Heel Height and Position

by coachdanbell

New lifters and CrossFitters are often frustrated by their bottom positions in cleans, squats, and especially the snatch. They see pictures of national or world class weightlifters and wonder why they can’t hit positions like this:

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Through discussions with those familiar with the Chinese program and my own observations, it is clear the Chinese coaches emphasize position before all else. Lu Xiaojun’s bottom position in this snatch is the result of many factors, some under the lifter’s control, some not. In the not column would be structure: femur length relative to torso and lower leg length. Most people, however, do not have a structure ideally suited to weightlifting. Their thighs (femurs) are too long in relation to their lower legs and/or torsos. When sitting in a full squat with proper back position, their torso angle is leaned too far forward from vertical.

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This can place a lot of stress on the shoulders and low back, especially in the snatch. The standard pieces of advice to address this problem work well: increase ankle, knee, and hip mobility and buy weightlifting shoes. The raised heels of weightlifting shoes allow the knees to travel farther forward over the front of the foot, allowing the hips to be closer to the heels, thus bringing the torso angle more towards the vertical. Just doing these things is effective for most, but there are people with very long femurs who still cannot hit ideal or close to ideal positions, even implementing the usual advice to the best of their ability. What to do, then?

Here is a good, standard weightlifting shoe:

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Note the elevated heel, usually between a half to one inch high. That works well for many people, but not all. Even elite level athletes with all of the other qualities a coach would look for in a lifter–speed, agility, flexibility–may not have a structure that allows the positions that would result in maximizing the lifter’s talent.

My lifter Kat Lee, a former Division 1 pole vaulter, has all the qualities a coach could ask for in a weightlifter save one: that long femur thing. Here is her snatch bottom position even with good weightlifting shoes. (Note her back angle)

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The heel in the shoes has helped her get to this position, but still not as good as I’d like. She works ankle and hip mobility almost every day. There is not much more she can get out of that. If a raised heel can get Kat better position, but not great, then why not more heel? That is exactly what you see the Chinese do with their lifters. If you look very closely at the Xiaojun pic above, you’ll see the heels on his Nike’s have been raised what appears to be at least 1/4″ or more. That doesn’t seem like much, but even with his ideal structure, either he or his coaches thought it could be a bit better.

So we took Kat’s shoes to a local cobbler. The result:

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Kat is a more extreme example. We added 1/2″ of hard cobbler’s crepe and a 1/4″ of sheet sole to her heel (tapered down to just behind the ball of the foot) for a total additional heel height of 3/4″. Here is the position she can hit with her modified shoes:

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This is a pretty radical change, but the improvement in her bottom position will be worth it in weightlifting results and injury prevention. It is imperative that when adding any heel height that you work back to your best training weights slowly. Drop down to 80% or less and work back up over two to six weeks, gradually growing accustomed to the new positions and feeling. This will help prevent tendonitis or more traumatic injury from using heavy weight before adjusting to the shoes.

You don’t have to modify your $200 weightlifting shoes just to find out if it will work for you. Simply place wood or metal change plates of different thicknesses under your heels and test out your bottom position for a snatch or front squat. See how it feels and have someone check you out from the side for a more vertical torso angle. If you’re serious about results and injury prevention, it may well be worth the $50 or so it costs to modify your shoes.

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