Tip: Ankle Mobility: Soft Tissue vs. Joint Restriction

If you have ankle mobility issues that affect your squat, you need to determine what kind of problem you have before treatment. Here's how to do it.

The ankle is complex. It actually contains several joints 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.

  1. Do this test without shoes. You'll be looking at one ankle at a time.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. You can move your body forward slightly to accentuate the stretched position of the ankle.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

For the next steps, see the first related link below.