I have a secret. My heels don’t touch the floor. I’ve been a bit of a tip-toe walker since I was a kid, and no amount of squatting, stretching, coercing, or cursing will get my heels to the floor when I squat. My nice lifter shoes won’t even do the trick, although they DO make my heels come closer to the ground, there’s still an ever-so-slight air gap between the bottoms of my feet and the floor during squats.
I’ve been relegated to squatting with my heels on plates. And that works, but I don’t always have a plate with me. Take for instance those functional fitness moments, like unloading the dishwasher, when you just want to squat and put a stack of pans in their proper cabinet. When there’s no plate to squat on, I end up doing a modified tippy-toe, teeter-totter version of a squat, which is liable land me flat on my butt. I promise it’s not pretty.
About Those Heels
So why is it so hard to get them to the ground? The simple answer is this: because it doesn’t start with your heels.
In CrossFit we work on all sorts of flexibility and mobility. We begin our time in the box with warm-ups that focus on flexibility, mobility, and getting our muscles and joints ready to perform. Throughout our wods we focus on those as well, and when we’re done pushing through a workout, we focus on allowing our bodies to cool down and recover, again focusing on maintaining and pushing for added flexibility and mobility. Why? Because flexibility and mobility improve our performance and help to prevent injury.
It’s easy for the big things to get our attention. Glutes, hamstrings, our entire posterior chain. However, it’s also easy for us to forget things like our ankles.
Ankles, You Say?
Yep, the good ol’ ankles. They’re there to support us when we run, squat, walk, and everything in between. They take a good beating, but it’s easy to forget them. And it’s easy to WANT to skip over them, because, pfft, they’re just ankles, right?
Jeff Kuhland of Breaking Muscle refers to the ankles as our foundation—“stability joints that must very quickly absorb force, then help shift and stabilize weight for the next movement.” That sounds about right, when you consider everything we do in the CrossFit box.
Let’s talk about DORSIFLEXION and PLANTARFLEXION. (Trust me, it’s way less awkward than saying, “Let’s talk all talk about politics.”)
Flexion and Stuff
Our ankles are hinge joints, meaning they flex back and forth on a single plane of motion. Flexing your foot forward so that your toes are pointed is plantarflexion. Flexing your foot back into a flat-footed position is dorsiflexion. A lot of muscles and tendons are involved to make everything work seamlessly, and this is where things can stiffen up. Just like your other muscles and tendons, when these are overworked or ignored, they will tighten up. And that means it’s up to us to work their flexibility and mobility—just like any other muscle group.
Dorsiflexion, specifically, is extremely important because when we are able to keep our heels in contact with the floor, while being able to slightly lift our toes, we are able to place the tibia in a more forward position with regard to the foot. This is integral to the efficient application of force. In other words, mobility and flexibility in our ankles—being able to get our heels to the ground—allows us to move our bodies and shift weight more efficiently.
Get Those Heels to the Floor
No one is disagreeing that we need to get our heels to the floor. (However, you’ll hear me whining just about EVERY time we have to do the squatty-bar-hold-heel-stretch-thing, because, ohhhh, it hurts. Ok, Coach Carl, it doesn’t hurt per se, but it really, really aches. A lot.)
Anyway, we need to get them to the floor, but there are a few reasons we could be struggling:
- Ankle and calf flexibility. Work on those daily.
- Restriction in the ankle joint. There could be scar tissue if previous injuries have occurred.
- Posture problems. Yep, from the top to the bottom, everything plays a part, so we have to check ourselves. Even slouching at work can affect our ankles and cause them to flex.
- Lower body injuries. They don’t just have to be ankle-related. Knee or hip injuries can contribute to or exacerbate ankle issues.
If you know you have poor ankle flexibility that’s affecting your lifts, it’s time to start focusing on them and giving them their due stretch time. Here are a few ideas:
- Foam roll your calves and tendons to loosen them—not just once, but regularly. Once you start to gain some flexibility, move to a firmer surface, like PVC or a lacrosse ball for rolling.
- Perform sitting and banded stretches, focusing specifically on the calf and ankle areas.
- Practice range of motion movements, such as full circles and reverse circles with each foot.
- Work on stability exercises like standing and balancing on one leg for short—and then longer—lengths of time.
- Practice jumps and hops. Work on forward, sideways, and backwards.
- Build your power by practicing box jumps.
- Stretch heels by standing on a stair or other elevated surface and gently lowering your heels below the level of your toes. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute before switching.
There are many exercises you can do to loosen the ankle and calf muscles and ultimately get those heels to the ground—even if you have seemingly stubborn ankles like mine! Your CrossFit Cerberus coaches will show you exactly what to do, but the key is to keep working the flexibility and mobility, and don’t give in and start thinking of them as “just the ankles.”
They’re a pretty big deal; after all they’ve got to support us as we do some hella awesome wods!