Muscle Supplementation

The heel elevated squat is established as an excellent activator of the quadriceps muscle group - so much so that it sidelines the gluteus and hamstring muscle groups, relegating them to simple secondary mover muscles instead.

If the heel elevated squat is the sole lower body exercise performed in one’s training program, this can potentially result in muscular imbalances developing - leading to postural issues, weakened hips and knees, and reduced function of the lower body.

In order to avoid this, the exerciser must supplement their posterior chain muscle groups with additional training stimulus such as one would find in certain isolation exercises, or variants of the squat that do not primarily focus on the quadriceps muscles.

In particular, movements like the Romanian deadlift, hamstring curl or even the conventional squat itself can all complement the heel elevated squat perfectly.

References

1. Sayers MGL, Hosseini Nasab SH, Bachem C, Taylor WR, List R, Lorenzetti S. The effect of increasing heel height on lower limb symmetry during the back squat in trained and novice lifters. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2020 Jul 25;12:42. doi: 10.1186/s13102-020-00191-y. PMID: 32728445; PMCID: PMC7382835.

2. Mauntel, Timothy & Begalle, Rebecca & Cram, Tyler & Frank, Barnett & Hirth, Christopher & Blackburn, Troy & Padua, Darin. (2012). The Effects of Lower Extremity Muscle Activation and Passive Range of Motion on Single Leg Squat Performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 27. 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b886.

3. Sayers MGL, Bachem C, Schütz P, Taylor WR, List R, Lorenzetti S, Nasab SHH. The effect of elevating the heels on spinal kinematics and kinetics during the back squat in trained and novice weight trainers. J Sports Sci. 2020 May;38(9):1000-1008. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2020.1738675. Epub 2020 Mar 17. PMID: 32183616.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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