I’m sure many athletes have asked themselves why they can’t squat as deeply as they’d like to, or with less pain. What can probably be said about the powerlifting community is that until recently, mobility hasn’t been taken that seriously, and that even today, a confluence of cross disciplinary approaches is only just beginning to allow competitive powerlifters to achieve better depth and control in the full range of the squat. Specifically in the narrow, shoulder width stance, ankle mobility becomes a limiting factor, and it will the the topic of this short article.
How do I know if I’m lacking flexibility in my ankles, what is the goal?
Before we address ankles, let’s first address what the goal is. Ideally, we’d like to be able to achieve a deep bodyweight squat with arms overhead, and feet shoulder width apart, while the knees track outwards appropriately. The paradigm bodyweight squat would keep the back upright with enough mobility through the hips and ankles to keep one’s heels firmly on the ground. Hell, even wide stance squatters can benefit from such a degree of mobility. We can test for ankle mobility in one of a few easy ways. Can you bodyweight squat with your feet forward and heels on the ground? Do you have to compensate by leaning tremendously forward? Bad sign! Do you generate more torque by putting squat shoes on? (which essentially skirt around the problem of limited ankle mobility by allowing the ankle to pass through less range of motion. In essence, squat shoes are small, safer high heels.) While this is nowhere near an exhaustive list, ankle mobility should be on your radar as an athlete, and its a good thing to test for every now and again. I’ve noticed a good majority of the athletes I work with (including myself) suffer from limited ankle ROM. Years of cushioned shoes, sitting, and compensatory motor patterns in the gym perpetuate the problem. You will feel MUCH better and notice immediate changes via the test-retest model that will allow you to squat heavier, safer, and with greater range of motion.
How should I squat in the meantime?
While working on fixing the underlying problem (stiffness of the ankles), here are some changes I have made to account for the tightness and maintain good form.
- Ducked feet out to 15-25 degrees places less rotational demand on the ankle, but at the risk of collapsed ankles and dumping off torque in the squat.
- Squat shoes allow one to circumvent full ankle range of motion, but also change the muscle recruitment of the squat.
How to increase ankle mobility
- Use an average or heavy band, choke it around an upright and step through the loose open end as the video illustrates.
- Drop into a deep squat position with your heels on the floor, while the band is actively trying to pull you toward the upright. Lean over from side to side to put extra pressure and weight on each ankle. You can also put a leg straight forward to put even more weight onto the ankle. As a powerlifter, this sometimes isn’t enough to cause tissue change. If you can squat 500lbs, chances are bodyweight alone isnt going to get those tissues to loosen up. Add a 25, 35, or 45lb plate on top of the knee of the ankle you want to change. You can also wrap the calf with black or red voodoo floss or bike tire.
If you can’t get into this position without forced help, you are going to want to spend plenty of time here. It takes about two minutes to create change (flexibility) in the tissues, so take your time.
- Next, I use a Voodoo Floss to put compression and work the ankle through its range of motion.
A few more ideas not shown:
- Squat down into the hole with a light weight on your back and spend time down there for a minute or so. This might create some awesome change in your ankle flexibility.
- Park your heel close to a wall with your toes against the wall and lean forward, stretching out the achilles and calf in the process.
Remember: Powerlifters dealing with heavy weight need lots of force to cause change. This is something that Kelly Starrett (from whom many of these mobility exercises came from) didn’t pay mind to. Of course, powerlifters aren’t his first intended audience, so these stretches will benefit a good many people. BUT… if you’re looking to increase ROM and are already strong, be prepared to add weight, or search out weighted varieties for the above mobility exercises in order to accommodate the type of change you’re after. Be creative, keep researching, keep asking questions. If you have questions, I suggest first watching as many San Francisco Crossfit videos as possible, then trying to answer the question yourself. Do your homework. If you still have a question, I can be reached via facebook or email. Bryce Lewis, Elite Powerlifter/Men’s Club Director, Elite Volleyball Club email@example.com