Unlock Those Ankles Once And For All
Poor ankle mobility has been blamed for damn near everything in the weight room, especially in lifters and athletes that are chronically hurt and move like shit. This widespread nostalgia for ankle mobility has lead us to do some crazy ass things in order to improve dorsiflexion, but chances are, if your crazy prehab practice hasn’t worked by now, it’s probably not going to.
Here’s why the first step in unlocking those functionally debilitating ankles of yours is proper screening and testing to determine the origins of the problems, and prioritizing the right strategies to fix your ankle mobility woes forever. Here is the five step ankle mobility fix that you wish you would have used years ago, as it has the potential to quickly and effective improve ankle mobility for the longterm.
STEP 1 –Assess Your Own Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion
When it comes to ankle mobility, many lifters falsely self-diagnose restrictions into dorsiflexion range of motion due to poor movement patterns, not actual soft tissue or joint limitations. If your foundational squat movement pattern sucks, chances are your ankle complex will throw that neurological parking break on your mobility and further limit your movement. You see, your body is smarter than you are, and it wants to protect you. The only problem with the protection adaptation is digging yourself back out of it.
But before we move forward and start self-treating ankle mobility limitations, we must first objectify our ankle dorsiflexion range of motion to establish a baseline level of mobility. Think of this as our functional starting point, but also a “pass or fail” type screen that identifies if ankle mobility is indeed a red flag issue that may be altering your movement mechanics from the ground up, or if your ankles present with theoretically “normal” functional abilities to move through dorsiflexion.
Since individuals have individuality in terms of body types, joint articulation abilities and functional skill sets, the most effective way to screen a range of motion measurement according to anthropometrics. Using the width of your fist (usually around 4 inches for males and 3.5 inches for females), we will establish a baseline dorsiflexion range of motion, and a pass vs. fail to determine if you even need to be focusing on opening up your ankles in the first place.
Half Kneeling Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion Screen:
- This screen will be completed without shoes.
- Position yourself in a half kneeling position (the front leg will be screened).
- While keeping foot flat on ground WITHOUT the heel coming up, drive your front knee forward as far as you can out over your toes.
- Place your fist in front and perpendicular of your longest toe to establish a range of motion metric.
- If your kneecap passes your fist with out in front of your toes, this is a functionally normal range of motion finding. You have passed.
- If your kneecap does not pass your fist with, this will establish a baseline starting point and have “failed” this screen.
- Failed screens will qualify the person for the need of ankle mobility drills.
Now that we have screened for ankle mobility restrictions, and have qualified an athlete for the need of ankle mobility corrective strategies, the next step will be differentiating what type of ankle mobility strategy will be most effective. Not all ankle “mobility” limitations have been created equally, nor will they be corrected with the same strategies.
STEP 2 – Differentiate Soft Tissue vs. Joint Restriction
The ankle is one of the single most biomechanically complex regions of the body, hence the reason they refer to it as the ankle complex. These five synergistic joints surrounded by contractile and non-contractile soft tissues work together to move in all three cardinal planes of motion and also in multi-angled oblique planes of motion.
With the amount of anatomical movement variance that happens with each step, we must appreciate the reliability for categorizing a type of ankle mobility restriction in a basic way. Based on the “feel” of a dorsiflexion terminal end range of motion, we can categorize an ankle mobility problem as being soft-tissue based, or joint based.
Differentiating Soft Tissue Vs. Joint Restriction Test:
- This test will be completed without shoes. We will be testing one ankle at a time.
- Step onto an elevated surface and place your feet onto the step keeping the ball of the foot in contact with the step and toes straight forward.
- Place all your weight into the ankle being tested, and with a straight knee drive your heel down towards the ground while the toes stay in contact with the step.
- You can move your body forward slightly to accentuate the stretched position of the ankle.
- When you can no longer increase ankle range of motion, hold this position for 5-10 seconds and assess for the “feel” of the limitation: either a stretching sensation through the back of the leg (Achilles region) or a block at the front of the ankle.
- Test the same ankle now with a slightly bent knee position. Again, assess for a stretch through the back of the lower leg, or a block at the front.
Simply put, an ankle (or any other articulating joint for that matter) can either be restricted via soft-tissue tone and tightness, or through a joint restriction. If a stretch is achieved through the backside of the lower leg in both positions, you are most likely dealing with a soft-tissue restriction. If you feel a blocking sensation at the front side of your ankle during both knee-testing positions, you are most likely dealing with a joint mobility limitation. If you have discrepancies between straight and slightly bent knee positions in where you feel the limitation, you’ll be addressing both soft tissue and joint restrictions.
While soft-tissue restrictions can be addressed with more traditional techniques like foam rolling and stretching, a joint restriction can NOT be improved with these methods, and will move likely exacerbate the symptoms and range of motion limitations when these soft-tissue strategies are force fed into a joint mobility issue.
And that’s exactly why we screen and test for the type of limitations each individual presents with. In the next two steps we’ll be showcasing a few key strategies to improve both ankle soft tissue restrictions (Step 3) and joint mobility restrictions (Step 4). According to your testing and type of ankle mobility restriction you present with, you do NOT have to use both steps. Focus in on either Step 3 or Step 4, or again, if you have discrepancies in testing, use both (but know this is extremely rare).
STEP 3 – Address Soft Tissues With Trigger Point Work & Stretching
Once we have identified that the soft-tissues that are localized in and around the ankle and lower leg are the limiting factor in achieving end range dorsiflexion range of motion, we can now confidently address them to achieve objective improvement. Before any soft-tissue work or stretching can be directed at the ankles, we must again establish a baseline of dorsiflexion range of motion. Simply execute the test from Step 1 before any self-treatment, and retest with the same procedure after rolling or stretching.
Since the lower leg is comprised of multiple muscles that have a role in the movement of the ankle, foot and toes, we must differentiate main types of tissues in this region form one another so we can be as effective and efficient as possible when hitting them with trigger point work on the roller, or implementing stretching parameters into dorsiflexion.
To improve dorsiflexion range of motion specifically, there are three main players that are commonly neurologically “tight” in the lower leg region; the gastrocs aka the calves, the soleus which is underling to the gastrocs, and the deep flexor group which is located behind the shin bone and is comprised of muscles that attach deep into the base of the foot and toes. Each of these three groups must be located and differentiated from one another in order to achieve a targeted mobility effect.
While the gastrocs and soleus are more superficial as compared to the deep flexor group of the lower leg, we can hit the medial and lateral head of the gastrocs, along with the underlying soleus with either a traditional foam roller or ball. Focus on targeting neurological trigger points in the tissue and oscillating over these points with only an inch of relative movement of your body moving over the roller. Stay here for 45-90 seconds per trigger point.
The deep flexor group is best contacted with a manual based tension. A technique called Hands-On SMR utilizes the acute size of ones fingers to contact this smaller muscle group, tension down over it and mobilize the soft-tissues incorporating active movement. Reaching the thumb behind the shin, tensioning down, and bringing the ankle actively from a toes down plantar flexed position to a toes up dorsiflexed position is one of the most effective ways at hitting these soft-tissues.
Foam rolling without active mobility is useless. This is why once the soft-tissues are addressed with foam rolling, trigger point work, or Hands-On SMR techniques, we now need to become more active in the process and mobilize these soft tissues through an extended range of motion with bi-phasic stretching. Since only the gastrocs cross both the knee and the ankle joints (making it a dual joint muscle) as opposed to the single joint soleus and deep flexor group, we’ll use two different setups to achieve a targeted stretch through all three of these distinct regions.
First, using an elevated surface or step, load the bodyweight onto one leg, and with a straight knee drive the body forward and heel down to move into dorsiflexion. When reaching end range, oscillate on and off with a tiny perturbation for 30-45 seconds. After the oscillations, hold the end range dorsiflexion position for 1-2 minutes with a static hold. The oscillations plus static end range hold is what constitutes a “bi-phasic” type stretch.
In order to place the larger and more powerful gastrocs on slack, we will target the deep flexor group and soleus in the same type of setup, but only with a slight knee bent position while the toes and ankle moves into dorsiflexion. Again, utilize the bi-phasic stretch with the same time based parameters and oscillations, just keeping the knee bent throughout the duration of the stretch.
STEP 4 – Mobilize Ankle Joints with End Range Oscillations
If when you went through Step 2 and identified that joint mobility was indeed the main source of your ankle range of motion limitations, you should have first skipped over Step 4 (as again you can NOT out foam roll and stretch joint mobility restrictions) and moved straight into this section. Since we are looking to target and improve ankle dorsiflexion range of motion along with alleviating the all too common front sided ankle “pinch” upon reaching end range, the strategies implemented will improve both the quality and quality of this range.
When it comes to improving ankle joint restrictions into dorsiflexion, we are essentially talking about the isolated movement that takes place in the front to back sagittal plane of motion. The main ankle joint associated with dorsiflexion is referred to as the “talo-crural” joint and is comprised of a bone called the talus coming into direct contact with the crural joint formed by the contact between portions of the tibia and fibula creating a joint space. While there is relative motion that happens with the talus sliding under the crural joint, and the crural joint sliding OVER the talus is far more common and is the type of joint movement that happens when the foot is in contact with the ground (just the way we’ve been screening and testing the ankle thus far). That’s why our first strategy will target the mobilization of the talus with dynamic action of the crural joint sliding on top of it.
Try this Manual Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobilization:
The most popular way to “mobilize” the ankle joint as of late in the prehabilitation industry is by using a band strapped around the front side of the ankle and moving the ankle into repeated dorsiflexion. It’s important to understand that a simple resistance band cannot manipulate anatomical structures such as joint capsules, ligaments, tendons and fascial sheath. The thought that this works for mechanical reasons is beyond me. That’s why many times we skip the band altogether and instead get our hands in contact with the talus to manually mobilize this joint moving into dorsiflexion just the way a rehab doctor would manipulate an ankle on the therapy table.
From a half kneeling position, use your opposite hand from the ankle you are mobilizing and contact the talus with the webbing between your first and second digits. Squeeze your contact hand around this joint and stabilize it. Bring your opposite hand over the top to aid in “pulling back” on the talus as the ankle moves into dorsiflexion range of motion. Hit end range and mobilize in and out using both active motion of the crural joint moving on top of the talus, and the talus slightly moving posterior (and slightly angled) under the joint itself. Mobilize for as long as you can feel a notable difference (remember that test and re-test thing?). And yes, this will become a bit tiring on your hands, but hell… it’s still more effective than a piece of elastic.
After acute mobilization of the talo-crural joint more passively with your own hands, it’s time to get active and target motor control along with joint mobility. We can only transfer soft-tissue or joint range of motion and mobility into movement and training if we can control it.
Out of the half kneeling position, we’ll be implementing the 3-Way Ankle Joint Mobilization that incorporates more oscillatory movements at end range dorsiflexion. The three directions will be leading with your knee moving slight in towards midline, slightly out away from midline, and straight forward in front of the toes. Use 15-20 slow and controlled oscillations in each direction making sure to reach a comfortable and more extended end range each rep that was enhanced by the previous manual joint move. In order to know exactly if this strategy is working, and to what degree, ensure that you invest the 2-seconds to test and retest between sets in order to objectify your practice and avoid just hoping and praying that your mobility drills are working for you, not against you.
STEP 5 – Maintain Ankle Mobility With Direct Lower Leg Training
Enhanced ankle mobility during testing and corrective exercises is only as useful as how it is transferred back into function. This fact is one of the exact reasons why many “mobility” programs do not achieve notable results for the long term, and are extremely short lived.
In order to extend the life of your ankle mobility (no matter the source of your restriction) and habituate it for the longevity of your training career, we must train into the new range of motion and facilitate motor learning. One of the most effective ways to battle test a new range of motion is by strategically loading it in a way that is targeted to elicit a training effect.
Ankle Mobility Maintenance:
That’s right, all those diagnostic tests and prehab strategies are only as good as your willingness to hammer the lower legs directly in training. And if ankle mobility continues to be your one major lynchpin of dysfunction, there’s no better time to train the lower legs directly than first in a lower body or dynamic movement based training day.
Yes, that means that we’ll be chasing a nasty pump of the lower legs before stepping into the squat rack. To achieve this functional training stimuli in record time, focus on stretching the calves in the bottom position for a full second on each rep, dynamically driving up flexing all aspects of the backside of the lower leg upon peak contraction, and most importantly, accentuating the eccentric lowering moment back down into the stretched position. Execution is pivotal here if we want a strength and hypertrophy scheme like this to extend into mobility enhancement and habituation.
One of my favorite ways to prime the ankles for extended dorsiflexion range of motion while chasing a quick and nasty pump is by using an escalating pyramid scheme that climbs in weight while using 8-12 reps per set. Keep the rest periods minimal here, anywhere from 15-30 seconds to accumulate blood flow into the targeted tissues, and create one hell of a mind-muscle connection to open up that range under the training fire. While squatting for the first time with a nasty calf pump will feel extremely strange, keep it in programming for 3-4 weeks and watch your mobility improve, and your numbers sky rocket.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.