Q. Hi Nathan, I've just started reading your blog for the past fortnight, after purchasing a couple of kettlebells a month or so ago. At this point, the 16kgs are all I need, I was a bit ambitious getting a set of 24's at the same time, and they are currently gathering dust, but hey, we need goals, so I aim to be throwing these things round by the end of this year.
Anyway, I noticed you say in your blog to mail you with requests - so here is one you may be able to help with.
I've got most things sorted, swings, cleans, the basics so to speak. The one thing I can't get right, (and it directly relates to another goal of mine - Pistols) - is overhead squats.
I am unable to tell if it is lack of flexibility in my hips, glutes, hamstrings, calves, or achilles - but when I attempt overhead squats, I always without fail end up rising on to the balls of my feet, and can never stay on my heels. Surely seems I am overbalancing forwards, and setting myself up for a strain or two if I was to continue to do them (I only do a few each week to see if I am getting better - they are part of the AOS - Providence dvd I do twice a week).
So, as mentioned, this also has the same effect when I attempt pistols, I can't stay on the heel, and find myself on the ball of the forefoot.
Any tips much appreciated - I'd love to nail these (overhead squats - either with kettlebells or a barbell).
A. Hello Brendon, thanks for writing in. The heels lifting in the squat is a very common problem for the today's stiff athlete. Trust me I know, I have an old Thai Boxing injury in my left ankle and foot that seriously limits my range of motion. I need a lot of work before I do my squat workout. This tightness is especially common in the overhead or pistol squat because it requires much more flexibility throughout the ankle and hips joints.
Without watching you move it is hard to say exactly what the issue is that is causing your heels to lift, but there are ways to prevent it going forward. First off, spend a solid 15 minutes doing mobility drills before you start the workout. Start with moving the joints through the full range of motion such as hip circles, knee circles and ankle circles. This will warm-up the joints and promote mobility. Pavel Tsatsouline's book Super Joints is a great manual for how to loosen up.
Once your joints are feeling better spend some time doing more aggressive mobility drills such as deep lunges, Cossacks and depth squats. Magnificent Mobility is a great video for this. If your heels are lifting during the depth squats, hold on to something so you can really sit back into the squat. Sit back first making your hamstrings load up, then push your knees out and start to push yourself back and down. I almost guarantee your heels will be on the ground for these depth squats.
Next, stretch your hip flexors, calves and ankles out really well. I know, I know, people always say not to stretch before strength training, but in the case of overly tight muscles you will benefit from some stretching when warmed up. I recommend the old static lunge hip flexor stretch, and some basic straight AND bent knee calve stretches.
Now you are warm and loose. If you didn't already some upper back mobility work would be good as well, especially for the overhead squats. Anyways, once you are ready for action, it is time to do it right so you can keep those heels down. If possible, lose the shoes and do your kettlebell workout bare foot. This will make you more athletic in the long run.
Do some deep, butt back swings to activate the hamstrings and the glutes. If your posterior chain is sleeping, your quads will try to take over the squat and force your forwards. Now put the kettlebell, start with just one, overhead. Put the kettlebell behind you and try to push your arm back. Once your arm is in a stable position replicate the motion of the depth squat, push your butt back, keep your chest up and start to push the knees out. As your butt moves back and your knees push out you should start moving down. Go down as deep as you can without the heels lifting. Once the heels start to lift, stop and squat back up. Then repeat the motion several times, attempting to squat a little lower each time.
If the overhead squat is just to hard for you, start with goblet squat. Hold the kettlebell in your hands in front you and against your chest. Now just like the depth squat, keep your chest up, butt back and knees out. Each time you squat down push your knees out with your elbows. Never squat any lower than your heels will allow, lifting of the heels puts a lot of pressure on your knees.
So, in summary, loosen up, then warm-up, then really loosen up, then start squatting, increasing the range of motion with each rep. Follow these steps and you should have no problem keeping the heels down!