Ankle mobility begins with much more than a calf stretch. Ankle mobility is the foundation of so many functional movements we do inside and out of the gym. Think about some of the most basic movements like walking. Walking requires at least 10 degrees of functional dorsiflexion, while stair climbing another basic movement requires 20-25 degrees. In light of these facts, ankle mobility is absolutely essential for optimizing athletic performance. Without the optimal range of motion in this joint, you are truly undervaluing how much more efficient and graceful your squat can become and the power you can generate. So how can you improve your ankle mobility, so you can strengthen the core movements in your workout? You're about to find out.
What Is Ankle Mobility
Ankle mobility refers to the mobility and flexion in the joints of your ankle and the surrounding muscles and tendons. With greater ankle mobility comes greater flexibility and range of motion to complete compound movements, such as squats, cleans, and snatch with greater depth.
The ankle joint is comprised of a series of different mechanics. The lower leg and the foot and allows the lower limb to interact with the ground. It bears both compressive and impactful force while we are walking while also offering a high degree of stability and flexibility when compared to the hip or knee.
The foot and ankle complex is made up of three different joints and can perform six different motions: plantarflexion, dorsiflexion, inversion, eversion, pronation, and supination. For the purposes of this discussion, our focus will remain on dorsiflexion [R].
What Is Dorsiflexion?
Dorsiflexion occurs in the sagittal plane (think: walking forward) and is the result of the articulation of the tibia on the foot, known as a hinge joint. Several studies have shown that the overall motion of dorsiflexion moves from 10- 20 degrees, this variance can be attributed to geographical, cultural, and differences in day to day activities across populations.
All joints and muscles in the body operate differently in open chain (non-weight bearing) versus closed chain positions (weight bearing), as we function in life and around the gym. Lack of motion in any joint in the body will increase compensation patterns and leave us more susceptible to injury.
With reduced dorsiflexion during functional squatting we will see increased knee valgus (or medial collapse), decreased quad, and soleus activation. We will also see increased forward lean and lumbar flexion during movements such as the overhead squat, the clean, and snatch. When the tibia can’t translate forward it also decreases our ability to create force through the hips and drive heavy loads out of the bottom of the squat. Basics physics confirms that force had its greatest potential when applied up and down as opposed to force that is displaced forwards or backward. [R].
Is Your Ankle Really The Problem?
The first order of business is to make sure your ankle is actually the culprit and source in your functional movement discrepancies. Find a wall and place your big toe four finger lengths away from the wall. In a half kneeling position begin to lunge forward and see if you can touch the knee to the wall without your heel rising off the ground. If you cannot touch your knee to the wall ankle mobility is likely at fault. This limitation is either the result of decreased tissue length OR decreased capsular mobility (the amount of play the joint has).
How To Improve Ankle Mobility: Ankle Mobility Exercises
1. The Goblet Squat
One of the most common ankle mobility exercises is the goblet squat.
- With a comfortable load think (a kettlebell weight you might use in a workout), rest your elbows on your knees.
- Work on driving the ankles forward at 10-15 seconds intervals until you can sit comfortably in the squat.
- This might take some time. If this causes you pain in the ankle drop the weight of the kettlebell or begin with body weight.
2. Banded Self Mobilization
Another fantastic ankle mobility exercises to help improve ankle mobility is through banded self-mobilization.
- Fix a resistance band to the rig and place the unattached side around your ankle just below your medial and lateral malleoli (the bone that stick out around the ankle).
- Keep your leg relaxed and your heel down while rocking back and fourth and using your body weight to increase space within the capsule. This exercise is ideal for those that feel there is a ‘block’ when they attempt to dorsiflex.
- If you can’t make enough headway on your own with this you can connect with a local PT to have them mobilize your ankle to move away form that ‘blocked’ feeling.
3. Lateral Tibial Glide Self Mobilization
For the coach or athlete not trained in manual therapy another effective ankle mobility exercise to increase ankle mobility is lateral tibial glide.
- The athlete will place their foot on a box, and their hand on their knee and will push forward and outward while rocking back and fourth.
- This approach is a little more aggressive than the banded self-mobilization.
- If this is where your ankle restriction originates from, it should begin to restore dorsiflexion quickly.
4. Ankle Eccentrics
- The athlete should begin on a plate or low box by doing a calf raise up not the balls of both feet.
- Then, lift one leg off the plate and focus on the lowering down of the planted foot or eccentric motion. Keeping the knee straight on the way down and then bending it forward into a deep knee stretch.
- In doing so, both the gastroc and soleus (the muscle under the gastroc) will be influenced by this eccentric loading.
- During eccentric movements muscles and tendons lengthen towards their end range, as the tissue reaches its terminal length, this ceases and allows the muscle to decelerate.
This ankle mobility exercise promotes maximum tissue lengthening at terminal dorsiflexion to help increase ankle mobility [R, R].
How To Stabilize The Ankle
Stability and mobility work hand in hand. Once ankle dorsiflexion is regained, it’s important to begin stabilizing the ankle to regain neuromuscular control within the new range.
SINGLE LEG MED-BALL TOSS: Have the athlete stand on one leg on a stable or unstable surface using a weighted med ball while tossing it back and forth.
SINGLE-LEG RDL: Using a dumbbell lower it down to a comfortable position within the limits of your hamstring flexibility while maintaining a single leg stance.
Ankle Mobility: Takeaway
Many athletes spend weeks, months even, using mobility techniques that do not address the root cause of their dorsiflexion issues (foam rolling, stretching, etc). First, decide if your ankle is really what is holding you back. Then, ask yourself if this a capsular issue (decreased motion within the joint) or the result of decreased tissue length (tight calf). Part of being an athlete is understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing and what your body responds to. Decreased mobility in the ankle, especially dorsiflexion limitations can severely alter your mechanics and decrease your ability to achieve a full depth squat. If one joint is limited it must take up motion at another joint leading to injury down the road.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Macrum E, Bell DR, Boling M, Lewek M, Padua D. Effect of limiting ankle-dorsiflexion range of motion on lower extremity kinematics and muscle-activation patterns during a squat. J Sport Rehabil. 2012;21(2):144-50.
Brockett, Claire L and Graham J Chapman. “Biomechanics of the ankle”Orthopaedics and trauma vol. 30,3 (2016): 232-238.
Lastayo, Paul C., et al. “Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Their Contribution to Injury, Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Sport.” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, vol. 33, no. 10, 2003, pp. 557–571., doi:10.2519/jospt.2003.33.10.557.
O'Neill, Seth et al. “WHY ARE ECCENTRIC EXERCISES EFFECTIVE FOR ACHILLES TENDINOPATHY?” International journal of sports physical therapyvol. 10,4 (2015): 552-62.