Look around social media and you’ll find that the ankle has become the joint of the moment. Can’t squat well? Must be poor ankle mobility. Set a sprint personal best? Gotta be the ankle stiffness. There is no doubt that good ankle joint function is critical as it is one of the first joints to absorb impact in any ground-based sport. But it is also one of the most complex joints we have and, like any joint, it works in coordination with the whole body. When we look to improve ankle mobility and function we have to keep these points in focus.
Putting the ankle in the kinetic chain
A good example of how the ankle works together with other joints is in the bilateral squat. If you see an athlete lack squat depth the first thing most coaches point to is ankle mobility. But sometimes what we see happening at the ankle during a bilateral squat is not a true reflection of ankle joint mobility, but instead a coordination or balance issue. Yes, sometimes it is a big old stiff ankle but not always and not even most of the time.
Don’t believe me? Test shin angle via a knee-to-wall test and then compare it to shin angle in the bilateral squat. More often than not athletes will achieve greater shin angle in the knee-to-wall test than they can in a bilateral squat. Why is this?
A few years ago Dan Cleather explained how this could be the case in a detailed Twitter thread. He discussed different squatting strategies and why, with some strategies, squat depth is not limited by ankle range, even if that’s what it looks like. In those situations, if ankle mobility is not the limiting factor, then pushing for more ankle mobility may not change diddly squat with the squat! What we are really seeing in these cases is how the person is interpreting the task and coaching cue.
More than the ankle
Another example shows that “ankle mobility” itself is a quality that extends beyond the ankle. Movement of the ankle joint is only one of the contributors of pronation – it contributes the majority of the dorsiflexion component of pronation. The subtalar joint and midfoot joints also play a large role. And as we dorsiflex naturally in walking, running, jumping we also pronate. Pronation is part and parcel of dorsiflexion and yet that happens below the ankle joint itself.
So let’s not just consider the ankle joint when thinking “ankle mobility” – let’s think about why we dorsiflex, which is to pronate, which is to load in order to recoil. Yes ankle joint dorsiflexion is important but not on it’s own. A mobile ankle with an arch that doesn’t flatten could be as problematic as a stiff ankle joint. We must seek better function of the structures and how they work together.
What are we after?
With the examples above in mind, it is clear that how we understand the ankle and the foot, and how their movement affects movement of the whole is vital in the prescription of any mobility work for that area.
When working with an athlete, there are several key considerations we have to consider before deciding that ankle mobility is the solution to the problem.
- What is demanded of the ankle in the sport of the athlete?
- Is more mobility an advantage in the sport?
- Is more ankle mobility going to help something else get/stay healthy?
- Or does the sport require some other quality of the foot and ankle?
- Are we seeking ankle mobility just to squat deeper? Here it is important to remember that the heels down foot position during the squat is substantially different mobility requirements than the on the toes position of many sports.
- Is there a better way to achieve those goals?
In summary – why are we looking for more range?
Solutions for owning your range
After a thorough analysis, we still often reach the conclusion that either we need more range or, more commonly, we need to access the existing range better. With the latter scenario, it begs another question: why didn’t the athlete naturally go to the end of range. I think it’s a coaching thing. We don’t often give people movement problems and exercise that take them into extremes of range to explore what is available. If we had some lead in tasks which allowed the person to explore deep knee and ankle ranges then maybe they would (self organize) to a comfortable deep squat. Obviously barring any significant hip or knee issues coexisting.
I use a few lead in tasks before looking for depth in a loaded bilateral squat:
These tasks are not strictly ankle mobility exercises but they are appropriate lead in tasks to squatting. In these cases we are not removing the ankle to work on it in isolation. We are deconstructing the squat to expose the body to squat like positions through extremes of range.
Concepts for extending your range
If the goal is to extend the joint range, you need to have a large toolbox to deal with the issues. When I look back at the methods I have used before, some general concepts appear over and over and may be of help to other coaches in coming up with their own solution.
- The tripod – The tripod describes the connection between three points at the extremities of the arches of the foot. When looking to promote increases in dorsiflexion (and pronation) we should look to maintain even pressure through these three points. That doesn’t mean we need to hold a rigid high arch, just keep pressure through these. The tendency when pushing towards end of range dorsiflexion is to let the heel lift. This leads to the contraction in the calf and associated muscles changing to an isometric rather than eccentric lengthening contraction.
- Natural flow of force – Don’t overdo the knee over the second toe pathway. If we want a robust and mobile foot and ankle then we must seek dorsiflexion in different positions and directions.
- Movement under load – Similar to the tripod we want eccentric lengthening occurring in the direction of choice. We can take common strength exercises and redirect some focus towards promoting more dorsiflexion. This is helpful provided we don’t allow the heel to lift and subsequently halt the eccentric lengthening. For example a shorter stance on a split squat encourages more dorsiflexion and can simultaneously tick the box on a strength goal.
- Understand the compensations required – Recognize that limited mobility might affect other movements. If the issue is unilateral then we may see what looks like weight shifting to one side on bilateral exercises that bring the ankle near end of range – squat, hex bar deadlift. Bilateral stiffness may lead to forward trunk lean on the squat with insufficient knee flexion. Simply stopping to think how a stiff ankle might affect the knee of a rear foot elevated split squat, or a single leg squat can lead us towards coaching tweaks in terms of position, loading or even a change of exercise.
Starting with athleticism
Owning the range and extending the range are important concepts in different situations, but one point I want to end on is that simple athleticism should always be the starting point. If we are not strong, springy and coordinated with what we have then we may have no business asking the brain and the body for more range. Improving an athletes coordination will often make them stronger through their current range and also generate sufficient tension to avoid unwanted changes of position. Start with athleticism, then own the range, and only then see if you need to extend it.