How ankle immobility causes crappy squats
Dr. Lynn Felege, PT, DPT
You think you’ve nailed it: You’ve endlessly mobilized your low back and hips. You’ve corrected your knee tracking. You dutifully monitor your weight distribution through your feet. But for some reason, your squat progress is slow, your overhead squat is unstable in the bottom, and comfortably performing a pistol is still an impossibility. Ever wonder why? The answer is in your ankles.
Ankles matter. Like…really, really matter.
The ankles are, literally, the foundation of your kinetic chain. Anything that happens between your feet and the floor will inherently affect everything else in your chain: ankles, up to knees, up to hips, up to back. Did you ever play the “rumor game”in school? People sit in a circle and whisper a message, and by the time the message makes its way around the circle, it’s completely different. The same occurs in the kinetic chain. If your ankles are junky, the initial message between your feet and the floor changes as your force production works it’s way up the kinetic chain. A quick test to indicate if you have ankle junk: can you achieve a proper pistol position? If you don’t have full ankle range of motion, the body will compensate by turning the toes out. If you can achieve a pistol with toes pointing forward, big toe on the ground, knee outward over the ankle, full depth at the hip, and no rounding through the back: you’re good. If not, you’ve got some junk to work out.
Yes, ankles really matter that much.
If you enjoy proper activation of your quads, hamstrings, and glutes in order to achieve “triple extension” and squat the heaviest and safest you can – then yes, ankle flexibility matters that much. Have a friend film you performing a squat and a pistol in your socks or barefoot, and examine your toe position. Often times we think we’re doing something correctly when we’re not. Squats should be performed in a “toes-out, knees out” fashion, but if you catch your body moving from your starting position to get your toes outward even further, your knees drop inward, or you notice some “speed wobbles” in your knees as you achieve full depth in your squat, then time and attention must be spent mobilizing your heel cords (this term encompasses the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, as well as their shared tendon – the Achilles tendon). The heel cord is a “two-joint” tissue, meaning it has attachments at both the ankle and knee. Thus, a tight heel cord will affect range of motion and force output at both joints. So if your skeptical that ankle range of motion affects force output at the knee: that’s why. Other silent signs of a problematic ankle are a collapsing foot arch during squats, or an inability to keep your big toe on the ground during squats and pistols. Pay close attention to these little details and put in the effort to correct any deficiencies. Solid, properly mobilized kinetic chains can lead to bigger force productions (bigger PR’s!) and lower risk of injury.
Junk-free ankle zones
Friends don’t let friends have junky joints. Spend some time at the squat rack sitting in a full-depth squat with your toes in a neutral, forward-facing position. Foot position should be slightly more narrow than your normal squat position. Holding the rack for support, spend time shifting your body weight laterally over your ankles, working on “screwing your feet into the ground” with knees out and big toe to the ground. Do your heel cords a favor with some soft tissue mobilization: dense foam rolling for global loosening, lacrosse ball use for pressure points and deep junk, and/or a mobility stick to grind out super junk. Using the edges of 5# plates to manually mobilize junky spots can also be great, readily accessibly tools. The bottom line is: don’t neglect your ankles… they’re where strong, stable squats are born.