If you’re wanting to improve your strength, body composition, bone density, joint stability, force production, acceleration, and many more markers of health and performance, you pretty much have to squat.
Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean you have to back squat. You could front squat, goblet squat, box squat, split squat, pistol squat and even leg press and get most or all of the same benefits (depending on your own reasons for wanting/needing to perform the movement). There’s no getting away from it though, in order to be the best you can be, at some point you’re going to have to perform some kind of knee dominant lower body movement – and some people find this a real struggle.
I don’t mean that they don’t LIKE squatting, because truthfully most of us, deep down in our soul, also don’t particularly like squatting. Sure some do, but I’ve spoken to powerlifters, high intensity and functional training athletes and O-Lifters when they are drunk, and based upon this inebriated cross section of the athletic population I dare say that even though we all talk about our squat numbers, brag about having big legs and talk endlessly about ‘leg day DOMS’, a lot of us would kind of rather not.
But I digress…
No, I don’t just mean that people don’t like squatting, aren’t technically proficient or aren’t very strong, I mean some people experience some pretty significant pain when they attempt to perform one of the most basic human movements and squat to parallel.
In this article I’m not going to be able (or even try) to explain everything that could be wrong with a squat or everything that can reduce pain while squatting, but I am going to give you the short-term answer to one of the big issues that I see regularly with clients – poor dorsiflexion: an inability to comfortably move your ankle in a manner which brings your toe towards your knee – Like this…
Before I do that, I’ll quickly explain why this is only a short-term solution.
Poor dorsiflexion isn’t something that you can actually fix in 5 minutes - sorry for the somewhat misleading article title - it’s something that you’re going to have to work on a bit. It won’t take you more than a couple of minutes, a couple of days per week, for a few weeks, but it will take a little while to fully work out. Another thing is that poor dorsiflexion has a cause, you’re not BORN unable to move properly.
This often comes from injuries, postural issues, increased bodyweight, extended periods standing still, wearing shoes with elevated heels all day (not just high heels, mind you), joint capsule impingements or scarring, or simple disuse during years of inactivity followed by more years of only training chest, biceps, shoulders and traps.
No, this 5 minute solution won’t FIX your issue, but over time it certainly can, and in the short term it can make the specific session you are about to do a lot more comfortable.
Final disclaimer – your dorsiflexion might be fine, but your squat might suck or your knee might hurt for a different reason. This article will help a lot of people who struggle with their squat not ‘feeling right’ but when in doubt, pay for an hour of a coach’s time which will pay you back in years of painless gainz.
So why should you care, anyway?
Poor dorsiflexion causes some issues which are actually quite obvious when you see them and know what to look for. Essentially, the better your dorsiflexion is, the more your knee is able to travel over your toes, and therefore the more upright you are able to stay in a squat and the deeper you are able to squat for a given amount of upright-ness. The bar must always stay over your midfoot or you’d fall over, so if your ankle won’t bend so far, either your back needs to bend way further forwards, or your depth will suffer. Note the difference in the extremely high quality images below between the angle travel on a squatter who is very upright, a squatter who is using a lot of forward lean, and a gym bro who’s missing depth.
Upright guy has a much smaller angle, right?
Before we go on, I want to get this out of the way – your knees go over your toes when you squat to depth unless you are a total freak of nature with really short femurs (The bone in your leg above your knee). If this IS you, and you lift, you’re probably too busy winning things with your amazing genetic propensity for squatting to be reading this, though, so we’ll focus on us mere mortals.
There was a thing a while ago where people were making the claim that your knees shouldn’t go over your toes while you squat, or that your knees should stay behind your toes when you squat. That’s insane. Look at these images to see what I mean when I say that knee tracking is basically down to your femur length. Even if you use a TON of forward lean to reduce the amount of dorsiflexion you need, your knees are going to go over the top of your toes at the bottom. In the two pictures below, high definition squat A and B are the same, but B has a much longer femur, therefore his knee travels further.
So long as they are in line with your toes, as in going over the top rather than outside or inside, you are fine. On that topic…
What often happens when people with poor dorsiflexion try to force themselves to stay upright in order to perform cleans, snatches high bar, front or overhead squats or other similar movements is that the ankle will try to ‘move around’ the movement. Instead of your knee tracking over your toe, your knee will buckle inwards as your ankle rolls in, your weight is transferred to the inside of your foot, and your back caves over, leading to extra spinal flexion, like in the images below which may look familiar.
That, or your heel lifts up and your weight is transferred to your toes. This, again, lets you squat as low as you like without decreasing the angle between your foot and shin, as illustrated below. The ankle angle is the same, but on the left his heel is raised, meaning that the squat looks totally different.
Any one of these is an injury waiting to happen. Coming up on to your toes increases the amount of pressure on your knee joint by simultaneously causing your knee to flex further and reducing the stability of that flexion. Losing spinal neutrality under load is universally considered to be a terrible idea 99% of the time, and then there’s the knee valgus thing. Allowing your knees to caving in under load can sever your ACL, but what is far more likely is that you will just start getting knee pain on the inside of your knee as the connective tissue gets all inflamed and annoyed. Please remember, as above, this isn’t the only reason for knee pain, dorsiflexion issues aren’t the only cause of valgus and it’s not so black and white as ‘valgus is bad’ either at least during submaximal lifting and in the gym rather than on the platform.
But poor dorsiflexion CAN lead to your knees caving in, which CAN lead to knee pain and IS best avoided as much as is possible
Everyone happy, and everybody sure of what I am and what I am not saying? Good. Moving on.
In an even broader sense, poor dorsiflexion will result in you being unable to stay as upright as you’d like/need to in the bottom of a squat. This can make regular squatting feel really awkward, and can make front squatting and Olympic lifting all but impossible to do with any kind of respectable form.
So I think we’ve established that we want more dorsiflexion. It’ll allow you to stay more upright, it’ll allow you to keep your knees in line with your toes, it’ll reduce the chances that your neutral spine will go out of the window (quickly followed by your L5 vertebrae) and therefore it’ll make you more of a bad ass.
If you’re not sure if your dorsiflexion is an issue, perform the following simple dril:
- Get into a half kneeling position with your knees at 90 degrees. This is a similar position to the bottom of a lunge – illustrated below.
- Have your front foot toe about 5 inches from a wall
- Simply keep your heel on the ground and lean forward. If your knee hits the wall before your heel lifts, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for and you have my permission to go watch something on YouTube.
- If your heel lifts, the below might be of some benefit
The ankle drill
I perform the following drill before squat or Olift workouts, and my clients do the same. It’s overall reported anecdotally to help a lot with how a squat feels, and I can report it can make a night and day difference to how they look, too. Perform it 3-4x per week for a few weeks if you think you have a major issue, before backing off to only squat days as a kind of maintenance if you feel you need to. In my opinion the whole mobility thing can be taken way too far, and if you’re spending more than a fraction of your workout doing stuff to get ready to work out, you’re missing the point. Ideally, you would perform something like the above once per week as a kind of maintenance, and then do one basic stretch or one aspect of the below on the other day(s) you train lower body.
As always with mobility drills, we start from the bottom and work up. So with this we start as low as it is possible to start.
Movement 1 – Roll the bottom of your feet.
Wearing shoes for extended periods, especially tight ones or ones with no arch support, can lead to the plantar fascia which runs the length of the sole of your foot tightening up and becoming inhibited which then can impact on ankle mobility
Take a tennis ball, lacross ball or golf ball if you hate yourself and place it on the floor. Place your heel on it and apply an amount of pressure which leads to a tolerable amount of discomfort (more is not better) and roll your foot back and forth 5 times. Swap feet and repeat to a total of 10 passes back and forth per foot.
Movement 2 – Roll your calves
Next, use a foam or rumble roller (again, depending on how much you hate yourself) to pass over each calf 10-15 times. If you hit any spots which feel especially tender, pay closer attention to this area and give it another few short passes.
Though the evidence for rolling is a lot less convincing than you’d probably like to believe it is for long-term mobility improvements, short term anecdotal evidence says that it can improve your mobility in a given session or at least help you feel more mobile. Foam rollers are cheap, this will take approximately two minutes for both feet and both legs and there are no downsides provided you don’t use your entire bodyweight to roll your feet with a golf ball. Risk:Reward says it’s worth doing.
Movement 3 – Banded Ankle Stretch
This one takes a little more explanation. Attach a band around a rig or rack or other study thing, and put your foot in the loop with the band over your ankle joint. Walk out until you feel a moderate amount of tension, get into a lunge position with the banded ankle in front and your hand pressing your heel into the floor, then stretch your knee over your toe like in the test we did above.
This stretches out your Achilles tendon and calf while also increasing your normal ROM by applying pressure on the front of the joint. Hold for 15 seconds per side then repeat, taking the motion a little further the second time around.
If this isn’t 100% clear, please check out this video from BTN Coach, Troy Martin which takes you through the movement:
Movement 4 – Calf Raises
Finally, we are going to go through the full range of motion of the ankle under controlled load. Stand on a step, stair, box with the ball of one foot (hold something for balance…duh) and let your bodyweight take your ankle to maximal dorsiflexion in a controlled manner. Hold that stretch for a second and then perform a calf raise again in a controlled manner. Squeeze and repeat for 5 reps per leg.
Mobility is not just about stretching, it’s about stabilising. By doing this you are enabling yourself to control a load at the extreme ends of the range of motion, which is vital for this increased ROM to become safe. It’s no good increasing your ROM by simply weakening your Achilles tendon. I recommend you repeat this at the end of your session for more reps/sets as a form of hypertrophy work, but for now keep it to a minimum so as not to fatigue your calves.
And that’s it!
That whole routine should take you a maximum of 5-6 minutes, but it could cause a night and day improvement in your squat depth and stability.
Give it a try and let us know what you think – Happy squatting!
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