Ankles are often overlooked as sources or hinderers of strength and power in your squat. However poor ankle mobility caused by injuries or poor movement habits and posture can cause errors in lifting form and increase your risk of injury and muscle strain. The ankle is a biomechanically complex joint. It is a synovial (which most of the body’s joints are and allow for movement but are susceptible to arthritis and related inflammatory conditions), hinge joint formed by the bones of the leg and foot, that permits dorsiflexion and plantarflexion. The ankles and feet are also your base, your foundations, and having issues there are obviously going to affect the rest of your body. You need a solid base to push up heavy weights and to get low into your squats. Problems with your ankles are going to affect the whole movement chain all the way up your body.
Screening will help identify signs that your ankle mobility is holding you back. Once you have determined the origin of a problem – then you can begin working towards fixing it. A basic screen you can do on your own at home will give you an idea of potential problems. Screen one ankle at a time by getting into a kneeling lunge position as you would do for a kneeling hip flexor stretch. To screen the front leg, keep your front foot flat on the ground, being sure not to lift your heel, and drive your front knee forward over your toes. To measure your ankle mobility you can either use a ruler or measuring tape from the tip of your front foot, measuring how far your kneecap protrudes over your toes. If you lack both of these measuring tools, you can also use your fist, placing it in front and perpendicular to your big toe. If your kneecap can pass over your fist width in front of your toes, then this is a sign of a functionally normal range of dorsiflexion.
Get Low and Mobile
Improving ankle mobility will significantly improve your squat, overall strength and reduce your risk of injury. If you have tight ankles, it will be difficult to squat to a parallel without rounding your back, decreasing your power and obviously increasing the potential for strains. Our bodies are incredible adaptors and will find ways of achieving desired results. If your ankle mobility is poor, your body will still find a way to push out those heavy weights, compensating by gathering power from other joints and muscles. This can be problematic in the long run after years of repetition and increased weight bearing. So before setting that bar on your shoulders, take some time to work on your ankles first.
Try Fillers Between Sets
Strength and mobility are inherently linked, so training them together by doing mobilizations during rest periods in between sets of squats and other strength training can have positive benefits. Doing this will also you moving and keep your focussed on the training session at hand, rather than just looking around or checking your phone and losing your momentum. Engage in active rest periods between sets, stretching out on a wall or gym equipment, and working on the opposite range of motion from your lift. Ankle rocks and wall mobilizations, and using a resistance band to pull the ankle into dorsiflexion work well as fillers in between sets and will help improve your ankle mobility and the strength in your squat.
There are plenty of exercises and methods available to improve your ankle mobility, so try the screener, do some personal research and talk to your coach, personal trainer, and physiotherapist to determine the best and most time-efficient ways to improve your ankle mobility. You might also want to looking into squatting and deadlifting barefoot to allow your body to progress through its natural range of motion and to help build strength in the feet and ankle joints, though check with your physio first before diving into these activities if you have a history of ankle or joint issues.