Ankle mobility: What you need to know

By Paul Lundgren, MS, CSCS, USAW

Have you ever had any injury in one body part that has affected your ability to complete certain actions with fluidity that might not use that body part exclusively? Imagine having to try and play or lift every day with a sprained or braced ankle. You would be unable to function properly during simple tasks, such as getting low enough in a football stance, coming out of the blocks for a sprint, or performing a deep squat in the weight room.

It all comes down to the effects of overcompensation in our bodies. Think of our bodies like a chain of interconnected links, where each joint is a link in the chain. This chain is referred to as the “Kinetic Chain.” If one of those links is damaged in any way or isn’t performing the way that it should the entire chain is affected. Strength and conditioning coaches, sport scientists, and bio-mechanists have concluded that our body’s joints should alternate between mobile and stable joints.

How Ankles Impact the Kinetic Chain

Our ankles are often considered the lowest mobile link in that chain when completing most athletic actions. So any dysfunction that is affecting our ankles, lack of mobility or injury, mainly affects the ability of our knees and hips to act properly, but as the effects move up the chain each joint above is also affected.

How is this shown in the weight room?

One of the most utilized lifts in almost every strength and conditioning program is the squat. Proper performance of the squat is essential to maximizing the benefits that it offers. Proper technique on any variation of the squat starts with the backward movement of the hips while keeping a flat back and big, upright chest. During this movement the individual is flexing their knees to drop the hips towards the ground. The individuals body weight should be balanced over the center of both of their feet if not a little towards their heels. Proper depth is when the squat is performed to get the top of the thighs at or below parallel.

There are a few limiting factors that affect almost all individuals that perform a squat. Ankle and hip mobility play a large role in determining whether or not a squat can be performed to proper depth or not. Most individuals understand the importance of increasing hip mobility as it relates not only to the squat but also to their own individual athletic ability, while ankle mobility often times goes overlooked in regards to performance of the squat and other athletic movements.

Like it is stated above, the biggest effect of poor ankle mobility is seen in the performance of a deep squat. This doesn’t mean that ankle mobility doesn’t affect our ability to perform any other lift, but if one lift is affected the most it is the squat. Consider again the chain of our body. If the ankle is supposed to be a mobile joint, that means that the knee is supposed to be stable and our hip is the next mobile joint in the chain. If we have poor ankle mobility this means that our knee has to increase mobility and our hip has to increase stability to overcompensate for the loss of mobility in our ankles. This will show up with increased forward knee movement and lack of hip flexion. This will shift the weight of the squat towards the front of the foot which will cause the lifter to be off balance and not be under complete control during the movement which can cause the lift to fail.

How can we improve ankle mobility?

As with any other body part, the ankle can be stretched and worked to improve in its performance. Performing exercises that require the ankle to be put through its full range of motion (ROM) will help to increase the range of motion that it can perform. Body weight deep squats, calf raises, and lunges that are performed with an emphasis on keeping the heel of the foot down while getting into full ankle flexion (and extension for calf raises) are good examples of lifts that will help increase ankle mobility. Soft tissue manipulation such as massage, foam rolling, or trigger point treatment with a ball can be used to help increase the elasticity of the ankle to be put through its ROM easier. These exercises are best to be performed before any lifting during the warm up. Other exercises include calf and ankle stretches and strengthening exercises. The ankle can be stretched using an inclined surface or up against a wall similar to calve stretches before running and walking. By flexing and extending the knee the ankle will feel a stretch on both the front and back side. Using bands for resistance flexion and extension (plantarflexion and dorsiflexion) can be performed to help strengthen the muscles responsible for those two ankle movements and help increase the elasticity in those muscles to make each movement easier (Fig. A and B). These exercises will also help long term by preventing injuries of the ankles including sprains, strains, and tendon tears.

It all starts at the bottom

The ankle is often overlooked because it is not a large body part that is thought of when a complex athletic movement or lift is completed. No matter what movement is completed, as long as the movement is completed on your feet and on the ground, the ankle is always involved in the proper performance of the move and should be trained to help increase that performance. Stretching regularly and having proper technique during weight lifting might be all the stretching that is needed to train the ankles, but if you have ankle mobility restrictions than performing some extra exercises might be necessary.

Fig. A. The foot is moving toward the body.

Dorsiflexion

Fig. B. The foot is moving away from the body.

plantarflexion