Often do I see and hear of individuals placing plates under their heels due to lacking the ability of keeping weight distributed toward the back of the foot. In some cases, people often assume that the heels leaving the floor during the lift is a symptom of ankle inflexibility/tightness, however, in my opinion this is not true.
In my experience, those who struggle with ankle mobility issues often show the following compensations:
Lack of ankle mobility restricts forward displacement of the knee and therefore causes the tibia to remain vertical. This results in the individual pushing the hips back in the search of depth, which in turn causes an excessive forward lean in the trunk.
In another search for mobility, the individual may rotate their foot laterally to allow the knee to track forward. Due to the dramatic change of foot position, ankle mobility is found through a combination of dorsiflexion and eversion. This compensatory movement can cause knee valgus (knees track inward - increasing risk of knee injury) whilst closing up the hips, which may induce poor movement patterns further up the kinetic chain (think 'butt-wink'). This point is reinfored by Bell, et al. (2012) who found that those who experience knee valgus during the squat demonstrated decreased dorsiflexion (ankle range of motion).
So how do we fix the issue?
The answer is not to elevate the heel using a plate or wedge. Macrum, et al. (2012) suggests that doing this may increase knee valgus whilst reducing muscle activity of the Quadriceps. These are similar symptoms to that experienced by individuals suffering with Patellofemoral pain.
The key is to focus on increasing ankle strength and dorsiflexion range of motion, as this has been suggested to improve squat kinematics (Bell, Padua and Clark, 2008). In a later study by Bell, et al. (2013), knee valgus was reduced as ankle dorsiflexion increased following an exercise intervention over a 2-3 week period.
In my opinion, the follwing methods are best practise:
Soft tissue work - Often the build up of scar tissue and redundant metabolic by-product can cause tissue to be become extremely tight and therefore reduce range of motion. Invest in a foam roller and a lacrosse ball (pictured) and spend some time releasing tight tissue. You can do this by placing your body weight on top of the roller or ball whilst rocking back and forth. Prioritise the areas of your gastrocnemius (upper calf), soleus (lower calf) and peroneals (side of the lower leg). Get into a habit of doing this as often as possible away from your training sessions.
Dynamic mobility - increasing the length of the muscle will only occur through stimulation of the central nervous system. This means movement, and lots of it! Spend less time focussing on static stretches as these will not increase muscle fasicle length of the Gastrocnemius (Nakamura, et al. 2012). Instead, perform more movements through full range of motion. Exercises such as Front Foot Elevated Split Squats and deep lunge variations (ensuring that the knee passes over the toes whilst heel remains on the floor) are extremely useful.
Keep squatting - if your lack of ankle mobility is causing you to squat incorrectly, do not stop, but instead reduce the intensity of the lift. Perhaps use an unloaded bar and mix up the variation of squats (front, back, overhead etc). It is important to get used to being in the bottom position (aka the hole) of the squat.
Author: Karl Page