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Frozen Ankles, Ugly Squatting

Written on December 29, 2008 at 9:25 pm, by Eric Cressey

Q: For years, I have had difficulties with acquiring any real depth in my back squats. I took on board all the thoughts some authors had about working on ankle mobility and then what others had to say about weak abdominals and how they can wreak havoc on one’s ability squatting into the hole.  However, it wasn’t until I went to get fitted for a pair of orthotics recently at the podiatrist’s that I realized that even though I have done STACKS of ankle mobility and soft tissue work, genetically, I am limited by my foot and ankle structure to ever really squat deep.

Why on earth have these authors of whom I have a great deal of respect for continued not to acknowledge that for some people, squatting DEEP is simply not an option due to structural limitations. I rate you among the best of the best out there Eric so if anyone should tackle this one and explore why genetics can dramatically improve or hinder someone’s ankle mobility it should be you!

A: I have actually seen a fair amount of high-level athletes with feet like this, and you just have to realize that you can’t put a round peg in a square hole. If you have a foot that won’t allow for much dorsiflexion (toe-to-shin range-of-motion), it just won’t let you squat deep safely. These are the guys who get better results from single-leg work in place of squatting.

And, if you are going to try squatting variations, it ought to be more sitting back (box squats or powerlifting-style free squats) where the shin is more vertical, but the spine remains in neutral. Have a look at this squatting video and you’ll see that sitting back minimizes how much dorsiflexion ROM one needs to get the benefits of squatting:

Conversely, check out this more quad-dominant, “traditional” squat. You’ll see that the knees come forward more, indicative of more dorsiflexion occurring.

Why has this become such an issue? Well, there are still a lot of coaches out there who are just “clean, squat, bench only” – and a one size fits all approach like that is sure to throw some athletes under the bus. These guys want to do what they’ve always done rather than recognize that everyone isn’t the same; otherwise, they’ve lost one-third of their training arsenal! The more open-minded guys are looking to functional mobility and stability deficits – and the guys who “get it” are realizing that some athletes are just “stuck” with the ankles they’ve got.

For more information, check out To Squat or Not to Squat, featured previously in Newsletter 91.

  • Matthias

    What do you say about putting something under the heels of athletes with these restrictions?

  • The guy that wrote in describes me almost to a T – You just made me feel a LOT better about my squatting.

    It’s extremely frustrating not to be able to demonstrate a deep squat like this – Toeing out helps significantly, but like you suggested, I do have pretty strong legs from doing lots of Bulgarian Split Squat, Lunges, Reverse Lunges, and Step-ups –

  • Eric,

    What are the actual limiting structural factors that limit these people’s squats. If they were born in an era without chairs and toilets, their only way to defecate would be near impossible without a deep squat.

    Is there a joint structure abnormality? If so, what is the actual limiting factor, no posterior talar glide or a lack of tibial anterior role? What ligamentous and musucular structures actually come to tension and limit the movement?

    Do you think this is a structural development problem like wearing shoes at a young age and moving around in those “walkers” that used to be so popular? Or is there actually a “genetic pre-determination” that they will never squat. I’ve always read and understood that connective tissue is a living substance that responds to the forces placed upon it.

    I look forward to more insight.

  • Eric,

    Great posts! Was your first post a powerlifting style squat? I don’t have your low back strength and lift conventionally.

    Thanks Bro!

  • Ian

    I have been amazed at how much my ankle flexibility and squat depth has improved from just doing some deeper bodyweight squats while holding on to a support for balance, focusing on stretching the calves/achilles/feet/hips while strengthening the muscle along the front of the shin (sorry, I skipped that anatomy lecture!)

    At first, a year and a half ago, I couldn’t squat all the way down (calves to hamstrings), even with my workboots on. A few months later, working in a couple minutes of supported deep squats every day, I could do it with my trainers on. Now I can easily squat deeply while barefoot.

    With that said, there is still more work to be done, as I notice my tailbone “tucking” near the bottom of the motion. More mobility is needed.

    But I have been extremely happy with my results so far.

    I guess my point is that I always thought I was doomed to always having stiff ankles. But now, after a year + of gentle yet consistent effort, I am seeing some definite results. I am realizing that before I probably just wasn’t putting enough work to see results.

    Anyways, thanks for the post.

    -Ian


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