I’m not gonna name any names, but growing up I was always told I had cankles (my mom was pretty instrumental in teaching me the value of honesty; in hindsight, this was great because I was always able to identify any shortcomings I had. This meant I always had a clear vision of what to improve upon. So thanks, mom!). Cankles are slang for your calves and ankle joined as one– the term joins the two words “ankle” and “calf” just as the two parts of the body are seamless. Basically, this “condition” is characterized by a general lack of definition in the area.
My mom told me I should try to do what my cousin did to get rid of them: run minor distance marathons every day. This wasn’t likely, because, well, who really wants to do that? Thankfully, my cankle dilemma was solved by none other than picking things up and putting them down! So if you are plagued by the same ridiculous issue, I’m ready to share my pearls of wisdom with you.
In addition to my cankles, there were other parts of my legs I’d grown to hate (cellulite, I’m talking to you). So when my high school friend, Mike (@MikeMadonna on insta), introduced me to weightlifting, I was more than excited to work hard every leg day. He was pretty instrumental in teaching me one of the three major lifts in life, squatting. I’d never touched a barbell before this, ever. He taught me the cardinal rule: never skip leg day. At first, I made the same few common mistakes that every noob makes when they begin to squat. Some of those mistakes were corrected immediately, but overall my squat game has developed over time. It took a random personal trainer in a Crunch Fitness gym in D.C., and my jiu-jitsu coach Greg (@gdsouders) to really help me perfect it.
I know what you’re thinking: so what exactly do cankles have to do with squats? Well, yes, squats obviously work the quadriceps, the gluteus maximus, and the hamstrings (actually a group of 3 muscles: the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris). But squats also engage your soleus and gastrocnemius (YOUR CALVES!) just as any standing exercise does. These muscles are integral in providing stability and balance. The more mobility and flexibility in your ankle, the more the calf works during a movement. This information was instrumental in forming my brand new ankles.
And then I had a bright idea: AN OPTICAL ILLUSION! If I worked my calves and the rest of my legs aggressively, then the more they grew, the smaller my feet and ankles would appear. And I was totally right. I celebrated my ankle victory with a shiny new ankle bracelet. You can do this too. But first, you gotta be able to squat right. You can achieve a lot of growth with a million and one other exercises, but I’d argue that no lift is as beneficial to the legs (and even the rest of the body) as the quintessential squat. Not to mention, the squat holds its own in the category of functional strength.
A few common mistakes to avoid (and remember, I’m speaking from experience):
1. Pushing off the balls of your feet rather than through the floor with your heels.
If you’re squatting properly, then your feet should be glued to the floor (minus your toes, you should be able to wiggle these at any moment). There is always at least one uninformed person wearing running shoes while squatting in the gym. This is so bad! These shoes typically have a squishy cushion meant to aid you while you run. However, this is actually counterproductive when doing most major lifts. Of course, some support is good (weightlifting shoes actually have a small heel themselves), but these shoes can throw you off balance and ruin your form. They’ll have you pushing off of the balls of your feet, and your heels will stop making contact with the ground and you won’t even realize it. You’ll a) lose a firm foundation to squat on, and b) your body won’t connect with your mind on the motion you’re actually doing! I had to reteach myself to squat because of this– and I mean I restarted with a simple body-weight squat. The best way to re-learn to do this was barefoot because you are then able to feel the squat with your heels, if you know what I mean. I wear shoes now, but I won’t go near running shoes.
2. Your knees move inward/slightly buckle.
The knees moving inward or collapsing slightly during a squat sometimes means that your gluteal muscles are underdeveloped and are compromising by transferring the load because you want to complete the motion, but they aren’t strong enough to do so. Knees caving inward can also be related to ankle flexibility/range of motion, or hip instability, etc. Whatever the reason, wherever the weakness in the chain (pun intended), this puts a lot of stress on the knee. It can have you crying like a baby because it could lead to knee pain, ACL tears, ITBS, and you know, a generally ugly squat. My jiu-jitsu coach noticed that my knees were tracking slightly inside during my squat, and helped me fix it by reminding me to push my knees out slightly in the bottom of my squat (Thanks, Greg!).
3. Your body, including your back and your core, isn’t tight during your squat.
Greg fixed this one, too. If you take a deep breath in before you perform your squat, it will help keep tension in your back, chest, and core, essentially stabilizing the movement by creating rigidity. It’ll keep your chest up and your back strong, and help you squat that heavy bar even easier.
4. You aren’t going deep enough.
Ok. I think we’ve all heard it before: ASS TO GRASS! A good squat gets your hip joints parallel to your knees (or even below). If your weight is distributed over your feet right, and your squat form is correct, you should have no problem just chilling in a body-weight ass to grass form. Research shows that your gluteus maximus (read: ass) is 28% and 35% more engaged during a parallel or full-depth squat, respectively (Caterisano et al., 2002). If you wanna get those muscles working, then hit that 90°! Because we don’t do leg bends around here. And if you do, I’ll make fun of you.
Of course, I could go on all day about these and other mistakes that are made when squatting, and we can argue about their causes and solutions. And hey, I’m no expert here. People of different body types are going to squat differently, of course, due to pure anatomy and biomechanics, but I just wanted to share some tips I’ve learned that have helped me. I’ve included a diagram of proper squat form for good measure. Have at it, kids.