Toes Up or Toes Down?

In a blog post some time ago, you answered a user question relating to elevating the forefeet vs. the heels with the following comment, “Toes up is much different than heels up.”

Toes-up is very different than heels-up.
Heels-up typically makes dynamic stability efforts like the Deep Squat “easier” because the heels-up position is an anterior weight shift of the body. We have changed the interaction with the ground that automatically puts the body more forward than it would with a flat foot. It effectively changes the base of support to a more forward position. The cheat, if you will, in this strategy is that most people show up with an anterior center of mass. Think forward COM in a neutral BOS as trouble. If we move BOS forward, the COM falls ideally, and the stability of the system is improved, albiet artificially.
Now keep in mind, that isn’t always bad in trying to develop movement patterns. In pure stability problems, this can be the proprioceptive fix. I think you see it a lot with young girls that have all the mobility, but they just have no awareness. They bury the squat a couple times with heels, and all of a sudden, they are burying it with bodyweight.  This foot position “teaches” the person what they need to succeed.  There are other options that also create this proprioceptive effect, such as holding a DB or KB in the goblet squat.
The toe-up position is useful for the total opposite reason. This option works for someone that again has the mobility, but has a motor program that drops them forward in a level change. You’re going to see this a lot from quad-dominant squatters. The heels-up position puts you into a posterior weight shift, and the mandate from the locked DF is to load posteriorly. We’ve effectively blocked the anterior weight shift by putting the heel cord at or near its maximal length. There is no choice but to load into the posterior chain and sit back into the hinge.
So the heels-up or down position change the body’s base of support in an attempt to accomodate its aberrant center of mass. If this is a temporary motor control/stability issue, the foot positioning can be magic. If it is a mobility issue of more substance, the foot position can be a compensation that we see with heeled sneakers and orthotics.

“I don’t think either are a good position for big strength or power training. I want the full short foot to use the floor. The lift(s) can teach a proper weight shift when necessary.”

The short foot is a position marked visually with mid-foot stability and toe mobility. It is a neurological keyhole into total body motor control and stability. When the foot is locked into this position, IF it can be in that position in the first place from a mobility standpoint, a lot of strength and stability become reflexive.

In a very empirical explanation, it allows for an optimal interface to steal or transfer the infinite stability that the floor into the stability the body needs for a particular movement or exercise.
If the interface with the floor is shrouded with crap, like a supported shoe or orthotic, the body does not sense the urgency to deliver something stable and powerful through its own means. It relies on the shoe, and something is lost.

Below is a video from my good friend and colleague Patrick Ward that gives a good visual of the Short Foot and some options to reinforce it.

[youtube][/youtube]Series of Q&A focusing around hip dominant training and toes-up/toes-up down positioning of the feet.

In a bodybuilding context, would there be any added benefit to elevating the forefeet from time to time when performing RDL’s, Good Mornings, and similar hip hinging movements that already tend to put the hamstrings on quite a stretch?

Okay, so he's allowed to go heels up because he's from New Jersey. No other reason.

I don’t really know the answer to this. I see the heel positions as corrective. But when you look at legit bodybuilders saying heels up develops the quads, who am I to argue? I mean I know I can squat more than them, so I think my way is better anyway.
The heels up in the squat we know is a forward weight shift, so does that mean more stress is sent to the quads? I say it goes to the knees which I think is a false assumption of quad development. The movement isn’t devoid of muscular control, but it has far more bony stability than it should. I wonder if the challenge of perceiving uncomfortable knee compression is confused with “quad development.”
In the RDL or GM, it just doesn’t make sense to me to use this foot position. Muscles’ maximal force output lives along a length-tension curve. There is an ideal length where the muscle can generate the most force. This is based on the passive overlap of cross-bridges or the tensioned stretch pulling them a little farther apart than they should be. If you go heels up, you tension the calves on length and by default, since the calves cross the knee, the hamstrings will tension as well to keep the knee relatively extended (20 degrees knee flexion) in those techniques.
So the question challenges my incomplete understanding of muscle physiology. Does training at suboptimal length-tensions improve hypertrophy? I don’t think so if you hold me to it.
I do know motor unit recruitment is not as robust when intra-muscular feedback reads slack or excessive tension in the cross-bridges. That is a shut-off mechanism, and it comes from the Golgi-Tendon Response.
On the flip side, we know that we can access the stretch-shortening cycle with tensioned lengths of the system. I’m not sure it’s the same thing though as setting up in tension because the stretch-shortening cycle needs a runway (eccentric), an ignition (amoritization), and a take-off (concentric).
I don’t think like a bodybuilder, so I am green to answer these questions. What I would not accept however as an answer is someone suggesting they have developed mass from AND BECAUSE of these techniques. I am not saying hypertrophy doesn’t happen if this was the exclusive method to do an RDL or GM. Anyone will get bigger if they lift heavy and put down calories. To what degree is variable, and within that variability, I think I have more reasons to do these moves with a stable short foot than a contrived position with some false pretense.
The toes up position again can be very useful for mobility drills and proprioceptive input, but not sure about mass.

I often see coaches saying, “stretched most equals recruited most” when talking about hypertrophy-focused training.

Yes, when there is a full motion as I mentioned in the stretch-shortening cycle. That cylce does not have to be remanded to a depth jump. Part of the reason we squat below parallel and GM to technically proficient depth is to get into that neurophysiology and get what Coach is talking about in “stretched most equals recruited most.”
Please don’t confuse that message with “starting and staying stretched most equals recruited most.” In fact, that approach I believe leaves you missing the most valuable mid-range of the movement where you are indeed the most powerful.

You noted that the increased stretch could potentially be problematic if someone were cranking on tone, so obviously the potential downside is clear, which is largely why I am asking if you think the potential upside is noteworthy enough to warrant inclusion of this type of variant, provided the trainee isn’t forcing things and causing an undesirable reflexive reaction.

Without a doubt, if you enter into a hip hinge drill with dominant hamstring tone to the point of posterior pelvic tilt or asymmetry, the hip stifness will lead to rounding up top through the spine or pelvic obliquities that can often be much harder to diagnose and correct. I do think you can get into good DL form before you have all the prereqs like toe touch, etc., but you have to keep a keen eye and really cut the lift off early. I think pulling off high blocks, letting go of the bar, hinging back to stand, then back to get the next rep gives 2 opportunities to hip hinge for every 1 rep of the DL.

Speaking of deadlift………………..


My best Deadlift video by far.  Of course I’m right over Andy’s left shoulder with my arms raised.  Blue Adidas hat and Metal Militia t-shirt and about +30 pounds from as we speak.  This was the final lift of perhaps the greatest powerlifting meet of the modern era.  Membership has its privileges.

  • October 15, 2010

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Laree Reply

Charlie, about the question toward bodybuilders and that shot of Dave with the heels-up: Most people don’t stop to consider that was one short point in time with Artie Zeller snapped that picture. Dave doesn’t remember how long they were squatting with the board, but by the time I met him, he was preaching no heels, saying the board causes knee problems. Dave didn’t read about this stuff at all — never — so I can confidently say at some point in the early ’70s, Dave and his pals started having knee problems and stopped the heels-up squatting.

We get this question in our forum or via email all the time. People think Dave squats with heels up because of that photo, but he hasn’t in 30 or 40 years.

Charlie Reply

This is awesome info, Laree.

I put that picture up to illustrate that some folks can “break the rules” and still be successful despite of it.
But all the better that Dave identified the risk-reward.

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