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Dear Dr. Bell, I would like your advice on ankle mobility. I’ve been lifting for quite a while now and lately I’ve been noticing that my ankle flexibility is seriously limiting my squats. It feels like my form is becoming somewhat lacking because I am not able to sit correctly due to terrible ankle ROM. I was hoping you may have some input on exercises, stretches, tips, etc. to increase my ROM.
From your description, you are Hypertonic (overly strong, overly tight) in the Gastrocnemius. You must perform Flexibility exercises to correct this serious issue. Flexibility exercise lasts for approximately 4 hours. After 4 hours, your muscles begin to return to their pre-stretched length. Therefore, if you want to improve your Range of Motion (ROM) rapidly, you will need to Warm-Up and then stretch 2 or 3 times/day.
The primary exercise for increasing ankle ROM is the “Achilles Tendon Stretch.” Both the Gastrocnemius and Soleus merge into the Achilles Tendon, which inserts into the Calcaneus at the bottom of the heel. Many Weightlifters develop range of motion(ROM) issues in the Squat due to their tight Gastrocnemius-Achilles Tendon Complex(GATC). The primary reason Weightlifters developed the erroneous technique of putting plates under their heels was because the tight GATC would cause their heels to rise off the ground as they descended during the Squat. Obviously this is dangerous, since it is very difficult to balance the Squat on the “Balls-of-your-feet!” This is also ineffective, since the “Drive Phase” of the Squat requires you to Push-Through-your-Heels.” Therefore, plates under the heels was thought to solve the problem…but did it? IFPA Certified Trainers are taught to be Problem Solvers!” Putting plates under the heels is masking the problem, not solving it! The solution to this problem is to return the ROM to the GATC to a healthy level of Flexibility. The Achilles Tendon Stretch described below is the solution to this problem!
To perform the Achilles Tendon Stretch:
1) Stand with one foot forward of the other.
2) Face squarely forward
3) Keep the back knee straight, both feet facing directly forward.
4) Slowly bend the front knee as needed to reach a point where the lower leg feels a “tight” stretch, but NEVER pain!
5) Make sure the torso, hips, body and toes remain facing forward
6) Make sure the back leg is straight and the heels and feet remain flat.
7) Follow the general stretching guidelines described above and detailed in the IFPA Personal Trainer Book
8) Hold for 30secs. Then, go into a slightly deeper stretch for another 30secs. After the total time of 6o seconds switch feet and repeat.
I would avoid Squats until your ROM is sufficient to safely perform your Squats with your heels firmly planted on the ground(with NOTHING under your heels) throughout the exercise. You can switch to Leg Presses until your ROM problem is corrected.
Good Luck! Train Safe! Train Smart!