Author: Dr. Lowell Greib MSc ND CISSN
The beloved back squat should be a foundational movement in virtually every strength and conditioning program. This multi-joint, compound movement, is an excellent training exercise that can be utilized in strength and power programming for athletes involved with almost any sport. A generalized misconception is that there is one ‘proper’ way to perform a squat and, as such, cookie cutter programming is often utilized for all athletes. If such were the case, each and every person would have similar mechanics and movement patterns. When looking around the gym, it becomes apparent that there are many variants in human structure. There are narrow stance squatters and wide stance squatters, some with a parallel stance and some with an open stance. What is consistent is that there are fundamental biomechanics that should be adhered to in the squat to help ensure that the targeted musculature is being utilized and that you are avoiding overload on tissue and structure that are susceptible to injury.
In working on squat biomechanics, each joint that is loaded (or potentially loaded) need to have special consideration: ankles, knees, hips and lower back.
The focus of this particular article is on ankle mechanics and mechanisms that can be implemented to ensure appropriate movement to decrease the risk of injury and improve squat biomechanics.
The most obvious ankle movement in the squat is dorsiflexion (the ability to point toes to the ceiling). As weight is lowered during the concentric phase of the squat it is essential to have the ability to allow the ankle to move into loaded dorsiflexion as the tibia translates forward over the forefoot. If the ankle does not have the range of motion to allow for loaded dorsiflexion, there is a tendency for several compensatory movements to occur, all of which are ‘no no’s’ in squat biomechanics. The first is a heel lift. A solid base to support your weight (and the bar) is essential to reduce compensatory stability movements which could lead to injury. Another compensatory movement is pronation of the feet which translates up the biomechanical chain and causes internal hip rotation and hip abduction causing a valgus collapse of the knee. The knee joint is a simple hinge joint that is not designed to take a lot of valgus (or varus) strain. As such, there is an increased propensity to knee injury should ankle mobility be restricted. Further, with decreased ankle dorsiflexion, there is increased forward lean in the deepest portion of the squat which can, in turn, compromise the lower back when lower back extension is lost.
Restrictions in ankle range of motion can be a result of tight lower leg musculature which could include the soleus, posterior tibilais, flexor hallicus longis, flexor digitorum long and anterior tibilais. The following three exercises can improve range of motion by decreasing the tightness in muscles of the lower limb that influence ankle mobility.
- Unloaded Goblet Squat - Position in a sumo stance and place your palm of your hands together at chest level. Enter a deep squat and place your elbows on the inside of each of your quad (vastus medialis). If positioned properly your forearms should be almost parallel to the floor. Hold the position for at least 20 seconds.
- Modified Calf Stretch - Place your toes of one foot on a wall with your heel on floor. Toes should be in extension. While keeping your foot angled up the wall, move your knee cap toward the wall aiming over your 2nd toe. The heel should NOT come off the floor. Hold the position for at least 20 seconds on both legs.
- Unilateral Eccentric Heel Lowering - Standing on the ball of one foot on the edge of a step with the foot parallel to the floor, slowly lower the heel to end of range. Slide the foot from the end of range to the step below it as to not go back into plantar flexion. Doing this movement for 1 minute will be helpful to improve functional mobility. Repeat with the other foot.
With the inclusion of these three mobility exercises, you will improve foot mobilization into dorsiflexion and ultimately decrease biomechanical compensation in your squat. This will not only lead to better squat biomechanics but also decrease your propensity to injury.
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