The quads, glutes, hips, back, and knees are typical conversation pieces when talking about the squat. But what about the ankles, lower leg and calves?? All of the aforementioned body parts have their own importance independently, but, all of them (whether they are joints or the muscles crossing the joint) need to coordinate effectively to produce the desired movement. The knee joint needs to move smoothly in relation to the hip and ankle joints to ensure proper tracking and loading. For example, the knee and ankle joint will go through a smaller range of motion relatively compared to the hip during a low-bar squat. Then when analyzing the high-bar position, the knee and ankle will be moving a lot more in relation to the hip compared to a low-bar position. It is this coordination that allows smooth movement and the difference between a PR and a missed attempt.
For the sake of this post on ankles and lower leg muscles, let’s focus on the high-bar squat considering there’s more movement there. Let’s also stick to one plane (sagittal aka front-to-back motion) to keep things simple. The hip has two large groups of muscles, the hip flexors in the front and hip extensors in the back. Same with the knee, the knee extensors (quads) and knee flexors (hamstrings). Neither hip/knee flexor or hip/knee extensor is more important than the other as both sides play a role in the squat. You may argue but aren’t the hip extensors and knee extensors much more important since they are loading on the way down and the way up? That is true but without the feedback and proper tone of the hamstrings and hip flexors during the movement, they are useless. Muscles are always “firing” whether the muscle is lengthening, shortening or providing a synergistic (helpful) presence. Both muscle groups at each joint need to coordinate effectively or the squat is going to suffer and that’s when pain and dysfunction may set in.
This works the exact same way at the ankle and lower leg. Because the ankle, foot, and lower leg are highly intricate and move through multiple planes, we’re again just going to focus on the sagittal plane. The lower legs consists of a whole bunch of muscles and compartments and we could talk for days about their individual importance. Instead to highlight some of the bigger muscle groups, the tibialis anterior sits in the front and helps lift the foot up (unloaded/not in contact with the ground) and the calves, tibialis posterior, and peroneals run mostly along the back/sides and help the foot push into the ground. Focusing on the muscles on the back/sides of the leg, these muscles are crucial for assisting not only the knee/ankle via their attachment sites, but also providing a sense of stability and awareness in the bottom position of a squat. As you descend in the squat, the calves, peroneals and posterior tibialis are generally lengthening under load. If there is a lack of correct neuromuscular coordination/timing on the descent/bottom position within the lower legs, then there is going to be a “poor/weak” position from which to push from. Also if there too much “stiffness” and reduced ankle motion throughout the squat then hitting depth will be an issue and hip/low back pain starts to arise due to compensation. The ankle joint needs to be able to move through a full healthy range of motion while the calves, peroneals, and posterior tibialis muscles need to be able to lengthen (permit dorsiflexion) with proper tension/stiffness. The body will respond to this proper stiffness with a stronger, more stable bottom position. (This is assuming the knees and hips are properly aligned and there are no other existing injuries up the chain). Remember that the body is constantly receiving and outputting information about the tension and the length of the muscle/tendon/joint throughout a squat or whatever task you may be performing. The better the ability of the lower leg/ankle muscles to lengthen under load and successively contract, the more stable the position will be resulting in a better transfer out of the hole.
So next time you squat begin to think about your ankles, lower leg soft-tissue and check out your feet. I want the purpose of this post to get you to consider there may be other factors that can help your squat. Everything starts from the ground up so consider each joint and muscle group and how they function together. This is a general post introducing the idea of ankle stiffness/coordination and is not meant to diagnose or completely fix any potential pattern dysfunction. Every athlete has a different body type, training history, injury history, and movement capacity so I would be doing you a disservice by providing you general feedback for such a complex area.
If there are any questions regarding proper ankle range of motion, ankle/lower leg tension/stiffness and what to do, please post in our Facebook group (Click the link below) and I will be more than happy to discuss proper ankle motion, loading strategies, and determining if your foot/lower leg are moving efficiently. In the meantime, please seek help from a coach, trainer, or any other healthcare professional if you need help assessing such motion in-person. The Facebook group is intended for further discussion about anything related to the squat, weightlifting, or the musculoskeletal system.