Think you have problems with ankle mobility? You're not alone. Problem is, this thought has caused a lot of lifters to do some crazy things in order to improve it. But chances are, if your prehab practice hasn't worked by now and you've been doing it for a while, it's probably not going to.
That's where screening comes in. What is screening? A practice that can help you identify signs of dysfunction so that you can determine the origin of the problem. Then once you've gained that knowledge, you can start using the best strategies to fix your ankle mobility woes forever.
Here's the five step ankle mobility fix that will improve your mobility fast and for good.
1 – Assess Your Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion
If your squat sucks, chances are your ankle complex is halting your mobility and limit your movement. This is what your body does to protect you.
But before you start treating your ankle mobility limitations, first figure out your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion to establish a baseline level of mobility. Reminder: the "dorsum" is the top of your foot, so dorsiflexion is the bending of your foot toward your leg, and the position it would move into as you squat.
This assessment is your starting point. It's a "pass or fail" screen that identifies whether or not ankle mobility is altering your movement mechanics from the ground up, or if your ankles are able to move through dorsiflexion.
Since bodies are different, the most effective way to screen a range of motion measurement is according to your own anthropometrics. Using the width of your fist (usually around four inches), you'll establish a baseline dorsiflexion range of motion and give yourself a pass or fail to determine if you even need to be focusing on opening up your ankles in the first place.
Half-Kneeling Dorsiflexion Range of Motion Screen
- Do this without shoes.
- Get in a half-kneeling position so that your front leg can be screened.
- While keeping your foot flat on the ground (don't let your heal come up), drive your front knee forward as far as you can out over your toes.
- Place your fist in front and perpendicular to your longest toe to establish a range of motion metric.
- If your kneecap passes your fist width out in front of your toes, this is a sign of a functionally normal range of motion. You have passed.
- If your kneecap does not pass your fist width, this will establish a baseline starting point, which means your ankles failed this screen. A failed screen means you'll need some ankle mobility drills.
The next step is differentiating what type of ankle mobility strategy will be most effective. Not all ankle limitations are the same, so they can't be corrected with the same strategies.
2 – Differentiate Soft Tissue vs. Joint Restriction
The ankle is biomechanically complex. It actually contains several joints (surrounded by contractile and non-contractile soft tissues) that 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, you'll need to categorize your type of ankle mobility restriction in a basic way. Based on the feel of a dorsiflexion terminal end range of motion, you can figure out if the restriction is a soft-tissue or joint-based issue.
Soft Tissue Vs. Joint Restriction Test
- Do this test without shoes. You'll be looking at one ankle at a time.
- Step onto an elevated surface and place your foot 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. 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 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.
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're most likely dealing with a joint mobility limitation. If you have discrepancies between straight and slightly bent knee positions where you feel the limitation, you'll be addressing both soft tissue and joint restrictions.
While soft-tissue restrictions can be addressed with foam rolling and stretching, a joint restriction can NOT be improved with these methods, and will most likely exacerbate the symptoms and range of motion limitations when these soft-tissue strategies are used on a joint mobility issue.
And that's exactly why you test for the type of limitation you have. In the next two steps you'll see key strategies to improve both ankle soft tissue restrictions (step 3) and joint mobility restrictions (step 4).
You don't have to use both steps. Use what's appropriate given your testing and ankle mobility restriction. Only use both steps if you have both soft tissue and joint based restriction, but know that this is extremely rare.
3 – Address Soft Tissues With Trigger Point Work and Stretching
If the soft-tissues that are localized in and around the ankle and lower leg are the limiting factor in achieving end range dorsiflexion, you can now confidently address them.
Before doing any soft tissue work or stretching, you must again establish a baseline of dorsiflexion range of motion. Simply execute the test from the first step before any self-treatment, then retest with the same procedure after rolling or stretching.
Since there are multiple muscles in the lower leg, which control the ankles, feet, and toes, you must address each of the different tissues in this region so that you can be efficient when doing trigger point work or stretches.
To improve dorsiflexion range of motion, there are three main players that are commonly neurologically tight in the lower leg: the gastrocnemius (the two big meaty heads of the calf muscles), the soleus which is underling the gastrocnemius, 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 given attention to restore mobility.
Soft Tissue Techniques For The Calves
While the gastrocs and soleus are more superficial than the deep flexor group of the lower leg, you 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.
For the deep flexor group, you'll use a technique called hands-on SMR (self myofascial release) with your fingers right on this smaller muscle group. Apply pressure down over it to mobilize the soft-tissues while moving your ankle.
Reaching the thumb behind the shin, press down, and move your ankle from a toes-down plantar flexed position to a toes-up dorsiflexed position. This is one of the most effective ways to hit these soft-tissues.
Bi-Phasic Stretching For The Calves
Foam rolling without active mobility is useless. So once the soft-tissues are addressed with foam rolling, trigger point work, or hands-on SMR techniques, you now need to mobilize these tissues through an extended range of motion with bi-phasic stretching.
Since only the gastrocnemius crosses both the knee and the ankle joints (making it a dual joint muscle) as opposed to the single joint soleus and deep flexor group, you'll use two different setups to achieve a targeted stretch through all three 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 stretch.
In order to place the larger and more powerful gastrocs on slack, you'll target the deep flexor group and soleus in the same type of setup, but only with a slight knee bend, while the toes and ankle moves into dorsiflexion. Again, use the bi-phasic stretch with the same time parameters and oscillations, just keeping the knee bent throughout the duration of the stretch.
4 – Mobilize Ankle Joints With End Range Oscillations
If you went through step two and found that joint mobility was the main source of your limited range of motion, then this is your next step, not step three.
Since you're looking to target and improve ankle dorsiflexion range of motion along with alleviating the all too common front sided ankle "pinch" when reaching the end range, these strategies will improve both the quality and quantity of this range.
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. It's 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, 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 you've been screening and testing the ankle thus far).
That's why this first strategy will target the mobilization of the talus with dynamic action of the crural joint sliding on top of it.
Manual Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobilization
The most popular way to mobilize the ankle joint is by using a band strapped around the front side of the ankle and moving the ankle into repeated dorsiflexion. But a resistance band can't manipulate anatomical structures such as joint capsules, ligaments, tendons and fascial sheath.
That's why it may be better to skip the band and get your 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're 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 help pull it back on the talus as the ankle moves into dorsiflexion range of motion.
- Hit the 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 to test and re-test. And yes, this will become a bit tiring on your hands, but it's still more effective than a piece of elastic.
3-Way Ankle Joint Mobilization
Now it's time to get the joint active and target motor control and mobility. You can only transfer soft-tissue or joint range of motion and mobility into movement and training if you can control it.
- Starting in the half-kneeling position, you'll use the 3-way ankle joint mobilization. This incorporates more oscillatory movements at end range dorsiflexion.
- Use three directions leading with your knee. Move it 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.
- To know if this strategy is working, and to what degree, spend two seconds testing and retesting between sets. This is how you make sure a mobility drill is working for you, not against you.
5 – Train The Lower Legs Directly With Extended ROM First
Enhanced ankle mobility during testing and corrective exercises is only as useful as its ability to transfer into function. This is one of the reasons why many mobility programs don't achieve notable results for long, and are extremely short lived.
In order to extend the life of your ankle mobility and habituate it for the longevity of your training career, you 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's intended to elicit a training effect.
Ankle Mobility Maintenance
If ankle mobility continues to be your one major point of dysfunction, there's no better time to train the lower legs directly than first exercise in a lower body training day.
Chase a pump in the calves before stepping into the squat rack. Focus on stretching the calves in the bottom position for a full second on each rep, driving up, and flexing the calves during peak contraction. Then, lower slowly into the stretched position. Execution is pivotal if you want this to increase your mobility.
One of my favorite ways to prime the ankles and get a quick and nasty pump is with an escalating pyramid scheme that climbs in weight while using 8-12 reps per set. Keep the rest periods minimal – anywhere from 15-30 seconds – to accumulate blood flow into the targeted tissues and create one hell of a mind-muscle connection.
Warning: Squatting for the first time with a huge calf pump will feel strange, but keep it in your workouts for 3-4 weeks. Then watch your mobility improve and your numbers sky rocket.