How to Get Lower – is it your Achilles?

Posted on: October 22nd 2014

Q. What is the best way to stretch the Achilles tendon to help with getting lower?

– anonymous

A.  AHA!! This is a trick question! I can give you stretches to lengthen your calf (of which the achilles is one of the attachment points), but it is my very strong suspicion that FLEXIBILITY IS NOT YOUR LIMITING FACTOR.

Take it from me – I used to blame my lack of ability to squat fully on short achilles tendons myself. This coming from someone who competed at a high level in various sports, including division 1 NCAA rowing, and who was a lifelong gym-goer. I thought I had pretty strong legs, and just naturally short tendons.

Then somehow, magically, after about a year of derby, I noticed something fascinating. I could squat. All the way. 90 degrees plus.

And guess what? I did absolutely no calf stretches (because I am a bad, bad person. Tight calf muscles continue to plague me to this day and are probably the source of a number of other aches and pains I complain of, but I sometimes fail to follow my own advice… BAD Booty! BAD!).

So where did this mysterious new flexibility come from? It came from improved leg strength. 

I said earlier that I was a lifelong gym rat. So what was I doing wrong before derby? Thinking back to the old routines I used to follow in the gym, I did a lot of leg press machine and leg extension machine work. Turns out this didn’t do a lot for my functional, weight-bearing squatting ability. I also ran, and did some inline skating (I know, I know. It was pre-conversion..!)

What changed when I started skating? 

  1. I started doing bodyweight-only exercises more – squats, lunges, etc., which mimic and train the muscles needed for derby stance. I added plyometric exercises to this frequently.  (I did zero leg extensions or leg presses – and I probably never will again).
  2. I spent a lot of time on skates at practice (and skating outside) working in a squat / derby stance position. 
  3. I also added quite a bit of stationary bike to my routine during my first year, in order to build up my endurance for jamming. Side benefit: leg strength.
  4. When I did go to the gym, I learned to do proper, olympic-style barbell squats and deadlifts. These can seem intimidating, until you’ve been trained. Then you’re strutting around the gym like a bad-ass lifting huge plates… :)

I should mention that all times during the above, I practiced the best possible form. I have pretty good body awareness from my history of dance, sports, and coaching. If you don’t, then you need to spend good time in front of a mirror watching your squat and lunge form as you do these exercises.  You can also check out my Proper Form video for some insights on that. Fail to use good form and the time you spend exercising will be somewhat wasted.

I have seen many new skaters encounter this issue, and come up with the same answer (“my ankles don’t bend that way”). In every case, I can tell you with great certainty, that as a coach I was able to take a very quick look at their movement patterns and skating, and conclude that their issue was lack of leg strength, not flexibility. I say this because I know that (speaking from experience), we like to think that we are different and special, and it is truly hard to feel the limitation that is actually holding you back, because it doesn’t feel that way. So I encourage you NOT to dismiss this advice as being “not for you.” It’s totally for you. Pinky Swear.

In summary – do not blame your body or make excuses around it for your inability to squat as low as you would like to. Push yourself to overcome this by strengthening your quads, hamstrings and glutes instead.

Back to the original question – If you DO want to stretch your calves (it’s a good idea – I am working on this myself), here are the two you need to do – a straight leg stretch for your gastrocnemius, and a bent-knee stretch for your soleus (the two main muscles that make up your big juicy calf). 


(I would provide credit to this image, but it seems that just about every physiotherapy and chiropractor’s office online has used it without credit in the past so…)

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