Adequate ankle mobility (namely dorsiflexion) is a necessity for being able to perform a full depth, ass-to-grass squats as is required for Crossfit and Olympic Weightlifting. There are a few things that may be restricting your ankle mobility, most of which can be dealt with and improved.
- Tight calves (gastrocnemius and soleus), tight long toe flexors (flexor digitorum longus/brevis, flexor hallucis longus)
- Previous ankle sprains (especially those that were not rehabilitated properly)
- Wearing high heels (which will contribute to short, tight calves)
- Pronated feet
I see a lot of people in the clinic, and at the box, spinning their feet out to gain ankle range into a squat. They end up collapsing onto the inside of the foot, which then places additional stresses onto the knee, hip and lower back. The main reason for this is that they are lacking in pure ankle dorsiflexion (it could also be related to mobility at the hip but I won’t get into the hip in this post). When dorsiflexion is limited, the body will compensate by everting the heel (turning outwards) and abducting the forefoot (turning out the front of the foot).
The knee-to-wall test is a great starting point to see if you are dealing with tight calves.
- Place a strip of tape on the floor against a flat wall. Make sure the tape is marked out in centimetre increments (1-10cm).
- You can either start at the 0-1cm mark and move out accordingly, or start at the 10cm mark and move in if needed.
- Place your big toe either at 0cm or 10cm. Maintain the “arch’ in your foot and keep your knee tracking over your 2nd/3rd toes. Ensure your hips are square to the wall and not twisted outwards.
- Bend the front knee, aiming to touch your knee to the wall, making sure you keep your heel FLAT on the ground. Any lift of the heel indicates that you stop and move in (so if you are at 5cm and your heel lifts off, move forward to the 4cm mark, and so on.) At the point you can no longer maintain heel contact with the ground, cease the test and note the distance from the wall.
Normal length of calves require that you achieve a distance of 8-10cm from the wall. Any less than this and you are considered to have tight calves. To see what the body does as a compensation (if your calves are tight or have poor ankle mobility), go back to the wall. This time, instead of keeping the foot straight and maintaining the arch, turn the foot out (like you would for a squat, if that is your pattern), allow the arch to collapse, and recheck your knee to wall test. Does it become easier in this pattern? Probably. But the problem with this is that it is biomechanically a weak position. This poor position will set you up for knee, hip and potentially lower back injuries, not to mention plantar fascia irritation, etc.
So what can be done about poor ankle mobility?
If it is a calf length problem – mobilize, stretch (Knee to wall can also be used as a stretch/mobility exercise), foam roller/stick, massage, compression flossing bands, dry needling/acupuncture for calves and foot. Make sure to test/re-test before and after mobility work. There are a ton of ankle/calf mobility exercises in the MobilizeMe app. Download for FREE here.
If it is stiffness of the ankle joint – banded ankle mobility exercises, physiotherapy/manual therapy, sitting in a deep squat with the feet straight (hang onto something for balance if you need to at the start), wearing an Olympic-style weightlifting shoe, heel lifts in shoes.
If you are unsure about what is causing your ankle issues, then you should get an assessment by your physio. MobilizeMe Physiotherapy on the Gold Coast offers FREE INITIAL ASSESSMENTS (with your Private Health) so book in to make your poor ankle mobility a thing of the past!