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I have trouble maintaining proper form while performing below-parallel squats: I can't bring my knees forward enough without lifting my heels from the ground. My trainer claims that this is caused by my Achilles tendons being too short because I run a lot.

However, I was under the impression that tendon length doesn't adapt to the environment.

  1. Could short Achilles tendons be the problem here?
  2. How to fix it as quickly as possible (without surgery)?
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Also hang in there, I too suffer from heels coming off the ground, but my form sucks and I've been practising just the bar for many months. Look into other exercises that help strengthen and condition squat form techniques. –  Jared Oct 19 '11 at 2:47

4 Answers 4

There's a few things that can affect the ability to do squats correctly, and it is a surprisingly hard lift to do. Take heart, all the issues are correctable. They range from:

  • Flexibility issues--hip, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles can all limit range of motion
  • Skeletal structure issues--if your stance is too wide you will be fighting your skeleton to get deep
  • Body position and technique issues--using guides can help you fix these.

I'd be hesitant to believe that your Achilles tendons are to blame. The only kid I know to truly have that problem was constantly on his tip-toes before his surgery. Even now he has a hard time changing how he walks and runs because he's been like that so long.

However, flexibility can be an issue. This article explains roughly what I did to perform some squat rehab myself. In preparation to fix your squats, I recommend getting a couple pieces of training equipment:

  • Get yourself a TUBOW (Terribly Useful Block Of Wood)
  • Find a platform or a box that can support your weight that is at the depth you want to get to. NOTE: proper depth really has to be measured while under tension. I found out that below parallel when I'm relaxed isn't the same when my legs are tense.
  • Get a little hand held video recorder to see your form for yourself.

You can work on your stretching right away, but when you go to your squats you'll have to do some set up work:

  • Find a depth you feel like you can get to to on the box using the empty bar as you sit back on to it. You may have to stack some weights on it to get a little higher than parallel.
  • Sit on the box and set up the TUBOW so that it is touching your foot and your knee.
  • For each warmup set and your current work set align your foot to the TUBOW, and squat down to the platform.

You'll be repeating this exercise, removing a layer of weights until you can get to the proper depth. During this time, resist the temptation to add weights. Every inch of depth adds a lot more work that you have to do.

Lastly, on the note of structural issues, if you feel pain in your hips and it doesn't feel like a stretch, you might have too wide of a stance for your body. I found that I need to keep my feet no more than shoulder width apart, and push my knees out as I go in and out of the hole to do the squat properly.

I was able to fix my issues in about four sessions, but that was because I already put in a lot of work with stretching. You can see my progress here:

  • First attempt: still not deep enough, but better than I was doing with another 60lb on the bar
  • Second attempt: got really close, but that extra weight on the platform was just above parallel.
  • Third attempt: no video, this is where I discovered my skeletal structure issues and the pain from this attempt caused me to stall. I was so disgusted I burned the video and didn't even want to get feedback on it.
  • Fourth attempt: finally hit below parallel, and felt really good doing it.

While some people do better with the raised heel of a proper weightlifting shoe, you don't necessarily need it to fix your problems. Now if your range of motion is limited by inflexibilities, it can take between 4-6 weeks to build the range of motion you need. It is possible, but be smart about how you do it.

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Links don't work for me. –  Dave Liepmann Oct 19 '11 at 13:17
    
Shoot. I forgot that the form check forum is only visible to members of the IronStrong forum. You should at least be able to see the first link in the third paragraph (says "This article explains roughly what I did"). –  Berin Loritsch Oct 19 '11 at 14:34
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I changed the links to go directly to my youtube videos. The commentary I got in the original links on IronStrong was also very helpful. Sorry about that. –  Berin Loritsch Oct 19 '11 at 14:37
    
Thanks, there's much info in this post. I signed up for ironstrong.org just to read the comments, and they're helpful too. With "fighting your skeletal system", do you mean that your stance was too wide? –  user26 Oct 19 '11 at 18:34
    
Also, maybe you'd want to bring some content from your link into the answer? Your list of stretch exercises was handy: The third world squat, Lying Hamstring stretch, Kneeling adductor magnus stretch, Lying glute stretch, Kneeling hip flexor stretch, Foam rolling. –  user26 Oct 19 '11 at 18:37

I don't know the underlying physiology of the issue, but I had the same problem: ankle dorsiflexion inflexibility.

What worked for me was more squatting: heavy barbell squats 3 times a week, frequent squatting (heels as close to the ground as possible) throughout the day for common tasks, and working on improving the amount of time I could spend in my "third world squat". The issue was resolved in a month or two.

Get surgery out of your head until you've been working on the issue every day for a year. That's crazy talk.

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The "without surgery" parenthesis was just meant to dissuade the obvious answer to "how to fix it as quickly as possible?" :) –  user26 Oct 18 '11 at 18:31
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D'oh! My mistake. My opinion of your sanity is greatly improved. :) –  Dave Liepmann Oct 18 '11 at 18:32

I'm by all means no expert in squatting, however I've read a tone of stuff out there and in regards to your question, most experts reckon No, the Achilles tendons, isn't a limiting factor in squatting.

This great website showing how the deep squat works, tells why

Limited mobility of the ankle (sometimes blamed on “short Achilles tendons”) is often pointed out as a limiting factor, but that is actually very rare. In fact most people can learn to reach a deep position with almost vertically aligned lower legs (tibias) and therefore hardly need to mobilize the ankle at all. The difficulty is rather due to inexperience and an incorrect technique that can be quickly corrected. To better understand how the squat movement is restricted in purely geometrical terms, the interactive application below is very helpful.

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Really not trying to anger anyone, but some of what I'm seeing doesn't make any sense. Think for a second why would hips make someone not be able to keep their heels on the ground why wouldn't that be the tendon. I've taught plenty of trainers what to look for and have corrected a lot of squats over the years. Here's just a typical example of what I've seen and done, lady's who wear high heels or males who wear shoes with big heels train their Achilles tendon and calf muscle to stay short, so I advise not to wear the shoes as much and do loaded stretching on the calf and tendon to really force it back where it should be, 9 out of ten times after loaded calf stretching they can squat without their heels coming off. The other 1 person is always a fear of falling backwards. I've never seen any other reason for it, period. I suggest get a partner try some pnf stretching on your hamstring flexibility, then do 3x 15 second loaded stretches on a standing calf machine increasing the weight to something uncomfortable and really pulling those heels down. Then do your squats, if magically you can do them, the answer all along was your tendon was trying to stay short.

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Perhaps you can add some structure to your answer. Right now it is hard to follow your argument. –  FredrikD Mar 8 at 9:27
    
From lots of experience, running two training companies and owning one myself. The back of the leg is almost always the problem with someone not being able to keep their heel down... this has nothing to do with deep squat mechanics or technique, their central nervous system is so used to keeping it short that it wont allow the heel to stay and allow the clients to keep the weight there. It seems as though no one understands this, because no one has had clients with the issue they are just talking about what they've read on forums from keyboard warriors. Try the loaded calf stretch and see. –  themusclestud Mar 11 at 4:10
    
Now I'm speaking based on actually correcting others, I've never had the problem myself. If you want to research something related you might find something done on hypertonic calves, and hypotonic tibialis anterior, that would be a good explanation of what's going on. It's very common with women who wear high heels a lot. Based on the person who started the thread they had the same problem and their trainer pointed it out, their trainer probably had a lot of experience correcting clients squats also. I just had to add my method to fix this for future readers because it almost always works. –  themusclestud Mar 11 at 4:21

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