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I've always had pain in the back after doing squats and realized that I have tight ankles and this results in butt wink when doing them.

I've come across with a little hack; putting small plates under my heels to lift them up a bit. I filmed myself with and without the plates, and it seems like that this solves the butt wink. For the lower back pain, I don't know, because I haven't tried it under load yet. Hopefully, it fixes that too.

My question is that doing squats with heels lifted up a bit is as effective as regular ones? Will my ankles loosen up overtime if I keep doing squats like this? If not, can this be a long-term solution?

Thanks in advance.

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  • Some ideas that may help: Try to do a few bodyweight squats almost every day. Go as deep as possible. Rock gently back and forth a bit. Also walking on uneven terrain eg. in a forest may help. My impression is that "instiling confidence" in the ankles by strengthening them in all directions make them relax and more mobile. "Instiling fear" in them by exceeding strength limitations make them tight.
    – Andy
    Sep 22 at 11:45
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Whether elevation of the heel is as effective as squatting with flat feet really comes back to definitions: effective for what? Let us look at the effect of the change.

From a biomechanical perspective, by raising the heels, the knees are shifted further forward without a corresponding increase in ankle dorsiflexion. The load vector thereby becomes more normal to the femur, creating a greater moment at the knee and correspondingly smaller moment at the hip. The result is that the load is borne more by the knee extensors (quadriceps femoris), and less by the hip extensors (particularly the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus) and uni-articular plantar flexors (soleus). Greater knee flexion relative to ankle dorsiflexion further limits activation of the bi-articular hamstrings, which "exert a counter-regulatory pull on the tibia, helping to neutralize the anterior tibiofemoral shear imparted by the quadriceps and thus alleviating stress on the [anterior cruciate ligament]" (source). Similarly, activation of the bi-articular gastrocnemius is also reduced, which has been shown to be important in limiting knee valgus (internal translation).

The theory suggests that elevation of the heel should (1) result in poorer muscular balance, with an emphasis on the size and strength of the knee extensors, at the cost of the hip extensors and ankle plantar flexors, (2) poorer strength potential as a consequence of those, and (3) greater risk of injury due to lower activation of the bi-articular muscles which limit knee valgus and anterior cruciate ligament tension.

All of that said, provided that you apply the same considerations you would to the safe performance of all exercises, raising the heels slightly during the performance of squats is unlikely to cause you any injury. The technique is commonplace and, as another commentator mentioned, precisely what weightlifting shoes do.

As a final note, however, ankle mobility is easily developed through static and dynamic mobility exercises. By squatting deeply with a low sub-maximal load and emphasis on the degree of ankle dorsiflexion, a functional angle (approximately 38°) can usually be achieved within a matter of weeks or months, depending on, of course, your current degree of mobility and other factors. Supplementary exercises—most notably the seated calf raise—can be an excellent means to practise contract-relax stretching.

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Is doing squats with heels lifted up a bit is as effective as regular ones?

Yes.

Will my ankles loosen up overtime if I keep doing squats like this? If not, can this be a long-term solution?

Likely yes, but very slowly. You should consider doing ankle mobility drills to improve ankle dorsiflexion, there are many helpful videos on YT. Mobilizing your ankles will still take awhile, so maybe buy weightlifting shoes. They have elevated heels, similar effect to using small plates under the heels. Anyways, this could be a long-term solution if you don’t feel like targeting your ankle mobility, but not a great one. It's better to be able to squat without "plate crutches".

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At the beginning, I was very poor at ankle mobility. So deep squat was a problem. I was of course even worse at overhead squat and snatch.

I tried all the "mainstream" solutions : lifted heel, mobility, stretching, ... to no avail.

What actually helped is doing non-specific work and actually getting stronger overall. So core (real, tough, sweaty) work, chest work, leg work. Along with actually keeping doing the movements (squat, overhead, ...) but in a sage way (so no "at the edge" loads). With time, I became better to the three movements without implementing specific mobility/stretching work.

I am a strong believer (now, after personal experience) that lack of mobility can't be improved through "mainstream" mobility work. If you have a limitation, it means that somewhere there is a deep issue a play : weak muscle, muscle imbalances, ... And the "somewhere" can be pretty far remote the problematic area. If you read a bit about fascia you will understand the interconnections throughout the entire body and that you can't solve a local problem simply by looking locally.

I guess you now think "Ok but what do I do practically?". There isn't an easy answer. You have to know yourself, explore. Find positions in which you think "is it normal that I struggle this much for such position".

For example, myself, I found it weird that I was very weak to laterally raise my hip (like a dancer would do). So I worked on that. I also found it weard that I could deadlift/squat/... "heavy" weights but couldn't hold my newborn daughter in my arms for more than 5 minutes without my low back cramping. So I worked on that (activating the chest, the teres major, ...). And in the course of working on those "side issues", everything else went better.

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I’ll suggest seeing a physiotherapist to assess the issue because the issue may be due to somewhere else. Ankle is a rather small joint and usually issues there is a “by-product” of a bigger issue somewhere.

In addition to ankle mobilisation, you can also try foam rolling your calves before your squats to see if it helps. Calves plantarflex your ankle, and tightness may limit dorsiflexion.

You can also stop at a depth, just before your butt wink; or take a wider stance.

Take a look at your videos and look at how you “atand up” during your squat (concentric phase). Are you leading that movement with your lumbar spine? Is your lumbar spine going into extension when you start to stand up?

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  • For the person who downvoted, you should also state your case and explain what was wrong with my perspective on the matter. Don’t just downvote
    – Jun
    Sep 22 at 5:53

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