Improve your squat form with these 5 tips for your ankles
If there were data on the most popular Crossfit workouts of the year a safe guess for the winner would be a day with heavy back squats. What is more fun than loading up a bunch of weight on your back, dropping down low, grunting your way back up, and high-fiving your friends after hitting a new PR? Beside the grunting and the lifting belt what else can you do to improve your squat?
Have you considered giving your ankles some attention? When working our way down into that deep back squat, or any type of squat for that matter, we don't usually feel the limitation at our ankles. We usually feel the stiffness or limitation at our hips, back, or knees. But for some of us, believe it or not, it could in fact be the ankles that are restricting our squat.
The ankle is a complex and a very important joint given that it is the base of our bipedal support - and carries all our weight. In the Western world, there is a trend of tight Achilles' tendons and calf muscles likely the result of our shoe wear and prolonged sitting. Most shoes put our foot and ankle in a position with the heels a bit higher than our toes (high heels are the most obvious and horrifying example of this but definitely not the only example; men's dress shoes, hiking boots, and most sneakers are also guilty of raising the heel). This position puts our ankle in a plantar flexed or pointed position which shortens the muscles and tendons at the back of the lower leg (the Achille's tendon and calf muscle).
Now adjust gears and imagine your body getting into that deep squat. This requires a lot of "dorsiflexion" or flexion at the ankle joint! If your ankle spends most of the day in a slight plantar flexed/pointed position then you likely will not have the proper range to head on down into that low squat.
Or, worse, you do get down into that low squat only by virtue of compensation - by sacrificing another part of your body (low back, hips, knees, mid foot, you name it!).
What can be done to improve the mobility at your ankles and perhaps improve your overall squat form?
1. Please, please, please, I beg you, do not wear stilettos. Like, ever. If you do wear them let it be for 30 minutes tops - snap a picture, post it on IG, take those shoes off. If you do not own stilettos, good for you! Now check the shoes you do have. How big is that heel compared to the toe portion of your shoe? Crossfit Nanos, Nike Metcons, and No Bulls tend to have a pretty neutral "drop" meaning the heel portion is about the same height as the toe portion (this is good!). Some running sneakers are guilty of having a larger heel cushion (not so good).
2. When you are sitting at work or at home make sure your feet come in full contact with the floor. This may be a problem for shorter people. If your chair is adjustable, lower it, if the chair is not adjustable you may need a foot rest of sorts. A sturdy box or stack of books might do the trick.
3. Mobilize the ankle joint to improve the range of motion and ease of gliding at the ankle joint into the dorsiflexed (flexed) position.
Drive knee forward keeping heel on ground. Hold 20 sec 5 times
4. Stretch the calf and Achille's tendons in a position like the downward dog position *See image 2
Hold the downward dog position for 20 seconds 5 times, focus on driving heels toward the floor
5. Try an eccentric heel raise: stand on the edge of a step with your heels hanging well off the edge, complete a heel raise by rising up on your toes (single leg or double leg), slowly lower the heels over 3-5 seconds so that the heels come all the way down below the edge of the step.
2 sets of 30
Stick with the above exercises long term for the best outcomes but even trying them right before completing a squat may result in improved squat form. Good luck!