My journey to ankle mobility continues.
To recap, I made a mistake when I started progression strength training: I was pointing my toes way out on the squat. It was the only way I could get low enough in the bottom position without bending my low back.
Stronglifts.com, my powerlifting bible, instructed me to point the toes out for stability. Fitness magazines and books like Starting Strength said the same. It seemed to make sense. With toes pointed about thirty degrees out to the side, there’s more balance, right? But for some reason, I still felt shaky on heavy squats. It was in the moments just before descent, and just out of the hole, that I couldn’t find true leverage.
I was balancing on my feet, and I didn’t know how to anchor myself. Until I learned that ankles matter.
Dr. Kelly Starrett explains in Becoming a Supple Leopard that feet pointed forward best aligns the knee with the shin and femur. It also allows utilization of torque through the ankles.
Google toddlers squatting and you’ll see their feet are straight forward while their bottoms touch their heels. Toddlers haven’t had mobility training. But they also haven’t gone through decades of feet and ankle distortion from shoes with elevated heels, and they haven’t picked up the grown-up habit of duck-footed walking.
It’s not easy for most of us to keep our toes forward while squatting to depth, so we assume we shouldn’t. For many of us, either our thighs get in the way or we start falling backwards. Try it yourself.
Two obvious solutions would be either to spread the feet further apart or widen the angle of our feet. Like a lot of assumptions, though, this one isn’t necessarily right. Think about a pickle jar.
You start to open a brand new jar of pickles, but the lid’s too tight, and your hand starts sliding. You lose steam, so you reposition your hand to try again. Naturally you would position your hand clockwise, to get ready to turn the lid counterclockwise.
To make sure you get it open this time, you grab a rubber dish glove. You grip the lid tight with the glove and give it your all. There’s a bit of strain and then a satisfying POP! Delicious zestiness releases.
The outward rotational force on the lid, exerted by your hand, we call torque. The rubber glove prevented sliding, which preserved torque. How does that relate to the squat?
With your feet pointed forward on the squat, you can exert outward turning force on the ground. As long as your feet don’t actually turn outward, torque is generated and transferred via your ankles through the rest of your body.
Sounds great. So why is this not intuitive?
Because we’re missing ankle flexibility.
It takes practice
Try this. Start by gently getting into the bottom position of the squat, toes pointed forward. Don’t let them slide out to the sides! You’ll notice a point where it’s not possible to go down any further with feet forward. Either they have to turn, or you’ll fall backward.
Get as low as possible in the bottom position of the squat, feet pointed forward. Just sit there for a while. It gets uncomfortable. Keep pulling out on the knees, butt turning femurs outward. It’s not as important to keep your back straight while you practice without weight.
Then slowly stand up out of it, flexing your butt to actively push your hips forward, knees pulling out, feet gripping the floor and staying straight. You can keep your hold on the table leg while you do this.
It helps to be barefoot on a firm surface. Try wood, cement, or, best of all, grass. Slow and steady does it.
You can use this exercise until you obtain ideal ankle mobility. Be mindful of your foot position as you walk, stand up, and bend or squat to pick things up.
It’s probably best to practice a bit before using this foot position with weights. We’ll get there.
To powerful living.
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