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Ankle Mobility routine

Introduction

This mobility routine fits into the overall concept of the joint-by-joint approach for human movement. If you aren’t familiar with this, Click here to learn more.

Ankle Mobility

Ankles are meant to be mobile. If they don’t, trouble is brewing.

Ankle stiffness is very common but is often painless and goes unnoticed.

Reduced ankle mobility most commonly shows up as a lack of dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion is your ability to bend your foot and ankle to draw your toes closer to your shin.

Wearing shoes, especially with any kind of heel on them tightens up your calf and achilles tendon, which limits your ankle dorsiflexion.

When ankles are stiff, the body has to gain mobility somewhere else to compensate. Usually the feet or the knees pay the price.

Testing Ankle Mobility

Half kneeling ankle dorsiflexion

This test is very popular in the functional movement screen (FMS) and Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA) by Gray Cook, Gary Burton et al.

Half-kneel (lead leg hip and knee at 90/90) facing the wall. Have the lead foot 5” from the wall.

Half Kneeling dorsi test

Keeping good alignment of your knee and foot, press your knee forward to see if it can touch the wall without your heel coming off the ground. Do not allow your foot arch to collapse. Do not allow your knee to collapse inwards or outwards. It should remain aligned over the 2nd toe.

Pistol squat

A Pistol is a full flexion, single leg squat, popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline. It is coined as an ankle mobility test from Kelly Starrett, physiotherapist and author of Supple Leopard and Ready to Run.

Here is Dr. Starrett discussing and demonstrating the Pistol position to test for ankle mobility.

Fixing Stiff Ankles

Mike Reinold has a great 3-step process to improve ankle mobility.

  1. Self myofascial release
  2. Stretching the calf
  3. Ankle mobility drills

Self myofascial release

Self Myofascial Drills for Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility

A simple self myofascial release technique for ankle mobility is foam rolling the calf.  This has benefits as you can turn your body side to side and get the inside (medial) and outside (lateral) aspects of your calf along the full length.  Roll up and down the entire length of the muscle and tendon for up to 30 seconds.  If you hit a really tender spot or trigger point, stay on it without moving or rolling over it for 10 seconds or until you feel it begin to release. You can increase the pressure using the weight your opposite leg by placing the opposite leg on top of the leg you are rolling. Don’t let the pain intensity get more that 4/10. Too much pain can cause the muscle to tighten.

There is an additional technique that is very effective called pin and stretch. While you are maintaining some pressure on the tender spot, move your ankle up and down by bringing your toes towards your shin (dorsiflexion) and then point your toes (plantar flexion). This slides the soft tissues of the calf against the tight spot which can release any adhesions (scar tissue) that may have built up. This is similar to what clinicians try and achieve with soft tissue treatments such as Active Release or Graston.

Don’t forget to roll the bottom of your foot with a ball, as well, to lengthen the posterior chain tissue even further.  There is a direct connect between the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon.

If the foam roller isn’t doing it for you, try one of the massage sticks. Same idea as the foam roller where you work through the length of the area and pause at tender spots. Add mobility in the half kneeling position as well, which gives this technique an added bonus.

Stretches for Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility

Rolling gets the muscles more supple and ready to stretch. Most people have been told to hold stretches for 30 seconds. I agree if moderate to severe restrictions exist, however, often, just doing a few reps of 10 seconds will do nicely.

Here is a standard one most people have been shown at some point – The classic wall lean stretch. It is a good exercise, however typically you need to be pretty tight to get a decent stretch in this position.

calf-stretch

A variation on this that can provide a better stretch would be to place your foot up on a wall or step instead. The video below is Mike Reinold demonstrating how to do this. A couple of advantages to stretching this way is that you can control the intensity of the stretch by how close you are to the wall and how much you lean your body in.  It also stretches the plantar fascia by extending your toes. For both of these stretches, be sure to not turn your foot outward.  You should be neutral or even slightly turned in (toes point to one O’Clock position).

Simple Ankle Mobility Exercises

There are basic and advanced exercises, depending on the extent of your motion restriction.  

Here are some basic exercises to get you started. Everyone should start here to see how your ankles like it. Don’t jump right to the advanced drills, especially if you have significant movement restriction.

The first drill involves simple standing with your toes on a slight incline and moving into dorsiflexion by breaking your knees.  Eric Cressey shows us this quick and easy drill that you can quickly perform:

Here is a dynamic warmup version demonstrated by Tony Gentilcore:

Kevin Neeld shows a great progression of this exercise that incorporates both the toes up on the wall, essentially making it more of a mobility challenge and stretch.  If you look closely, you’ll see that he is also mobilizing in three planes, straight neutral, inward, and outward:

 

Jeff Cubos shares a video of the half kneeling mobilization with a dowel.  The dowel is an important part of the ankle mobility drill.  You begin by half kneeling, then placing a dowel on the outside of your foot at the height of your fifth toe.  Now, when you lean into dorsiflexion, make sure your knee goes outside of the dowel.

Chris Johnson shared a nice video using a Voodoo Floss band to assist with the myofascial release and position the tibia into internal rotation:

Many have a “pinch” in the front of the ankle when they go into dorsiflexion. We call this Talar impingement, which refers to the Talus (a bone in the ankle) sitting slightly out of position – too far forward so that as you bend it causes the soft tissues in the front of the ankle to get pinched between the head of the talus and the tibia (bottom of the shin bone).

Here is a way to pull the talus backwards into proper position to prevent the pinch. Erson Religioso shows us some Mulligan mobilizations with movement (MWM) using a band.  In this video, he has his patient put the band under his opposite knee, however you could easily tie this around something behind you.  In this position you step out to create tension on the band, which will move your talus backwards as you move forward into dorsiflexion.

As you progress along with your mobility, you may find that variations of these drills may be more effective for you.  You can combine many of these approaches into one drill, such as Matt Siniscalchi shows us here, combining the MWM with the dowel in the half kneeling position:

As you can see, there are many different variations of drills you can perform based on what is specifically tight or limited.  You may have to play around a little but to find what works best for you, however these are a bunch of great examples of ankle mobility exercises you can choose to perform when trying to improve your dorsiflexion.

You definitely don’t need to do all of these every time. Begin with the basic level and pick one or two and do them consistently. If you plateau then move to the advanced level drills and again, pick one or two and do them consistently.

You’re going to love the difference flexible ankles will bring to your movement and performance!

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