Tuesday 3 December 2013

Flexibility for deep squats and one legged squats

picture by trokilinochchi
Squatting down with both feet firmly on the ground (not on the balls of our feet) is a basic, everyday human posture which an increasingly large number of us, particularly in Western countries, have lost the ability to adopt. To a large extent, this is due to the prominence of chairs and sofas, Western toilets, and high heels.

Look at children however, and you’ll see squatting down for what it is: a basic, fundamental human position which comes very naturally.

Deep squats and one legged squats are basic movements in weight training and bodyweight training. However, many people find these positions difficult at first, mostly because of the demands they place on flexibility.

picture by FXShannon

The most common reason why people struggle to manage a deep squat or a one legged squat is that they have limited ankle dorsiflexion range of motion (the movement that brings the top of the foot towards the lower leg). Another common reason is poor adductors flexibility and hip mobility, as the wider your stance, the easier squatting down becomes (this is not something which will help with one legged squats though).

Ankle dorsiflexion

Ankle dorsiflexion can be assessed with a very simple test known as the modified lunge test:

Facing a wall, place your toes some distance from the wall, and bend your ankle to touch your knee to the wall. Try different distances from the wall until your knee can just about touch the wall, without your heel lifting up. It’s important that your toes and your knee remain in line, to save your knee joint.
Use a tape measure to measure how far you are from the wall.

Kasayama et al found that measurements in excess of 10.75cm for the right ankle and 11.25cm for the left ankle were necessary in order to maintain a feet-and-knees-together deep squatting position.

However, the study was conducted on Japanese subjects whose torso to femur ratio is genetically higher than that of Westerners. In my experience, you will need to be at least 14 cm from the wall on both feet in order to manage a deep squat with your feet together, or a one legged squat, without falling on your butt.

So how do you improve ankle dorsiflexion?
Well, there’s a range of dynamic and static exercises which will help…

First though, most people’s tendency is to cheat their way into a deep squat by caving their knees in. This causes the feet to pronate and increases range of motion, but it is particularly bad for your knees in the long term, especially if you do your squats weighted. For this reason, you should try to ensure your knee remains in line with your toes at all times when you’re squatting.

Dynamic stretches:

 You should try to include these as part of your warm up, and leave the static stretches for the cool down as there is increasing evidence that they weaken your muscles and impair performance.

You’ll need a dowel or a metal bar for this first stretch. This is to make sure your knees do not internally rotate, and that your toes and knees remain in line.
Simply place the bar on the outside of your toes and bend your knee so it would come past the other side of the bar, through its full range of motion. Do that 10 times on each leg.

gastrocnemius and soleus stretch

pistol squat
Squatting itself, provided you are well within your comfort zone, can also be an effective form of dynamic stretching. So doing a few deep bodyweight squats will help. Simply following the one-legged squat progressionwill increase your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion.

If you can get into a deep squat position with your heels on the floor and your legs apart, rock gently and shift your weight on one leg then the other. Do this 10 times.

This next exercise will also stretch your adductors, the muscles of the inner thigh, and it will help with sumo squats, or any kind of weighted squat for which you might lack adductor flexibility or hip mobility.
From a deep squat position, bring your right knee to your left foot, then bring it back and open up your thigh before returning to a neutral position. Do this 5 times on each leg.

Finally this split stance adductor mobilization exercise, switching your weight from one leg to the other, will also increase ankle flexibility. Do this 5 times on each leg again.

Static stretches

Here are a few static stretches to do at the end of your workout. Try to hold each of them for at least 20s.

This first stretch targets the gastrocnemius, the big calf muscle that crosses your knee joint, and attaches to your heel bone through the Achilles tendon. 

achilles tendon stretch
This stretch targets the soleus (which is lies just beneath the gastrocnemius), and you might also feel a deeper stretch in the Achilles tendon.

A simple adductors stretch which will also target both soleus and gastrocnemius. 

Finally, here’s a simple hamstring and adductors stretch which you should also incorporate in your cool down. 

Squatting down

Use every occasion you have throughout the day to spend some time in a deep squat position, until it becomes comfortable and second nature. Aim for 5 min a day to start with, then start assuming the position as a normal resting position when watching TV, relaxing, etc.


  1. Very helpful exercises, thank you!!

  2. When doing the static soleus stretch above, I actually can't feel a stretch at all before my ankle stops moving. I instead feel pressure at the front of the ankle, and am unable to go further. What's going on, and what does this mean for me in a program like Start Bodyweight?

    1. Well, some people might be limited by their skeletal structure, and might have limited posterior talar mobility, particularly following an ankle injury. This mobility can usually be restored by a physiotherapist, but I'm afraid I do not know enough about the condition to be of much help to you. Here's an article about it: http://www.bsmpg.com/Blog/bid/78463/Limited-Dorsiflexion-Check-the-Talus
      Have you done the modified lunge test suggested on this page? and what were your results? If less than 14 cm, it might well mean that you will never be able to achieve a one legged squat or deep squat unless you seek restorative treatment by a professional.

    2. Yep, tried it. Looking at more like 7.5 cm, and I need ~1.25 cm heel lift to pull of the 14 cm (standing on a book). Bummer deal.

    3. I don't know... I wouldn't despair... 7.5cm seems awfull limited if you've never injured that ankle. I would go and get assessed by a physio if I were you. In the end it will be worth it, and you'll be more aware of your limitations. Also, if it is truly a skeletal limitation, get some weightlifting shoes: they have a raised heel which will allow you to get into a deep squat position regardless.

  3. I'm not flexible enough to do most of these stretches... especially the deep squat one, I can't get my foot flat on the ground

    1. Work at the ones you can do so far... Flexibility is something that takes time, but it pays off in dividends in the long run.

  4. Hey El Diablo, I have a question on basic squat form. I keep seeing progressions on various sites (yours included I think) which suggest keeping the back straight or working up to keeping the back straight. I had always assumed that this meant near-vertical, and have some really hard balance issues doing so. I've only ever been able to do that or approach doing that during a barbell back squat, in that case the load serves as a counterweight. But I see in the last picture on this article that you're kind of leaning forward, it's hard to tell if your spine is straight or not, but to my point; is it OK to have a straight spine during a deep squat but for the back to not be perpendicular or approaching perpendicular to the floor?

  5. Hey mmishou. Here's what I really believe. When you don't have any weight load on your back, it is OKAY to lean forward because it helps with balance when you are trying to get your first close squat or pistol squat, but after you get the movement pattern, gradually work to lean a little less... In my opinion, the only time you should keep mind of your back staying straight is when you put load on your back like back squat, front squat, etc. That's because when you lean forward, you are exposing your disc... It's fine when it's only your bodyweight, but with heavy load while your disc is exposed, hello bulged disc.... work on straight back when only squatting to parallel WITH load on your back.. when trying to get to your first pistol squat? it's okay to lean forward.. just make sure your knee track properly with your toes and don't let your knees cave in.

  6. No chance of me getting 14 cm because I have massive feet for my height. I'm fine with deep squats, it's just my foot:leg ratio.