"Ankle mobility" seems to be a buzzword these days. Coaches often tell their athletes that the limiting factor in their squats is the lack of range of motion in the ankles. Everyone claims to have poor ankle mobility, and they're all looking for the magical way to improve it. You'll see them stretching their ankles into oblivion, hooking resistance bands around their malleoli, and placing barbells on top of their knees, yet their efforts are futile.
Why isn't your ankle mobility improving? Well, as I've said before, stretching is like a Band-Aid. It will result in a temporary improvement, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem. You cannot, I repeat, cannot, change the length of a muscle. Therefore, no amount of yanking and distraction and stretching will not miraculously lengthen the gastrocnemius and soleus (calf) muscles. Instead, you have to address the cause of the stiffness.
A lack of ankle mobility can be the result of either improper motor patterning, poor choice in footwear (think: high heels), or it may be from minimal stability up the kinetic chain.
The ankle is, as you see in this photo, a "mobile" joint. The knee is a stable joint, and then the hip is another very mobile joint. If the ankle does not have adequate mobility, the knee and hip will suffer as well. Mike Boyle, a very well known Strength and Conditioning coach, notes:
An immobile ankle causes the stress of landing to be transferred to the joint above, the knee. In fact, there is a direct connection between the stiffness of the basketball shoe and the amount of taping and bracing that correlates with the high incidence of patella-femoral syndrome in basketball players. Our desire to protect the unstable ankle came with a high cost. We have found many of our athletes with knee pain have corresponding ankle mobility issues. Many times this follows an ankle sprain and subsequent bracing and taping.Address the ankles, and you cure up a lot of other issues! Here are some ideas to help improve your bottom position in your squat and free up some movement in your ankles.
1. Change your footwear. Now, here's where the shoes can be a very important factor. If you're wearing shoes that act as a cast, meaning they try to provide the strength artificially, your body no longer needs to or wants to utilize this strength on its own. So many people roll their ankles because, guess what? They have weak ankles. An ankle sprain is entirely preventable, in most cases!
Other shoes like high heels force your feet to remain plantarflexed (pointed) for hours on end. As a result, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles become reflexively shorter to adapt to the way you move. Your body remembers routines, and it likes to conserve energy wherever it can. Therefore, regularly wearing certain types of shoes will affect the musculature around the foot.
I do think training barefoot has a tremendous amount of benefits, but, at the very least, try to find a shoe that allows you to "feel" your feet and does not significantly alter your gait. You can also mobilize the plantar fascia before your workout to increase neural activity in your feet.
2. Strengthen your dorsiflexors. Individuals with tight calves have overactive plantarflexors (gastrocnemius, soleus, plantaris, tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus, fibularis longus, and fibularis brevis), which are the muscles that point the foot. A ballerina, for example, would have incredibly strong plantar flexing muscles. The dorsiflexors are the muscles that pull your toes towards your kneecap (tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longus, extensor digitorum longus and fibularis tertius); these muscles will contract at the bottom of your squat, so if they're stronger, you'll see significant improvement.
One of my favorite exercises for this is banded dorsiflexion. This movement also strengthens the hip flexors, which will further develop your bottom position. Bear crawls will also help improve the range of motion in the calves. For an extra challenge, try them with straight legs.
3. Improve rotation of the fibular head (pronation). As you squat, the fibula, the outer bone in your lower leg, has to rotate. When you have muscular tension in this area, then you will have a limited amount of rotation. If you have this problem, you may experience pain on the lateral portion of the leg.
To improve this rotation, you can do banded eversion and inversion, or you can do this half kneeling drill. Rolling out the calves with a lacrosse ball will also help improve your range of motion.
4. Correct your squat pattern. Finally, we have to think about motor patterns. The vast majority of people I've met who appear to have insufficient ankle mobility, actually just don't understand proper sequencing. Usually, they don't grasp the concept of "hip hinging," and they initiate a squat or a deadlift in an anteriorly tilted pelvic position. I want to help my clients understand what it feels like to initiate a movement properly at the hips. I will start these people doing a squat with the help of a TRX or gymnastics rings. A wall squat will also help reinforce good movement patterns. Sometimes, people just don't really grasp how a well-executed squat or deadlift should "feel," and in those cases, these drills can elicit immediate results.
If your ankles are stiff, stop trying to stretch the hell out of them against the wall. Figure out why your calves are so tight in the first place, strengthen the weaker muscles, and build a rock solid foundation for all of your lifts. With more range of motion in the ankles, the rest of your joints will be spared of excess wear and tear, and you will improve your mechanics.
- Michael, Boyle. "THE JOINT-BY-JOINT APPROACH." Gray Cook Physical Therapist Lecturer Author. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2015.
- Splichal, Emily. "Foot Function & Fascial Lines: Lateral Ankle Stability." From the Ground up. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2015.
- Splichal, Emily. "Plantar Cutaneous Feedback & Ankle Instability." From the Ground up. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2015.