We have all heard that a solid house must begin with a strong foundation.
Well, it’s the same with our bodies. It all starts with the feet.
Ailments that develop over time can be traced back to weakness, imbalance and tightness in our feet and ankles. How about while we are lifting? What can we look or feel for in our feet? What do our feet tell us during large movements such as squats and deadlifts?
This is very important because we do not want to strengthen imbalances or bad motor patterns. We want to listen to our feet and fix any issues.
If we really start paying attention to how our feet feel, or where we feel pressure during movements, it can give us a good plan of attack for correcting technique and reducing pain in the knees and lower back.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s talk a little bit about footwear. It is difficult to listen to the feet when we throw another joint under them such as cushioned soled shoes. It is preferable when you are lifting weights to wear thin soled shoes such as Chuck Taylors, or solid weight lifting shoes, and even bare feet! These options allow for a firm platform to the ground.
Let’s begin with the squat.
You should push through the middle of your foot, not the heel and absolutely not the balls of your feet. You should plant every “corner” of your foot firmly into the ground. If you push through the heel, you’re not engaging your quads enough, and you may fall on your butt. Push through the balls of your feet, you are not engaging your hips and glutes and will feel pressure and maybe pain in your knees.
Something to take into account is the flexibility of your ankle. As you go down in a squat, if your heels rise and pressure moves forward in your feet, the issue is most likely flexibility. Tight ankles and calves will not allow you to stay upright enough, and eventually, you will develop low back discomfort.
A great way to combat this issue is to add in seated calf raises at a tempo of 1-6-1-0 for 6-8 reps. Now, if the feet turn out while squatting in a narrow stance squat, then ankles are most likely the issue. If they turn out on a wide stance squat, hips can be the issue. Sometimes the issue can simply be adjusting the stance or setup.
Let’s move onto the deadlift.
This move slightly depends on the individual’s levers. If you are a tall lifter, your setup in a deadlift will consist of knees being tracked forward a bit. It’s the opposite for the short lifter. A tall lifter will need to push mid-foot first to break from the floor, but the pressure will quickly transfer to the heel as the bar is pulled into the body and the hips and glutes take over.
The short lifter may be able to get in a great setup with most of the pressure in the heel. No lifter, whether tall or short, should ever feel pressure in the balls of their feet as this means setup is an issue, and the bar path will be incorrect and unforgiving! The farther the bar is from the body, the heavier it will feel.
A good guideline to know is that with posterior chain movements such as RDLs, hip thrusts, and good mornings; the pressure should always be in the heel. In most quad movements, you should try to be square on the foot, such as split squats, lunges and squat machines.
There are exceptions. For example, with sissy squats, or Peterson leg presses, the pressure is purposely put on the balls of the feet to train the quads specifically. They are also somewhere you can be in control of the training effect.
For example, when doing the leg press with feet high and pressure on the heels, it becomes a posterior chain move; with feet lower and pressure on the mid-foot, your quads will see most of the action.
Tips to remember:
- Pressure in heels = Glutes, ham
- Pressure in balls of feet = Quads
- Pressure in mid-foot = healthy mixture of both
- Look first at a client’s or training partner’s feet during movements to know what’s activating or not, or what’s tight or weak.
- Focus on what you feel in your feet during lower body movements.