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I've got one of those lazy "Ididntexerciseinalongtime" heels which is causing improper form on my squats. I've spoken to some knowledgeable fellas at my gym and they pinpointed my weakness in my squat form is my heels and their inability to flex when coming down (they lift up).

My stats are 5foot9 (175cm) I'm 80kgs, 28 years old and as I first said, I haven't done a lot of exercising for a good 5 years.

My personal trainer told me to stick some 5kg plates under my heels which has helped tremendously on my squat form, but I shouldn't and don't want to rely on doing my squats forever this way. He also gave me some stretching tips to try and gain some flexibility into my heels, which were doing free weight squats at home and squatting as low as I can go while maintaining my heel to the ground with both legs in uniform (1 leg in front of the other).

I'm squatting 80kgs easily, to the point that I need to lift a heavier weight, but it'd be pointless to squat heavier with a crappy form (even with a mediocre form using the plates, I'm a bit worried I'll damage my knees). Specifically doing back squats, although I am practising front squats for power clean form.

Is there any other exercises or something I can do to gain some more flexibility in my heels?

[edit 29/03/2011] Added Youtube links showing me doing my squat

  1. Olympic Bar only back squat (no plates under heels)
  2. 60kg Back Squat (plates under heels)

My bad on the recording them wrong way round (I wasn't filming obviously! ;).

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+1 for caring more about form than lifting heavier weights! –  Rhea Mar 23 '11 at 4:24
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Post a video. It's possible that tightness in the ankles is your limiting factor, but this is not common. There are many other form issues that are FAR more likely, including not pushing the knees out enough, using too narrow of a stance, letting the knees drift too far forward, not using the proper mental cue when driving out of the hole, and many more. The only way to know for sure is if you post a video. –  Yevgeniy Brikman Mar 23 '11 at 7:02
    
@Yevgeniy Brikman - totally man, I'm going to gym tomorrow to do my squats again I'll take my phone in and see if I can get one of the trainers to film me. –  Jared Mar 23 '11 at 7:37
    
Hey guys added the videos finally, see what you think, I'm pretty convinced its my heels though, clearly see my form improves once plates are under my heels. –  Jared Mar 29 '11 at 6:36
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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'm assuming you're doing a classic squat with feet and knees hip-width apart, knees pointing in the same direction as the toes and bending to 90 degrees at the lowest. In safe squatting form, in which knees stay above the shoelaces, the ankles are not too deeply flexed, so you shouldn't need any more flexibility than you'd need to walk.

If your heels are coming off the ground, this is a sign that you're letting the knees come too far forward. This is a common "cheat" that makes the exercise much easier for the quads. However, it is dangerous, because it puts a lot of strain on the knee joint. Besides, the quads are one of your main targets, so you want to target them, not avoid them.

A trick for correcting this is to lift all ten toes inside the shoes and try to keep them lifted throughout the squat. This forces you to send your hips out behind instead of letting your knees come forward.

Stand sideways to a mirror with no weight and check out your form. If your knees jut out beyond your shoelaces, keep working with no weight until you can get those knees back. On the way down, try to move your hips back before moving your knees at all. On the way up, try to send your hips upwards instead forwards. A trick is to extend to arms forward to counterbalance. It's a bit of a crutch, but it will train your muscles to contract in the right combination. Once you have the form, slowly begin to add weight. Setting the bar lower on the back of the shoulders can help keep you in good form (source). If you add so much that your heels pop off the floor again, you're lifting too much. You'll gain more strength in your quads by lifting less weight in proper form.

All that said, if you still want to work on ankle flexibility in a way that's relevant to a squat, you should do a soleus stretch. Since the knee is bent, it stretches the muscles more similarly to a squat than a straight-leg calf stretch.

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Just to be clear: there are different kinds of squats and thus different forms. The plie squat is one where you are on your toes for both feet and the bulgarian split squat you are on your toes for one foot. Deeper squats like sumo squat are considered "safe" and depends on your flexibility. I agree that for the "classic" front squat your feet should not lift off but how deep you go depends on the person (some people can go deeper). –  Rhea Mar 23 '11 at 5:05
    
@Rhea & @barbie - Sorry guys I should have been specific about what type of squat. Added the squat types in my original question –  Jared Mar 23 '11 at 7:35
    
@Barbie - just doing it in front of mirror now, my back/chest is coming way to forward with my heels on the ground and I lose balance if I try to counteract this and straighten up using the toes up trick. I could still be in need of recovery for my lower back from mondays deadlift though ;) (it was awesome!) –  Jared Mar 23 '11 at 7:42
    
@Rhea: I absolutely agree, I made an implicit assumption there. I have edited my answer to clarify. –  Barbie Mar 23 '11 at 16:01
    
@Jared: To start, try extending your arms forward to counter balance. It's a bit of a crutch, but it will help train your leg muscles to contract in the right combination. I've also added a few more tips to my answer. You're probably right about the deadlifts--deadlifts and squats both use the low back, glutes, and hamstrings, so avoid doing them on consecutive days :) You want to give muscles 48 hours rest after training them. –  Barbie Mar 23 '11 at 16:15
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I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but after watching the videos you posted, what you are doing is barely a half squat. Your technique is pretty damn far off and it has very little to do with "heel flexibility". I strongly recommend that you start from scratch.

  1. Pick yourself up a copy of Starting Strength. This book should be a pre-requisite for entering a gym. It is, by far, the single best resource I've seen for teaching the basics of strength training: detailed instructions on each lift, the effects of the exercises, a simple beginners routine, and everything else you need to know. You'll learn from this book that a proper squat includes the hip joint dropping below the knee (as seen from the side), heels flat on the ground, knees out, back locked in extension. Getting to proper depth makes an enormous difference in the difficulty of the squat, engages far more muscles, and keeps your knees safe. If you want to get strong, learn to squat properly.
  2. Other useful guides to squatting include Stronglifts squat guide, Starting Strength wiki (see the squat section for a preview of the actual book's contents), Squat Rx video series and the Crossfit exercises page.
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Na thats cool man I appreciate constructive criticism, I realise my form is pretty shit lol. Ironic thing is, I'm on the starting strength workout! I like that RX videos you linked, I'll watch those. But looking at my videos its interesting you say its little to do with my heels? what do you think my biggest problem is? my hips? weak lower back? –  Jared Mar 29 '11 at 10:06
    
@Jared: if you're on the routine, get the book and read it. It's worth $30 and a few hours to make sure you spend the next several months/years doing things correctly. There are many "problems" with your squat: not going deep enough, pausing at the bottom, not keeping your weight on your heels, not driving up with your hips, improper arm position, and more. Reasons for these likely include the wrong understanding of squat mechanics and possibly not enough flexibility. Read the guides I posted, start from scratch, record each lift and keep working on it till it looks like the pictures above. –  Yevgeniy Brikman Mar 29 '11 at 19:16
    
Thanks man appreciate all those links, they're good. I'm gonna keep at it. –  Jared Mar 29 '11 at 21:35
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Are you in any pain? If you are in pain, you might want to consult a physical therapist/sports doctor before trying to exercise your heels.

If you aren't in pain, you can go up and down on your tippy-toes to work your heels using body-weight or you can do standing calf raises if you have access to a gym. The machine will allow for a deeper stretch and standing on steps (from a staircase/stairwell) will work the same if you want to start off with body-weight (recommended). And stretching your heels using regular stretches as well as manually (i.e. bending the foot one way and back and holding) would be sufficient to stretch it.

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na no pain dude thanks for those links. My gym is pretty shocking and doesn't have a standing calf raise (rack or machine?), my trainer said I could do something similar on the leg press though? –  Jared Mar 23 '11 at 7:39
    
Glad you aren't in any pain. I'm personally not a fan of the leg press as it's an unnatural motion. When do you find yourself on your back pushing something away with your feet? That machine isolates the quads, hams, glutes, and calves. I don't think you'd feel the stretch you need using it since the flat platform prevents the heel from stretching. Sometimes there are steps on other stations. I've seen steps on a bench press station where the spotter stands and sometimes the incline bench stations have a step that you could do the calf raises on with dumbbells. –  Rhea Mar 24 '11 at 1:13
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It could be a number of things and various ways to approach it. I had a similar problem due to leaning forward to much, so instead of standard squats, I first focused on front squats (weight in the front - either barbell or dumbbells) and also picking my toes up. This helped me feel how my body should be for standard squats. I also spread my feet out a bit and pointed my toes out a bit once I started standard squats.

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