Athletic Performance: Better Ankles for Better Squats, Lunges, Sprints….Everything!
BY: Jason Harrell
This week we’re going to address an issue that is often overlooked during training assessments for athletes and the general population... ankle mobility. More specifically, ankle dorsiflexion (Think: how far the knees can go over the toes, without lifting the heel off the ground) and its associated range of motion is something we use and need in almost everything we do in life: squat, sprint, lunge, jump, playing with kids. And if we don’t have it, we compensate.
Fun fact: The joints in your body are designed to fulfill specific roles. Some are built for stability, and others are designed to be more mobile. It is the balance these roles of stable versus mobile that creates the joint-by-joint action during motion. The ankle is one of the joints that is designed to be more mobile. When a mobile joint ceases to be mobile, the body will look elsewhere to create that range of motion for whatever the action is your brain is telling it to do.
Locked ankles can wreak havoc biomechanically. During a squat, for example, they can present themselves as knee, hip, and/or lumbar spine pain. If the ankle can’t find the range of motion (dorsiflexion) to squat, the body will find it somewhere else. Now imagine weighted squatting with ankles that are less than mobile…this is called adding strength to dysfunction. If you’re ankles can’t squat without weight (bodyweight), then adding weight tothe pattern that needs mobility work is only asking for possible knee, hip, and spine pain.
It’s worth discussing how to assess ankle mobility.
I am a big fan of standardizing a test that can provide reliable results. Enter the half-kneeling dorsiflexion test.
In this test, you kneel on the ground and assume a position similar to stretching your hip flexors, with your knee on the floor. Your lead foot that you are testing should be lined up 5″ from the wall. This is important and is the key to standardizing the test. From this position, you lean in with your hands on the wall, pressing your elevated knee as close to the wall as you can while keeping your heel on the ground. When you can no longer press the knee any further forward, you can measure the distance of the knee cap from the wall when the heel starts to come up. An alternate method would be to vary the distance your foot is from the wall and measure from the great toe to the wall. I personally prefer to standardize the distance to 5″. If you can touch your knee to the wall from 5″, then you have pretty good mobility and probably don't have any ankle dorsiflexion problems that would affect your movement. Remember to perform this test barefoot to ensure that you can tell if the heel is keeping contact with the floor as the knee presses forward.
This is a great position to assess your progress, and as you’ll see next week, I’ll touch on Progressive Angular Isometric Loading (PAILs), Regressive Angular Isometric Loading (RAILs), and end-range isometric contractions to address ankle mobility.
Strength is journey! Enjoy the ride.