How to use a squat to determine ankle flexibility
Have you ever taken into consideration how flexible or inflexible your ankles might be, and how that might be affecting your overall body posture?
Let’s use a squat to see if we can find any hints of potential hidden ankle influence.
Place your hands behind your head, and break down into a squat with your legs parallel to the ground at an optimal 90 degree angle, YOUR FEET POINTING STRAIGHT AHEAD with heels on the ground.
It should look like this but with your hands behind your head (photo credit: unsplash.com) :
Again: Beautiful diagonal up the back, feet straight ahead, knees bent, and legs parallel to the ground. Note your hands should be behind your head
However, it might look more like this:
A bit of a lean forward, rounding of the back, feet turned out, knees collapsing in, or something other than straight ahead.
Let’s try a quick fix to the squat: KEEP YOUR FEET POINTING STRAIGHT AHEAD, but now lift your heels a bit as if we wedged a 2”x4” underneath your heels to rest on. In this case we threw a binder under Ian’s ankles to actually lift his heels. Have you ever noticed Olympic lifter’s shoes? They often have a wooden heel wedge built right in. I suspect it is to mitigate this ankle situation!
Now how does it feel or look?
Why is your squat something less than perfect, but improved with the heel lift?
Turns out that you need between 10-15 degrees of what’s called dorsiflexion (flexion is to decrease the angle in a joint, so bringing your toes toward your shin is dorsiflexion) in the ankle joint to make that squat look and feel good. When do you get 10-15 degrees of dorsiflexion?
Hardly ever. Certainly not when you sleep- your toes are pointed down then (plantar flexion) for a good 8 hours a day. Therefore, you are in the opposite direction when you sleep for 1/3 of your life. Additionally, when you just stand or walk around, you are not in dorsiflexion either.
Changing ankle mobility is one of the best ways to improve your squats. Squats shouldn’t hurt your back!
So what muscle can impact ankle flexibility? The Soleus!
Take a look. Hiding under the top most layer of calf muscle (the gastrocnemius) highlighted here in yellow is our new friend the soleus.
Let’s peel away the gastroc and take a closer look at the soleus:
Remember last week’s blog about the calf tightness and the back line fascia? Well, here is another contributor to that bunch of fascia. All the white stuff in the picture is fascia and tendons, so we have to keep that soft tissue mobile in order to help the ankle.
How exactly do we do that?
Let’s try a standing soleus stretch.
Actually, any calf stretch you do can be also turned into a soleus stretch if you simply bend your knee. For instance, if you are dropping your heels off of a stair step, and you keep your legs straight, then you stretch the top layer gastroc. If you stay in that stretch on the stairs and bend your knees, now you are stretching the soleus. Alternate between the two, and you hit both layers of muscle.
Try this as well:
Step forward one step. The back leg is bent as it is our focus. Keep your heel down, and sink into that back knee and unless you are super flexible you will feel tight in the ankle. Hold it for 2 seconds, and step forward. Do this for 5 yards, and then try a twisting variation.
Try a “monkey grip” for your hands- one hand makes a fist and the other covers the top in front of your chest. Same step forward, and now twist into the front leg keeping that back heel down. Does the rotary stretch feel slightly different? It most likely will!
Let me know in the comments below if you discover any ankle flexibility issues!