A lack of ankle mobility is a common culprit of poor squat depth or poor squatting mechanics, leaving lifters frustrated with their performance.
As someone who has both fractured their foot and suffered from Achilles tendinitis, limited ankle mobility didn’t come as a surprise to me, but there are ways around it and you shouldn’t let it stop you from achieving your goals.
So, how do you increase ankle mobility for squats? Perform the following 13 drills:
12. Goblet Squats
13. Box Squats
Remember, however, that restricted ankles aren’t always caused by the same underlying reasons and so not every mobility drill or dynamic stretch will work for everyone. Also, improving mobility is a long term commitment and won’t fix all your problems immediately.
This article will go over drills you can start implementing today in your warm-up to begin the process of improving your ankle mobility, as well as several options for those who don’t want to wait and have more immediate strength goals related to squats.
As you’ll read, one of the best ways to improve ankle mobility is to wear heeled squat shoes. I wrote a complete guide on heeled squat shoes and provided the best recommendations in my article on the Best Shoes for Squats. Make sure to check it out!
Why Is Ankle Mobility Important For Squatting?
To get into a stable and strong squat position you need your ankle to bend or flex.
The ankle is one of several joints involved in squatting and is important because its ability to flex will allow for deeper and more stable squatting. If you lack mobility and stability in your ankles you may tend to feel like you are going to rock back or fall over when you come down into a squatted position.
Some lifters may also find their demands are higher, like long-legged lifters or lifters who squat in a narrow squat stance. This is because both of these circumstances require a greater degree of flexion in order to hit an appropriate depth.
In addition, certain squat variations also require a greater degree of ankle mobility, including front squats and high bar back squats particularly when compared to low back back squats.
We address this topic in greater detail in my article on Should Powerlifters Train Calves?
How To Test Your Ankle Mobility For Squats?
There are several ways to check if your ankles would benefit from some mobility work, including assessing your squat, the lateral tibial glide, knee to wall test, and doing a plate squat.
Assess Your Squat
Record your squat from both the side and front a front angle and look at how your heels, knees, and ankles are moving.
If you see your heels coming up during the squat or if you see the foot roll out, you may be dealing with an ankle mobility issue. Additionally, if you notice your knees coming inwards as you come out of the bottom of a squat, you may also have a restricted ankle joint.
Another easy test is to just try a bodyweight squat with a flat foot and see if you can comfortably come down and stay in the position without feeling any pulling in the shins, ankles or calves, or feel any pinching at the front of the foot.
Someone with poor ankle mobility may find it hard to balance in the squat. If that’s you, check out my article on Losing Balance While Squatting: 10 Tips To Fix.
Lateral Tibial Glide
Lateral tibial glide is a simple test to see if you have any restrictions in your ankle joints.
To perform the test you need to be in a lunged position with your front foot firmly pressing into the ground and your back leg kneeling.
You will then shift your knee to the right and lift, watching if your foot starts to leave the ground almost immediately. A healthy ankle joint will let you shift side to side with the foot flat on the ground.
Knee To Wall Test
A knee to wall test is a good way to not only test your ankle mobility but also give you insight into where your restriction is stemming from.
To perform the test, measure and place your big toe about 5 inches (about 10 cm) from a wall. Now lunge into your front foot as much as you can and try to get your knee to touch the wall.
If you notice your knee caving inwards or you feel a pinching at the front of the ankle joint. You likely have a restricted joint.
Alternatively, if you notice your heel coming up and a pulling or tightness in the back of the ankle, by the Achilles tendon, you likely have tissue tightness in the ankle stemming from tight calves.
Do A Plate Squat
A simple way to screen and see if your ankles are to blame for issues with squats is to give them some help.
Place a plate under your heels and go into a squat. If all your problems seem to disappear after you’ve done this one action, your ankles may be your limiting factor to good squat performance.
If you’re a powerlifter, learn how low you need to go for powerlifting squats in competition.
13 Exercises To Improve Ankle Mobility For Squats
1. Calf Foam Rolling with Ankle Dorsiflexion + Rotation
A great way to self-release any tight tissues in the ankles is by using a foam roller on your calves.
However, in addition to rolling through the muscle itself, you will want to stop on areas of tension and then move your ankle in all ranges of motion.
To set yourself up, place one leg outstretched on the foam roller and cross the other leg over top of the straight leg. If you want some extra pressure, prop yourself up on your hands and roll through the muscle.
Once you find a spot of tension, flex your foot up toward you and then point it away from you and repeat, sinking the muscle deeper into the roller.
In addition to dorsiflexion, you can also also keep the foam roller still while rotating your ankles in a 360 degree motion. This will not only release the calves but also warm up your ankle joint.
2. Anterior Tibialis (shin) Foam Rolling
In addition to foam rolling the calves, foam rolling along the anterior tibialis muscle can be beneficial to those who have limited ankle mobility.
Not only will this self-release make your ankles feel a bit more limber, it may also help you avoid or relieve shin splints if you’re someone who gets those from squatting or through other activities.
Like with the calf foam rolling, you can also point and flex your foot while on the foam roller to further release the muscles that are controlling the dorsiflexion of your ankle.
In our article, Should Powerlifters Do Yoga, we explain how certain yoga poses may help increase your ankle mobility.
3. Resisted Dorsiflexion with Band
Resisted dorsiflexion with a band is an easy drill that can be done with any resistance band and is often prescribed for those with ankle injuries.
In a seated position with your leg straight in front of you, loop a resistance band around your foot and pull on your foot while actively pushing back into the band. Hold the flexed foot position for about 15 seconds and repeat a few times on each leg.
4. Calf Barbell Smash
The barbell can be used as a self-release, or massage, tool by rolling it directly on the calves to help with tightness. This may be uncomfortable and it is advised to start with a lighter barbell if you have that available to you or have a training partner close by who can lift off the barbell in case the pressure becomes too much.
In a kneeling position, place the barbell on the calf of your kneeling leg and slowly move it over the muscle, pausing on any point of tension.
5. Slow-Eccentric Calf Raises
Slow-eccentric calf raises with elevated toes is a great dynamic warm-up to add to your workouts if calf tightness is limiting your ankle mobility.
With your toes positioned on a weight plate or low platform, bring your heels up and slowly let them sink down to the ground. This exercise will warm up the ankles as well as dynamically stretch out the calves and relieve some tightness.
6. Ankle Banded Distractions
If you felt a pinching at the front of your ankle or foot when you tried the knee to wall ankle mobility test, you will benefit from using a band distraction drill on your ankle.
Fasten a resistance band around a pole and then place it over the top of your foot (not around your shin) and step the foot up to a box or platform. Once in position, lunge forward and hold for a few seconds before releasing. This drill will allow your ankle to move deeper and give you some extra degrees of mobility.
7. Ankle PAILs and RAILs
Ankle PAILs and RAILs are a form of isometric loading to help with range of motion and require no equipment and can be added into your pre-squat warm up.
In a lunged position you will bend your front ankle to its limit without letting the heel lift off, and then press into the ground with your foot as firmly as possible. The second portion of the drill is done by then “pull” your toes up towards your shins. Between each hold, rock your ankle and sink into a new range of motion and hold.
8. Squat Hold with Barbell on Knees
Coming down into a deep squat with a barbell resting just above your knees can be a great way to practice the deep squatted position and stretch your ankles.
If your current strength level doesn’t allow you to keep a 45lbs bar on your legs, you can modify this by placing a kettlebell on your leg and stretching one leg at a time instead.
9. Squat with Heels on Plates
If you do not feel strong or comfortable doing squats and ankle mobility drills haven’t improved your range of motion enough to make them feel better, placing a plate under your heels may be a solution.
By elevating your heels you decrease the angle needed to be achieved by your ankle in order to come down into a full squat. Although using plates isn’t a good long term solution for those with competitive lifting goals, if you don’t have any other options and you need to do some squats, grabbing some small plates and placing them under your heels will give you the relief you need.
I wrote an entire guide to squatting with your plates on heels if you want more information on this variation.
10. Use Heeled Squat Shoes
If you find placing a plate under your heels works well for you, investing in a pair of heeled squat shoes may be the right decision for your performance.
I am a lifter who chooses to squat in squat shoes because I have the option available to me and I know my ankle mobility can be very unpredictable. Using shoes with a heel works on the same principle as squatting with plates under your heels, the difference is that shoes can offer a more permanent and reliable fix as well as one that’s acceptable in competition.
For more information on the best squat shoes, check out our article HERE
11. Flare Your Toes While Squatting
Choosing a squat stance with your toes pointed outwards rather than straight ahead will make sinking into a squat easier if you struggle with ankle mobility restrictions.
There are a variety of different squat stances that work for different lifters and flaring out your toes is no less optimal for performance, especially if not doing so prevents you from squatting at all.
I personally can only squat with flared toes no matter how many warm-up or drills I do, you just need to ensure your knees track in the direction of your toes throughout the movement.
12. Goblet Squats
Goblet squats are a squat variation that makes it easier to sink low without great ankle mobility and additionally can be used as either an alternative exercise or to work your ankles up to doing barbell back squats.
To do a goblet squat, hold a dumbbell, or kettlebell, at chest level and squat down, keeping the weight close to your body. Although the movement itself is a squat, you will notice getting into a stable squatted position will be much easier because the weight is in the front.
Goblet squats can also be used as a mobility drill if you choose a lighter weight and just hold in the squatted position.
13. Box Squats
Box squats are a variation of regular, barbell back squats that don’t require as much ankle mobility in order to complete the lift.
As you progressively work towards improving your ankle mobility it may be necessary to take a few steps back and start with box squats. Or, if squats are not a focus for you at this time and you just need a heavy leg exercise, opting for box squats may just do the trick.
Want more exercises to help your squat depth? Check out my article on 22 Exercises That Will Help You Squat Deeper.
Having stiff ankles isn’t uncommon, especially if you are generally sedentary, have a history of foot injuries or are just new to squatting. The necessary ankle mobility to do squats will improve over time if you continue to place stress on them by doing squats; however, you don’t want to compromise your squat mechanics in the meantime as you just passively wait for your ankles to adapt.
The drills and modifications in this article can help you get the most of squats right now, and ultimately you can make the choice of actively training to improve your ankle mobility or just opting for elevating your heels as many lifters still do even at a high level.
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