I had my five-year high school reunion last weekend and if I only learned one thing, it’s that people actually read my blog posts. Yay! Unfortunately, I think people only read these for my witty, sarcastic comments and hilarious photos because most of the people at my reunion last night don’t give a damn about ankle mobility.
On another important note, ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas is in full-swing and I was able to watch Elf and The Santa Clause last night.
So for those interested, here’s the short, short story on ankle joint anatomy. Known as the talocrural joint, this region is where the foot and leg meet and form a synovial hinge-joint (like that of a door). There are four ligaments that support the joint, three of them all hanging out together on the lateral side.
There are some other joints in the area, one of them being the subtalar joint, which doesn’t play a role in dorsiflexion and planterflexion. However, it does play a role in inversion and eversion, and consequently pronation and supination.
Most ankle range-of-motion tests will reveal about 10-25 degrees of passive ankle dorsiflexion. Anything above ~30 degrees is usually considered hypermobile. Unfortunately, these tests are typically done seated with the knees extended. A wall ankle mobilization will probably reveal more than that if your mobility is decent and a deep squat requires much more than 20 degrees of dorsiflexion.
Why Do I Need Ankle Mobility?
I’m going to try and summarize my thoughts on ankle mobility really quickly.
First, ankle mobility is imperative to bilateral and unilateral squatting variations, but also just life in general. If your ankle mobility sucks and you jump down/fall from a high place, you run the risk of either injuring your ankle or injuring something further up the kinetic chain (e.g. the knee a la the joint-by-joint approach). A good example of this is basketball players. Basketball players are almost always wearing high-top sneakers and, more often than not, some type of wrap or brace at the ankle. This restricts ankle movement and your body, being the smart cookie that it is, will gain that mobility from somewhere else in the body, in many cases the knee.
Second, the mobility demand on the ankle in a squat (the common example of the need for ankle mobility) is dependent on your anatomical structure. For instance, in a case where two men (very strong, Old Spice, man’s man type men) are squatting and have exhausted their hip flexion range-of-motion, the one with longer femurs (*cough cough* Phil) will need more ankle dorsiflexion to keep his center of gravity over his feet.
As another example, let’s say we take these same two manly guys and put them through a low-bar, powerlifting-style squat. The one with the longer torso (*cough cough* me) will be able to shift back further with less ankle dorsiflexion. (That’s assuming identical hip flexion ROM and squat depth.)
The takeaway from this is that your anatomical structure matters when it comes to mobility demands!
Third, we don’t get much ankle dorsiflexion in our everyday lives. From controlling the gas and brake pedals with our feet to the heel lifts in our “exercise sneakers” to the insane amount of slow jogging (i.e. slogging) that we do as a society, we’re constantly relying on our plantarflexors to work overtime. And it’s true what they say, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” That goes for ankle range-of-motion.
So, your ankle mobility might suck for a number of reasons. First, your calves might be tight. Or you might have a stability deficit somewhere in your kinetic chain. Or a previous injury could have left you with a tight capsule. Or you could have an impingement issue that’s preventing you from fully dorsiflexing.
How To Test and Improve your Ankle Mobility
Of course, we would only need to test our ankle mobility if we notice a deficit in the FMS or something similar. We can’t rely on a squat or single-leg movement pattern to directly test ankle mobility first because we must rule out mobility as the issue.
For this, we’ll use a standing or half-kneeling wall ankle mobilization.
If there is a true mobility deficit at the ankle, than we must do some quality soft tissue work on the area, do some mobilizations, and maybe throw some bands in for fun.
If we can rule out mobility as an issue, then we know that the problem is stability-related.
If the problem is the anterior-core, then we can fix this in the short-term by using a counterweight in our squat pattern to help keep our weight shifted back. Then we should spend some time hammering our core until we can drive cars across our abs.
In a similar way, when your glutes don’t work optimally to extend the hip, the calves will attempt to pick up the slack. Chronically tonic calves doesn’t make for good ankle mobility.
Needless to say, if you’re squatting or testing mobility and there is pain present, you should probably
rub some dirt in it and stop whining see a professional.
A common compensation pattern with limited ankle dorsiflexion is pronation of the foot, which includes eversion (a task completed by the subtalar joint). This pronation causes the foot to flatten out and throws the ankle into a slightly plantarflexed state, which I suspect gives the ankle more available ROM. This is similar to a case where somebody uses plates to elevate their heels in a squat and is able to gain ROM. But this could also be an ankle mobility problem or a glute weakness problem.
Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, functional ankle mobility and tested mobility can be quite different. Whereas your dorsiflexion might be limited to ~20 degrees when seated and passively tested, a wall ankle mobilization might reveal a hypermobile-esque ROM.
So I’ll sum up with some bullet points:
- Good ankle mobility will protect your knees from damage and give you the freedom to enjoy life and train without worrying about injury or having to adjust your exercises.
- Poor ankle mobility has become a hallmark of Western society. However, so has poor core stability and you should distinguish before programming.
- You can help yourself by wearing minimalist/lower-heeled sneakers and shoes where possible and by doing more full sprints and less “slogging.”
- Spend more time in positions that require ankle dorsiflexion (i.e. deep squat and pistol squat variations).
- Make sure to include soft tissue work too, because soft tissue work is awesome.
- Whenever you’re doing ankle mobilizations, be sure to avoid pronation of the foot!
So that’s about all I have to say about ankle mobility. I think that ankle mobility is a really clear-cut example of a recent trend in the industry where we’re learning that mobility problems are often stability problems in disguise. Especially when it comes to the core.
You don’t always need to stretch your calves, hamstrings, or lats to death in order to loosen them up. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of building stability in the right areas so that the mobile areas can do their jobs and be mobile! I was going to end this post with an embarrassing photo of Phil, but I’ll just leave you with this scene from The Santa Clause instead. Enjoy.