One contributing factor to an undesirable squat pattern is ankle mobility – particularly the ability for your lower leg to move towards the foot while squatting in an unrestricted manner. There are many reasons and contributing factors as to why your ankle may not move optimally. Perhaps it is from a series of old ankle sprains that have left a plethora of gunk (scar tissue) in the joint; tightness in the calf and/or achilles from reduced full-range movement on a daily basis; or your foot is collapsing inward (pronating) and not allowing for full range of motion, creating a knee collapse.
Assessing ankle mobility in a weight bearing position – as you saw in our previous blog “Debunking the Squat: From the Ground Up”, is my go-to test, as reduced motion here will affect many parts of the body. If the ankle can not achieve its full range of motion while squatting, you may see or experience the knee collapsing inwards, the inability to squat to your full depth, or instability (falling backwards) when trying to squat to your depth.
Determining which one – or all of the contributing factors that affect dorsi flexion, which is responsible for your altered pattern, can take some time. Here are a few tricks and exercises to try to suss out the issue.
Try one or all of the above for a week and then check your squat again. As always, if you have questions please feel free to ask.
Stand in front of a mirror and squat (barefoot) as low as you can. If you feel like you are going to fall backwards, try elevating your toe box (place a small lift under your toe box). If this improves the depth of your squat and you don’t feel as though you will fall on you bum, then tight or shortened achilles and calves may be the culprit.
To improve this function perform calf stretches with the knee bent and with the knee straight daily as shown above.
Tip: make sure your toes are pointing straight ahead, and that you are shifting you whole body forward to increase the stretch, not just your torso. Hold both stretches for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times. If you do not have a wedge board you can place your toe box on a wall or old text book.
If you feel restriction or a blocking in the front of your ankle when performing the bent knee calf stretch (soleus), then there may be restriction occurring in the ankle joint itself. In a lunge position (barefoot), with a broom stick/dowel/hockey stick placed by the big toe (this is to prevent your knee knee from collapsing inward), lunge forward (for this exercises it is ok for your knee to come past your toe) while keeping your heel in contact with ground. Hold the end range for 5-10 seconds, move back ever so slightly then return to the end range. Repeat 5-10 times per ankle. You can also use a band to assist you in this position – it should be placed at the ankle crease. If you still experience restriction at the front of the ankle, then you may want to chat with you Athletic Therapist to see what else can be done – sometimes the ankle needs a little manual convincing.
Foam rolling and/or lacrosse balling the lower leg can be helpful in reducing muscle tension, restriction in the calf, it can help improve ankle range of motion, and also aid with stretching. Try this exercise: Roll the calf on the lacrosse ball for 60-90 seconds. Rotate the leg in and out to find the tighter spots and hold these areas for 30 seconds or until you feel a change in tension. Make sure to maintain good alignment through the spine and shoulder. I like to place to ball on a raised surface (yoga block or book) to give the foot more clearance.