No matter what your fitness goals, squats should be part of your training routine. Few exercises work so many muscle groups simultaneously as the venerable squat. No wonder it’s sometimes called the “king of exercises.” Being a compound exercise, squatting involves movement around more than one joint and targets several muscle groups at the same time. When you squat, you work the muscles in your thighs, hips, buttocks, and even your core. Contrast that with isolation exercises that only target one muscle group. Squats are a time-expedient exercise.
Because you’re working so many muscles, squatting burns more calories than doing an isolation exercise, like leg curls. Plus, squats are a functional exercise. By mastering this basic movement, you will improve your ability to do the daily movements you do around the house as well as sports moves. Think about how many times you squat on any given day. It’s a move that challenges and improves total body mechanics. Squats not only build muscle strength but if you use a higher resistance, you stimulate the bones underneath to help preserve bone density. Of course, you have to squat against resistance to really benefit the health of your bones.
There are lots of compelling reasons to do squats! However, most people don’t use good form when they do this exercise. Squats are one of the most difficult exercises to master but it’s important to do so to get the maximal benefits and avoid injury. One of the reasons you might have problems doing a squat correctly is poor mobility. If you don’t have good mobility in your hips and ankles, your form will suffer, and you’ll get fewer benefits from the exercise while increasing your risk of injury.
To do a full squat using good form, you must have a certain degree of hip and ankle mobility. At a minimum, you should be able to comfortably squat to the point that your thighs are parallel with the floor. To do a full squat, lower your glutes to within a few inches of the floor. Unfortunately, not everyone’s ankle and hip mobility is good enough to go that low. Some people try to get around this limitation by doing partial squats, not even going down to parallel. If you can’t squat to at least 90 degrees, you’re greatly limiting the benefits you get from this multi-joint, multi-muscle exercise. Are your hips and ankles holding back your squat?
Hip Mobility and Squats
First, let’s look at problem hips. Hip mobility and tight hip flexors are a limiting factor for many people. Why is poor hip mobility so common? Most of us spend hours sitting each day. When we sit for hours, our hip flexors tighten and the opposing muscles, the glutes, lengthen and relax. Not to mention, you suffer from the other health risks of sitting. Too much time spent at a desk each day is linked with worsening metabolic health and an elevated risk of mortality. So, sitting does more than tighten your hip flexors and decrease hip mobility, it’s bad for your health in general.
Loosen Tight Hip Flexors and Increase Mobility
To counter the impact of too much sitting and get improve mobility, add hip stretches to your routine. There are a variety of these exercises that you can easily do at the end of a workout and throughout the day to help lengthen hip flexors that are suffering from the effects of prolonged sitting. Self-myofascial release using a foam roller is another technique that may help loosen tight hip muscles. It’s also important to strengthen your hamstrings and glutes, the opposing muscles that are often weak when you have tight hip flexors.
Poor ankle mobility can also interfere with the ability to squat effectively and it’s a weakness that’s often overlooked. Whenever a joint is not as mobile, other body parts have to fill in. If your ankles are too inflexible, your feet and knees have to work harder and this throws your form off when you squat.
How do know if you have ankles that lack mobility? Try the knee to wall test. Place a tape strip four inches from a wall as a marker. Put your foot on the strip. Now, try to touch your knee to the wall without bringing your heel off the ground or having your knee or foot turn inward or outward. Can’t do it? Your ankles are likely too immobile to do squats with good form.
Flexibility issues of the ankle are usually more pronounced with dorsiflexion, the movement whereby you flex your toes upward toward the sky. Sometimes, this is due to old ankle injuries, but injury or restricted movement to other parts of the kinetic chain, including the back, hips, and knees can limit motion at the ankles as well. That’s because you change how you walk when your back, knees, or hips are injured and place more stress on the ankles.
Wearing high heels also reduces ankle mobility. By forcing the feet into an abnormal position, they impact the entire kinetic chain, creating muscle imbalances and, potentially, joint damage. You don’t even have to walk or stand in high heels to get the ill effects. Even sitting in heels changes the length of the muscles and tendons that surround the ankles. Take a break from heels, especially sky-high ones! Heels are damaging in a number of ways. Some studies even suggest that wearing heels changes biomechanics in a way that increases the risk of osteoarthritis of the knee.
Improving Ankle Mobility
If ankle mobility is limiting your squat power, improve their mobility. One way to do that is to use a foam roller to help release tight calf muscles. Releasing your calves can have a big impact on how mobile your ankles are. Then, add some ankle mobility exercises to your routine. An easy one is ankle circles, an exercise you can even do while sitting in a chair at work. Simply rotate your foot around your ankle joint first in a clockwise direction and then counterclockwise. Do several sets of twenty rotations in each direction. There are a variety of other ankle mobility exercises you can do and if you fail the knee to wall test, make sure these are part of your routine.
The Bottom Line
If your squat is sub-par, it could be that your hips and ankles are limiting you. So, give them the extra attention they need, and it’ll improve your form on all lower body exercises, particularly the squat.
DrJohnRusin.com. “10 Exercises to Instantly Improve Ankle Mobility”
Lancet. 1998 May 9;351(9113):1399-401.
ExRx.net. “Squat Analysis”
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