During squatting do you struggle to get your hips below parallel? Are your heels raising off the ground during a squat?
These common dysfunctions in movement can both be a sign of a lack of ankle mobility. Ankle mobility is often neglected but important for adequate performance of many movement patterns in your exercise and training. Many people struggle with the depth of their squat; and while this could be due to tight musculature or tightness through the hips, a common and prevalent cause is a restriction in ankle mobility. A lack of ankle mobility during squatting often translates to poor movement control higher up in your body. For example, poor ankle mobility during a squat can cause you to place more pressure through your toes, creating undue force and load through your knees. Bio-mechanically this can also create poor alignment of your spine as your nervous system (brain) starts to compensate with movements to arch your lumbar spine; or to curve through your thoracic spine. Both of these compensations can result in low back pain.
What is ankle mobility?
Mobility is defined as the ability to move freely or easily, and this can be directly applied to the ankle joint. The ankle is a hinge joint which allows two specific movements, plantar flexion and dorsiflexion. Plantar flexion refers to the movement of the ankle joint where the foot points downwards away from the leg, a way I like to remember this is ‘planting it’ when driving a car. Here, the movement your ankle completes when pushing down the accelerator is an example of plantarflexion.
Conversely, dorsiflexion refers to the ankle movement where the top of your foot is moved closer to your shin. This can occur in two ways, by pulling the toes up towards the shin (toes-to-shin), or by bringing the shin forward towards the toes (shin-to-toes). The latter occurs in movements where the foot remains static throughout and the shin has to come forward and closer to the foot, this is what is occurring during a squat! Hence, the lack of ankle mobility during the down phase of your squat stems from an inability to sufficiently ‘dorsiflex.’ This article will focus on the movement of dorsiflexion, what enables it and how you can begin working to improve your ankle mobility and complete deep squats with ease.
Dorsiflexion is facilitated by the contraction of the tibialis anterior, which is a muscle on the anterior aspect of the lower leg. If you complete the movement of dorsiflexion, you should be able to feel this muscle shorten and ‘tense’ around the shin area of your leg. While this muscle contracts, the posterior muscles such as the calf and Achilles tendon lengthen, which you are also able to see when dorsiflexing. Hence, from a muscular perspective, the ability to dorsiflex, or what we can work towards to allow improved dorsiflexion, will relate to the strengthening of this tibialis anterior muscle, as well as release of the posterior aspect of the leg (i.e. the calf) to allow it to lengthen with ease during this movement. Before we explain how we can improve this mobility, here is a way that you can test your current ankle mobility:
How to test your ankle mobility
The ankle mobility test, also known as ‘knee to walls,’ is a test that you can complete to quickly assess your ankle mobility. This involves placing your foot on a strip of tape that is approximately 4 inches away from a wall. With your foot facing forwards and remaining still throughout, attempt to touch your knee to the wall. If you are able to do this without having the knee move medially or laterally OR letting your heel come off of the ground, then you have sufficient ankle mobility. If not, you are likely experiencing some of the aforementioned issues during a squat. We will educate you below with exercises to correct this problem.
For a video explanation of the ankle mobility test, click the link below:
Source; YouTube Easy Ankle Mobility Test
How can you increase your ankle mobility?
Here are 5 exercises you can begin completing which can aid your ankle mobility:
- Knee-to-walls: Believe it or not, the above ankle mobility test is actually a really good exercise to start stretching your ankles and to slowly improve your ankle mobility. Complete the above movement and try holding the maximally stretched point for 20-30seconds for 2-3 sets. Try doing this 3-5 times per week at the gym or at home to start improving your mobility.
- Banded ankle mobilisation: This is a great exercise involving shin-to-toe dorsiflexion. often present in a squat, whilst also pushing it against the weight of a resistance band. Set up on one knee with a resistance band tied to a fixed object behind you, and around your ankle. Rock back and forth moving the ankle into dorsiflexion. Perform this for 8-10 reps with a 2-3 second hold. The video below shows this in full.
Source: YouTube Banded Ankle Mobilization
- Seated calf raises with plates: This is an exercise that will again put your ankle through its full range and hence dorsiflexion. Again, resistance can be added and gradually progressed as you feel stronger and more mobile through your ankle. Take a seat and place your foot on a step or some plates in front of you in order to raise your foot a few inches off the ground. With some resistance (as comfortable) on your knees, lower your heel slowly to the ground (dorsiflexion) before bringing it back up (plantarflexion). Try completing 2-3 sets of 15 repetitions. Again, a video is provided below to assist you:
Source; YouTube Seated Calf Raise with Plates
- Active isolated calf stretch: This is a great exercise in order to stretch out potentially tight calves as well as the Achilles tendon, both likely limiting your ankle mobility and ability to dorsiflex. Get into the downward dog position, with one ankle crossed behind the other. Touch your knee to the ground and straighten it again. As you straighten, really try to touch your heel to the ground, during which you will feel a great stretch through your calf. Again, complete 2-3 sets of 10 reps for each leg.
- Plate ankle mobilisations: This is a great test to mimic the dorsiflexion movement often completed during a squat. While standing, place a thin plate beneath both toes. From here, bend your knees and complete ‘shin-to-toe’ dorsiflexion. Unlike a squat where we elevate the heels, the elevation of the toes forces you to dorsiflex and will assist in improving your ankle mobility. Complete 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions of this exercise. The video below provides an example.
Source: YouTube Plate Ankle Mobilizations
Finally, as we discussed, tight muscles potentially limiting your range of dorsiflexion include the calves and the achilles tendon. Aside from these exercises, regularly complete self-myofascial release of these muscles in order to relax them and improve their ability to lengthen during dorsiflexion. As we often do at Inspire Fitness, try using a foam roller to roll and release the calf. Alternatively we also recommend Myotherapy treatment for improved mobility and movement efficiency.
For more information please call contact us at Inspire Fitness on 9857 3007 and speak with one of our friendly Exercise Physiologists or Personal Trainers . At Inspire we design an individualized training program which address mobility deficiencies as described in this article.