It’s not unusual to hear some coaches or trainers cue their clients to lift their toes when squatting. I actually used to use it fairly frequently if I had someone who couldn’t get their weight back. That is until I started looking a little more closely at what was going on with this cue. First to really understand the mechanisms at play, I want you to stand up with your shoes off. Now shift your weight back without using your hips. Did you feel your toes leave the ground? You just compensated. You pushed your weight back without using your posterior chain. So what is it that is happening when you squat toes to the sky? You are building an exercise off a compensation, and here are several reasons that you shouldn’t do that.
I do know some VERY strong people who can squat some impressive loads and their big toes do not touch the floor. It it a compensation? Yes. Do they make it work? Yes, but squatting and deadlifting are their sport. It may have been drilled into them long ago and they make it work FOR THEIR SPORT. Most of the athletes at SAPT are not training to get better at powerlifting. They are training to get bigger, stronger and faster in their area(s) of competition. It's for that reason that we must look at the bigger picture of what is going on in the exercises that we coach and their carryover to the athlete's movements.
When deciding what movement to train in a program, you should always keep in mind the exercise's carryover to your goal. This is why squatting and deadlifting are so highly used in a strength and conditioning program. They carry over to almost everything; that is, unless they are performed incorrectly.
If you must lift your toes in order to complete a perfect squat or hinge, then there is something wrong. If you watch someone move who has trained with their toes up, what you’ll see is that everything falls apart the second those toes are cued to stay on the ground for the movement. They become less balanced, their joint positions change, and they get a bewildered look on their face as their once-thought perfect form tanks like Kevin Costner’s career after WaterWorld.
If the movement is totally dependent upon the toe extensors being engaged to function, then what movements can it possibly carryover to? Only ones where the toes are extended. Which is RARE in the athletic realm. Even worse is if the movement starts to transfer to propulsion patterns and the toes flare excessively at inopportune times. This would (and has) decrease ground contact of the foot and could hinder ankle stability.
Affects on Heel Strike:
Building off of what I said about movement carry over, deadlifting with your toes up could potentially negatively impact your gait. As we all know, a deadlift trains hip extension. If we deadlift heavy (as we should) then the movement becomes more engrained. Once it’s been engrained enough, it will start to be replicated in other activities that may require hip extension. If your toe extensors are dominant in your deadlift pattern, then it could possibly become a relationship with your heel strike.
When we heel strike in gait, there is a specific system of muscles that are supposed to fire in sequence to help with the force absorption up the chain. These muscles are the peroneals, bicep femoris, external rotators of the femur, glutes, contralateral erector spinae and contralateral rhomboids. To put it simply, muscles of the outer calf, hamstring, hip extensors and back all fire at once to help the heel strike and lead into hip extension of that leg. You can even see how the foot absorbs the force of this phase below.
Observe how the force has a drastic increase when the heel lands, but then actually decreases as the foot pronates (job of the peroneals) and then reaches a steady, controlled arc through the contact phase. Also notice how the foot whips into position after the initial heel contact and the toes reactively hug the ground.
Now imagine that there is an excess in toe extension due to compensation of the posterior chain in hip extension. This is going to cause more dorsiflexion which would in turn cause the heel to strike the ground in more acute angle, making the force sharper. Not only that, but if it is the big toe extensor (extensor hallucis longus) that becomes one of the drivers for this movement, then it can reciprocally inhibit (turn off) the peroneals, which as I said before, are crucial in the force absorption of this particular phase of gait.
Does this sound far fetched just from one small cue? It’s not. In fact many people may already have this relationship from the get-go due to a weak posterior chain and you’ve probably seen it before. Or maybe I should say that you’ve probably heard it before. Think about people who you can hear pounding the floor as they jog. Watch them walk barefoot, you will see the toes do some funky things. Watch them shift their weight back, you’ll see it again. This relationship can have huge effects on the force closure of many different joints and can be a large player in shin splints or even S.I. Joint dysfunction. This is why we, as movement professionals, must do our best to keep these systems functioning and NOT give them means to create compensation.
So instead of taking the easy route and cueing, "toes up," try the effective route and progress your clients through proper hip mechanics via activation and weight shift drills. It may take longer, but the pay off will be worth it.