Why your Olympic-style back squats don't feel right.
Squats! Raise your hand if you love them... Okay nevermind...
Regardless, a high-bar back squat is a cornerstone for many people working out with free weights on leg-day. A low and stable high-bar squat requires balance, strength, and mobility. If any of those three are out of place it can make squats harder than they need to be. With the high-bar squat, there is one commonly overlooked issue that people need to address.
That issue is ankle mobility. During a squat, it's inevitable that your knees will move forward and it's paramount that you have the ankle mobility and strength to accommodate that movement. The movement where the shin and foot get closer together is called dorsal flexion. There are generally two common problems associated with inhibition of dorsal flexion:
Overactive calves. The main supporting muscle during dorsal flexion is the shin muscles. Normally when we move our shin forward in the squat movement, the calves are supposed to relax to accommodate the movement. However, due to the calf's common high use in daily life and often lack of stretching involved with them, it can lead to very tight and overactive calves that pull at the shin muscles preventing them from doing their job.
A common exercise that I employ for the overactive calves is called the standing calf stretch.
You begin by getting one of your feet as high as you can on a pole or rack. You then follow that by holding onto the rack with both hands, lifting the other leg, and bringing the hips towards the rack.
You can also change this stretch by keeping the foot where it is, bringing the other leg back into a position similar to a lunge, and pushing the front knee forward towards the elevated foot.
Both of these stretches will help a lot with getting the calves to relax.
The next stretch involves getting the joints themselves to open up. A lot of times people feel a pinching in the front of their shins and that's because the bones on the front of the feet and shin are hitting each other. So by doing this next stretch we can get the front of the ankle to open up more. To solve this we need to target the Talus joint. This stretch is called the Talus Distraction Stretch.
First, you grab a very strong band that's between 3/4-1", tie the band to a rack or pole at the lowest possible point. Next, grab a box step that's about half a foot tall and place it several feet away from the rack or pole. Next, you want to loop one leg through the band and place it on the box step while the other leg rests behind. Your legs at this point should again resemble a lunge. Place the band on top of the foot so it doesn't rest on the ankle.
Grab the knee with both hands and bring the knee as far forward without lifting the heel. Hold this forward position for four seconds and then bring it back. Repeat this 20 times and then switch legs.
Once you've done 20 sets on both sides you're done.
Hopefully, with these two groups of stretches, you can start working with different mobilities in different movements with your ankles and turn your Olympic back squat into a fun and confident experience.