Paying attention to ankle health can go a long way!
Whenever we struggle with squatting, the first area to be blamed is typically the hips. While addressing hip mobility and stability can certainly help the squat, we can’t just stop there. A huge influencer of squat ability is ankle health. Unfortunately, this region is frequently forgotten about, leading to poor form and injury.
If you struggle with a forward lean and/or excessive back fatigue when you squat, this post is for you. Whether you’re tall, short, male, or female, virtually all of us can benefit from boosting the mobility and stability of the ankles. Not only will this translate to better squatting, but it will also enhance the health and safety of all lower-body movements in and out of the gym. The best part? This takes very little time and effort to improve, and you can even cheat to expedite the process!
Want a better squat? Make time for your ankles.
Whether you’re doing lunges or squats, the robustness of your ankles can make or break your lifts. If you lack stability, you’ll struggle to feel grounded in your lunges or other dynamic leg exercises. If you have a poor dorsiflexion range of motion (raising the foot towards the shin), you won’t be able to maintain your center of gravity without compensating higher up the chain. Consequently, progressing these exercises becomes a great challenge and can even be dangerous.
As mentioned above, improving ankle health isn’t all that hard. There are 2 strategies to do achieve this, both of which can be viable, sustainable options for you moving forward. Ideally, you should work to find a combination that suits your anatomical and training needs. Without further ado, let’s dive into some practical tips!
Part 1 — Ankle mobility/stability
1) Ankle Dorsiflexion Drill
Application: 2 x 10/side
Cues: Get into a comfy, passive lunge position using a pillow or towel. To go through a rep, slowly lean to bring the knee forward while keeping the front ankle completely on the floor. After a 2-second hold at the end range, reset and complete another rep. Dorsiflexion, or bringing the toes up, is often the weakest motion for the ankle. This is an easy and effective way to restore mobility in this important range of motion.
2) Ankle ABCs
Application: 1 x 26 (full alphabet/side)
Cues: This can be done seated or standing. The goal is to fully maximize all your ranges of motion at the ankle by spelling out the alphabet. Ensure you don’t rush this! Try to make the letters as big as possible to help improve your active mobility. This can also serve as a fantastic rehab option if you’ve sprained your ankle.
3) Running Man
Application: 1 x 10–15 reps/side
Cues: Whenever we can make training relevant to a functional activity like walking/running, that’s a big win! To start, stand on one leg. Lift the other knee towards your chest and make sure your arms are in the corresponding runner’s position. In slow motion, bring the raised leg back and down towards the ground without touching the ground with the toes. Be sure to bend your hips — not your back — as you reach backward with the moving leg. Swing your arms in a running motion as you move your leg back and forth.
Part 2 - Mechanical assistance
The reality is, we’re all built differently. For some taller folks or those with ‘funky’ trunk-leg ratios, maintaining a proper center of gravity while avoiding a forward lean during the squat is very challenging. While improving ankle mobility through exercises can certainly help, sometimes this alone is not enough. For these individuals, it’s time to look for mechanical help through the use of shoes or heel lift platforms.
Many people would call this ‘cheating’, but it’s simply recognizing that you’ll be able to squat heavier and more efficiently if you set yourself up optimally. Using this advantage is far wiser than trying to squat ‘regularly’ while pushing yourself outside of your abilities.
Fortunately, shoes with a heel lift are incredibly easy to come by at most sport department stores. If you’re not up for investing in new footwear, start by using a heel lift or plates under your feet. Just ensure whatever you use is stable/flat so you’re not compensating on one side or the other. Please be aware that it may take time to find the perfect height and set-up for your needs. Be patient!
Some of us were simply built to squat better than others. There's no shame in using some additional help to get you training efficiently!
If you’re struggling with your squat, it may have very little to do with your leg strength or hip mobility. Oftentimes, our ankles cause us the most problems due to the mechanics of the lower body. To fix this, simply start performing ankle mobility exercises 1–2 times per week. If this still isn’t fixing your problem, it may be time to consider using a heel lift or specialized shoes. If you take these tips seriously, you’ll be squatting heavier and safer in no time!
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