Why is ankle mobility important?
The ankle joint is considered to be a mobile joint in the body, but is often prone to stiffness. One of the causes for reduced ankle mobility that I see in the clinic is due to an inadequate rehabilitation protocol following a previous ankle sprain. Another cause is simply due to our sedentary lifestyle. We don’t move enough and that means that the “mobile” joints in the body end becoming, well, less mobile.
Reduced ankle mobility can affect your squat and even increase your risk of injury in the gym. If you experience any of these issues while you squat, it’s vital that you check your ankles.
Arch of the foot collapsing
Knees rotating and buckling inwards
Unable to get your quads parallel to the ground
Rounding of the lumbar spine (low back)
Unable to keep upper body from falling forwards
The “Joint-By-Joint” Concept
The “Joint-By-Joint Concept” was developed by FMS founder Gray Cook (Physical Therapist) and Mike Boyle (Strength & Conditioning Coach). In a nutshell, the concept says that the body is a stack of joints arranged in an alternating pattern of stability and mobility. Each joint / region has a specific function, and when dysfunction occurs that usually leads to compensation by the joints around it, which ultimately leads to pain and injury.
A mobile joint or region of the body is considered to be able to move fairly equally in three planes of movement. A stable joint or region tends to favor just one plane of movement, and might allow a couple of degrees of movement in the other planes.
Starting from the bottom of the chain and working our way up, you’ll see the alternating pattern of stability and mobility:
Lumbar spine (low back) – Stable
Thoracic spine (mid back) – Mobile
Lower cervical spine (neck) – Stable
Upper cervical spine – Mobile
As you can see the ankle is surrounded above and below by two stable joints – the knee and foot. When the ankle joint loses mobility, the knee and foot have to compensate and give up some stability in order for the body to try and move the way it wants to. It can only compensate for so long before something breaks down.
How to test your ankle mobility
A quick and easy test that can be done to assess your ankle mobility is the half kneeling ankle dorsiflexion test. You want to kneel down in a lunge position with the ankle you’re about to test facing the wall. Keeping your thigh inline with your hip and foot, try push your knee forwards towards the wall without letting your heel lift up off the floor. Measure the distance between your foot and the wall.
A good result is 10-12cm between your foot and the wall. If you score less than that, you should definitely keep reading as I’ll explain an easy three step ankle mobility routine that you can follow.
Improve your ankle mobility
1. Foam rolling
Foam rolling your calves can help release tight posterior tissues that could possibly be restricting your ankle mobility. Roll up and down your calves, working on any tight or tender spots you might find.
Spend 1-2 minutes on each calf.
2. Banded mobilisations
For this you’ll need a heavy-duty rubber ballistic band. Most gyms tend to have these. Secure one end to a low point on a pole or stable structure. Put the other end around your ankle joint. Lunge forwards with your foot on a bench, driving your knee over your foot. What this does is it creates slightly more space in your ankle joint, allowing it to move through a greater range of motion and stretching tight structures at the back of the ankle joint.
Aim for about 1-2 minutes on each ankle.
3. Functional movements
Now that you’ve created extra mobility in the ankle it’s time to reprogram the brain and body to start working into and using the extra range on offer. An exercise like goblet squats work well because having the weight in front of your body shifts your center of gravity forwards. That makes it easier for you to drive your knees over your foot and move the ankle through full dorsiflexion.
Aim for 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions, keeping the movement slow and controlled.
The three mobility drills shows above are perfect as an ankle mobility warmup up before you train in the gym. These can be done before a lower body session because there isn’t any static stretching involved. If you are doing these after a training session you can finish off with some traditional static calf stretches.