Improve your Ankle Mobility
Have you ever noticed you struggle to get down to 90-degrees when squatting? Do your heels possibly lift up during your squat? Do you experience a “butt wink” at the bottom? When the ankle can’t flex as it should, your body compensates! Often, this leads the hips to roll under into a posterior pelvic tilt which people call a “butt wink” which can cause low back issues. These are all signs of poor ankle mobility. Having good ankle dorsiflexion ROM is a major factor affecting squat depth in men and women. 1
When most people refer to ankle mobility issues, most of the time they’re referring to poor ankle dorsiflexion range of motion – it’s a common issue. It can limit someone functionally and potentially lead to pain and injury, especially if you’re someone who plays a sport that requires a lot of jumping or if you’re a female that wears heels often. Functionally, we need good ankle mobility in order to perform a deep squat. Have you ever needed to get into the very back of the lowest kitchen cabinet? Have you ever needed to bend down to pick up a heavy piece of furniture? These things require good ankle mobility.
So what is ankle mobility? According to Merriam-Webster, mobility is the quality or state of being mobile or movable.
The ankle has 4 main movements: dorsiflexion, plantarflexion, inversion, and eversion (see photo below). Of those 4 movements, dorsiflexion tends to be the most troublesome. The average range of motion (ROM) for ankle dorsiflexion is 0-20 degrees.
Note: Dorsiflexion is when your flex the foot or raise the toes up off the floor. Plantarflexion is when you point the foot or raise up onto your toes on the floor. Eversion is when you turn the sole of the foot outward. Inversion is when you turn the sole of the foot inward.
If you’re someone who is unable to achieve 20 degrees of dorsiflexion in one or both ankles, you’re lacking ankle mobility. Your ankle is not moving freely and could be inhibiting you functionally and contributing to other issues. You may even experience achilles pain which can cause other issues up the kinetic chain.
What causes poor ankle mobility?
It can be a joint restriction or soft tissue restriction. A joint issue means the joint itself is restricted within the capsule. A soft tissue issue means the muscles around the ankle are restricted. There is a third potential cause which is a bony limitation like a bone spur however there’s nothing that can be done for that except surgery.
The muscles that can restrict dorsiflexion while bending the knee are the Soleus, Flexor Hallucis Longus, Flexor Digitorum Longus, and Tibialis Posterior. The muscle that can restrict dorsiflexion while the knee is straight is the gastrocnemius.
How can we test ankle dorsiflexion mobility?
The most common test is: Half-kneeling dorsiflexion test.
- While barefoot, face a wall with one foot about 3 inches away from the wall and the other knee on the ground back behind it so you’re in a half-kneeling lunge position. The front foot’s toes should face straight forward.
- Lean your front knee straight forward. Try to touch the wall with your front knee, without allowing your heel to lift off the ground.
- If you can touch the wall, scoot back an inch and try again. Repeat. Keep testing until you can no longer touch the wall with your knee while keeping the heel down.
- Determine how many inches away is the farthest you can get from the wall without lifting the heel. This is your final result.
- Repeat on the other foot.
Normal is considered approximately 4-5 inches. If your result is less than that, you have poor ankle dorsiflexion mobility. If you have more than that, you have excellent mobility! I have 7in for this test and I’ve always had excessive ankle mobility and calf flexibility.
During the test, if you felt a stretch in the back of the ankle (achilles/calves) then you may have soft tissue restriction. If you felt a block or pinch at the front of the ankle then you may have joint restriction.
Watch the video below to see the whole test in action.
Ankle Mobility Treatment
What can you do to fix it?
- Ankle joint mobility drills (specifically geared toward increasing dorsiflexion)
- Soft tissue manual release (e.g. massage, rolling)
- Soft tissue stretches: dynamic and static (of the gastrocnemius and soleus)
Don’t worry, I’ve got lots of ideas for you below. There is a video to follow, too!
15 ANKLE MOBILITY EXERCISES
- Half-kneeling Lunge Do the same exact motion you did for the half-kneeling dorsiflexion test for 3x15 each leg. You can apply a posterior force on the talus while doing this.
- Half-kneeling Lunge 3-way Same as #1 but go in three directions: forward, slightly inward, slightly outward.
- Half-kneeling Lunge weighted Same as #1 but hold a dumbbell or kettlebell on top of the front knee to load it.
- Half-kneeling Lunge with Tibial Internal RotationSame as #1 but manually perform internal rotation of the tibia. Apply force to the superior aspect of the tibia during the knee bend to promote talus clearance of the tibia.
- Standing Lunge toward wall Same as #1 however in standing instead of half-kneeling.
- Standing Lunge toward wall with Calf Stretch Same as #5 however the front foot is propped up against the wall instead of flat on the ground.
- Standing Elevated Lunge Same as #1 but place your front foot up on a bench or box to perform the lunge.
- Incline knee bends Stand with both toes lifted on an incline of some sort. Both toes could be up on plates, a binder, or on towels. Then bend and straighten your knees for 3x10.
- Knee Circles Stand with your feet all the way together, a slight bend in the knees, and place your hands on your thighs. Perform small knee circles with both knees at the same time going 15x in each direction.
- Calf stretch against a wall: knee bent or straight Stand facing a wall, prop one foot’s toes up on the wall, and then lean toward the wall while keeping the knee straight for 30 seconds. Repeat with the knee slightly bent for 30 seconds.
- Downward dog alternating calf stretch Get into a downward dog stretch with the legs straight and then lift one heel as you stretch the other heel. Alternate for 1 minute.
- Downward dog walks While in a downward dog, walk the feet forward a few steps and then back a few steps while keeping the feet flat and in dorsiflexion for 10x each way.
- Standing step stretch for gastroc and soleus Stand with your heels off the edge of a step and both hands on the wall to lean toward and away from the wall for 30sec. Repeat with the knees slightly bent for 30sec to target the soleus.
- Side lunge to pyramid For this yoga-based move, alternate between a deep side lunge and a pyramid stretch for 10x on each leg.
- Toe balance to forward bend Start in a deep squat while balancing on your toes and then straighten the knees as you hinge at the hips, dorsiflex your feet, and bend forward.
MUSCLE RELEASE TO IMPROVE ANKLE MOBILITY
Post-treatment Tips for Ankle Mobility
After doing these treatments, do a post-treatment test of the half-kneeling dorsiflexion test and see if it’s improved!
Once you’ve gained mobility, you want to maintain it, right? This is something you’ll want to continue to work on. I recommend you incorporate some of the exercises you’ve learned into your dynamic mobility warm-ups prior to each workout. You should also strengthen within your new ROM. One of my favorite exercises to do so is the calf raise off a step or ledge.
Calf Raises off a step/ledge: Strengthen and stretch at the same time by doing calf raises off the end of a step. That way, in between each rep you can drop the heels down for a stretch. Try 3x15. You can also do this one with a slight bend in the knees.
If spending time addressing the soft tissue restriction and/or joint restriction still doesn’t help, then you could try wearing squat shoes that are a little lifted in the heel. This will start you in a plantarflexed position so you have more range of motion to work with. The other option is to place wedges or plates under your heels like Sohee does! She feels it helps her stay more upright, sink deeper, and feel more comfortable.
I hope you found these tips and techniques helpful!
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1. Lower Extremity Strength and the Range of Motion in Relation to Squat Depth by Si-Hyun Kim, et al. Found at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4415844/.