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The Long Road To Squat

The Long Road To Squat
Reading Time: 5 minutes

For as long as I can remember I’ve had problems getting into a full depth squat. So long that the definition of “full depth” has changed and only made me further away from my goal.

Let Me Explain

You see, for years the advice was to “only squat to parallel” so as not to put any undue strain on the knees. Which is, quite frankly, rubbish. Of course at the time none of us knew this, so it can kind of be forgiven.

Anyway, the full depth squat is much deeper than this. In fact, in full range of motion you should be able to get your bum to rest on the back of your calves. Yes, really.

I, on the other hand, struggle to get to a ¾ squat. When I do get to a deeper squat position, it is through severe compensation in my back with a forward lean. How I sit and stand up in my daily life I have no idea. Ok, I do know how – through maladaptation – but I’ll get to that later.

My almost-parallel squat. Leaning my torso forwards allows me to “fake it”, but is risky for my back and means my elbows drop.


The True Full Depth Squat

Watch a toddler at play and you’ll see the very natural full depth squat position within, I’d guess, a few minutes. Children will rarely bend at the waste to get to something on the floor, they’ll squat down. In fact, they can quite happily play with an object on the floor while sitting in the bottom of the squat.

A child at play in the natural squat.

In more primitive cultures, the squat is actually a sitting position. Used to rest, the squat is a perfect position to unload the legs, back and glutes.

With full mobility in the ankles, hips and knees, the deep squat should be comfortable and easy, but in our modern lives this has become a increasingly more difficult to achieve.

Whether it’s spending too much time in a seated position (tightening the hips, hamstrings and calves and causing a slumped upper body position and limited back mobility) or wearing poor footwear (again tightening the calves and also the achilles tendon), our modern squat position is much more restricted than the free movement we see in children and less westernised cultures.

My Slightly More Complex Issue

Not wanting to be outdone, I’ve gone a step further in my squat depth deficit. You see, I’m a postural mess.

My recent visit to see Caroline Kremer had already made me more aware of my posture and the areas that need work, but little did I know just how much it was affecting my exercise.

With increasing frustration at not being able to participate in CrossFit competitions outside of my usual training, and being limited at my strength in lifts such as the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk because of my poor squat depth, I booked in to see Joseph O’Connor of Forge Physio.

Following a few tests to eliminate other factors, Joe quickly identified the main reason for my high squat position as ankle mobility caused by tightness in my calves. He told me that in order to get just to parallel you need 22 degrees of dorsi flexion (bringing the foot towards your shin). I have 0 degrees. Yep… zero degrees.

The forward lean in my standing position is referred to as a “sway back” posture, and guess what… the calf muscles control sway. Joe explained to me that by standing and walking in this position my calves are always switched on, basically my calves are clinging on desperately to stop me falling flat on my face. Yeah, classy.

Sway posture on the left, putting strain on my calves as they work to keep me standing.


Now What To Do?

The bottom line is that in order to get more ankle mobility I need to learn to switch my calves off. By constantly working to hold me upright they have become seriously over-used and over-tight. Joe showed me the correct standing posture I would need to work to achieve, and also how to walk without leaning my weight forwards onto my toes – simple things that everyone does, but with nearly 30 years of standing and walking this way I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

He also advised me that I would need to be vigilant in breaking bad habits where I go up onto my toes; until recently I had always climbed stairs on the balls of my feet rather than planting my foot flat on the step. Reaching for things in cupboards, standing up and sitting down, have all historically been done with my heels off the ground. This is the “maladaptation” I eluded to earlier; meaning a trait that is, or has become, more harmful than helpful.

My usual cheat for reaching in the cupboards! Right, I need to concentrate to keep my heels down.

The final piece to my squat puzzle is a concentrated amount of time stood on a slant board. By putting my calves in a sustained stretch (at least 5 minutes accumulated over the course of a day) there would be an opportunity for positive adaptations to occur, in the form of the soft tissues of my calves to start to release.

My new default veg-chopping position! The slant board helps me get a lengthened stretch on my super tight calves.

Soon after I will also begin to stand on the board with bent knees, working on my squat depth. At the moment I can only achieve a slight bend when my feet are on the slant board.

The Long And The Short Of It

Perhaps optimistically, Joe advised that, with consistent focus, I could get myself to 10 degrees of movement in my super stiff ankles in a 12 week period. With 22 degrees being the ultimate goal, this means at least 6 months of waiting, and stretching.

I hope I can get there…

Watch this space!

Georgina Spenceley
Georgina Spenceley


  1. misszippy1
    10th September 2014 / 12:25 pm

    This is really cool! You are not alone at all in the poor ankle flexibility–I think most of us Western adults have the same issues. I know I can’t do a deep squat with my heels down, even though I know it would be great for my running. You have inspired me to get better at it!

    • fitcetera
      15th September 2014 / 1:49 pm

      Thank you! That’s really lovely to hear 🙂 I hope your hard work pays off and you get that deep squat too!

  2. tessietickle
    16th September 2014 / 7:13 am

    This is fascinating Georgina, I’ve been walking up stairs on the balls of my feet too and tip toe for EVERYTHING. Granted, I am 4ft10 so can’t reach anything at all ever but reading this has made me think about my posture too. I have tight calves, hamstrings and glutes, have been to physio and I know my hamstrings are terribly weak so got work to do there. Very interesting blog thanks for sharing!

    • fitcetera
      16th September 2014 / 7:19 am

      I’m so glad you found it interesting! It’s weird isn’t it, how we do these things without thinking? Lots of glute bridges (incl. single leg raises) for you then? Steep hill climbs/sprints would help strengthen your glutes and hammies too!

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