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I've read a lot lately that if I want to build a lot of strength and start thinking seriously about putting on some size that I should use squats as a core workout. I'm only 65kg (143 pounds) and have never really done any weight training. I do however use my boxing bag every night for about half an hour and do a handful of exercises using my own body weight such as pushups / handstands / plenty of core work.

I've given squats a go but I am having two problems:

  1. Balance - this is probably due to point two, but maybe worth its own mention.
  2. It seems as though my ankles don't bend forward enough to squat down as far as I need to.

To help with the balance issue I have been using dumbbells in each hand (I find this significantly easier than a barbell on my shoulders). As for the latter issue though, I'm not sure if this is quite common and I should try stretching my ankles a few times a day until they bend forward further or if I'm doing something completely wrong.

Did anyone else have this problem when starting out? How should I take care of it?

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What type of squat are you doing? How low are you trying to go? –  user3085 May 29 '12 at 15:29
    
I'm not sure if this is your problem, but make sure you are using flat shoes, and if you don't have flat shoes then you need to do squats barefoot. Doing squats with orthotics or similarly arched shoes makes it difficult to go all the way down without losing balance because it starts your ankles out further than they should be. –  Moses May 29 '12 at 16:56
    
You could be flatfooted, or may have a slight muscle imbalance caused by the shoes you wear. –  Evan Plaice May 29 '12 at 17:37
    
I think most adults have trouble at the start because most of us work sitting down and do very little lifting. See my comment below for "Starting Strength". For another take on dumbbell squatting Google "Dan John goblet squats". He is a big name high school coach and says teenagers can't squat either. –  medmal Aug 6 '12 at 17:16

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

When I started squatting, I had trouble with balance, hip mobility, and ankle mobility. The mobility issues plus lack of proprioception in my back caused balance issues. Squatting more helped. I did third world squats throughout the day and kept squatting every workout.

I recommend warming the ankles up with lots of joint rotations (e.g. 20 in both directions) and more squatting. The squatting ankle stretch is very productive. It is performed here by Catalyst Athletics with bodyweight, but can be assisted with a dumbbell, barbell, or other weight on the top of the thighs or knees:

squatting ankle stretch

I've also found that warming up with walking, running, or incline walking helps. So does avoiding wearing heeled shoes in one's normal daily activities.

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If your problem seems to be directly related to tight ankles, your soleus muscle is probably tight. The heel cord is made up of the gastroc and soleus muscles.

To stretch correctly, you need to stretch your calf muscles with the knee straight (to elongate the gastrocs) and with the knee bent (to elongate the soleus). You'll feel the gastroc stretch higher in your calf and the soleus closer to the ankle.

When you stretch both the gastroc and the soleus, make sure that your heel is in line with your foot. For an effective stretch, avoid letting your heel roll in or your arch collapse.

As previous stretching questions have addressed, passive stretching is not recommended prior to your workout as this can result in injuries. Before working out an active (dynamic) stretch or warm-up is better.

Other tight areas that can restrict your form and affect a balanced squat are your hip flexors and gluteals. This q/a, What are some good stretches to help with squatting?, gives you some good info to address these areas.

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Most people have horrible ankle mobility.

You can see it on their squats -- ankles cave in, as do the knees. They cannot track their knees over their foot and get into biomechanically disadvantaged positions.

Often the lack of hip and back mobility confounds the problem. This can be addressed by working up to overhead squats with a bar or dowel.

I would suggest that you don't squat until you can do the wall squat with perfect form.

Do an air squat. If your ankles remain perfectly stationary, move to a bar, and then onto weight.

A good pre-squat stretch routine is the Ido Squat Routine.

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I agree with Nathan. Form is very important with squats when you're starting out, or you'll never make it to higher weights. However, if your ankle flexbility is low, it could be better to work on this directly. Your calves and shins should be worked on, and you need to get better with plyometric/ballistic movement. Being able to vertically jump high is rather dependent on ankle flexibility because that allows you to get lower (i.e. like in a squat) but in the right position to jump.

When you can go from standing to a crouch (hands out in front of you), without falling backwards, and without your heels ever coming off the ground, then you have gain good ankle flexibility.

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Introduction

First of all, yes. Squatting is an invaluable part of growing in the scope of lifting. And the issues you are experiencing, have long-standing workarounds ready and available for you.

You mention balance. This is something that will come with practice. Right now, the problem is most likely related to the fact that you're not used to carrying weight in this manner. Unless there is some underlying reason, it should come naturally and organically.

As for ankle mobility, this is usually a case of your tendons being too short, or too stiff. Neither case should hinder you from doing squats. We have quite a few different ways of doing squats, and some people tend to one or the other simply based on what their body can most easily cope with. Here are some examples:

The back squat

Bar on your shoulder/neck. This is where people often will realize that their ankle mobility is a limiting factor. You will notice, because as your knees bend, your heels come off the ground. This is not ideal, because the force should propagate through your heels and into the ground. Your heels are, after all, where your legs meet your foot.

Workaround #1

Try placing your heels on a slight elevation. Most people use weight plates for this. It should allow you to keep more weight on your heels, rather than at the balls of your feet, near the toes. Even so, it's more of a temporary fix.

Workaround #2

Spread your feet a bit further, and point your toes slightly outward. I see a lot of people miss this key point. They have their feet shoulder width apart, and toes pointing straight forward. I have excellent ankle mobility, and if I try to do this, I will also lift my heels off the floor. It's a terrible way to do it.

An excellent way to find a decent foot placement, is to pretend you're about to take a dump in the woods. Squat down, and make sure you're not about to get anything on your legs, but maintain balance at all times. This will often result in a wider-than-shoulder-width stance. Kind of like riding a horse. Again, toes slightly outward.

This will allow you to lean back more, so that the weight isn't tipping you forward off your heels.

The front squat

This is where I found my personal workaround. With the front squat, you have the bar on your shoulders, but on the front-side of your neck. Yes, it is trickier, but mastering this squat will help you.

I find this extremely useful for those who have ankle mobility issues, because with the weight already on the front-side of your center of gravity, you will have to lean backwards onto your heels in order to not tip forward.

One hopefully minor setback here, is that it takes some getting used to. A lot of people simply hold the weight wrong.

The right way: With the bar resting on your shoulders, close to your neck, your elbows should be pointing straight out in front of you.

The wrong way: You'll notice a lot of people having their elbows pointing down, and the bar resting 50/50 on their shoulders and hands. Their wrists will be bent backwards with tremendous force, and they'll spend most of the exercise, and rest periods, in pain, squeezing their wrists.

You, on the other hand, will know better. Hell, with your elbows out in front of you, you don't even need to use your hands. You can cross your arms over the bar for stabilization if you need to. As long as your elbows are up high, the bar isn't going anywhere. But again, it takes some getting used to, and you will probably have to drop some weight.

Also thoracic extension (the good arch in the lower back area) will come very naturally when you front squat.

The overhead squat

My personal mount everest. Holding the bar over your head with your arms fully extended, you squat. This is one hell of an exercise in balance and mobility. Again, thoracic extension will be forced upon you, which makes it pretty amazing, but it's definitely a more advanced squat if you intend to work with it beyond simply testing the waters.

Another thing I like about it, is that you will absolutely be using far less weight with this one. Not only because you have to press/jerk it up, but also because keeping balance during descent and ascent is pretty challenging.

I would definitely test it out if the bar alone feels comfortable enough. If not, wait a while. There's no rush with this one. There's always the workarounds and the front squat for starters.

General note

I've purposefully left out illustrations in this post, because it became quite long as is, and huge posts can be slightly off-putting. But there is a plethora of guides, tips, and tricks with everything I've mentioned, by simply googling the headlines. And there's always the comment section if there are any other questions.

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Yes, start with lighter weights and go as deep (a little bit below your knee level). Improve that form and start with heavier weights. You going to be ripped.

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Can you include some references to show why your answer is correct? –  Nathan Wheeler May 29 '12 at 15:03
    
"Starting Strength" by Mark Rippetoe is the go o reference for the big lifts (squatting, deadlifting,...). He feels that the squat improves the squat. He is very detailed about the form from head to toe and how to attain it. –  medmal Aug 6 '12 at 17:08

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