Dude, It’s Ankle Mobility That Is Sabotaging Your Lifts!
Tight ankles lead to tight hips, which leads to a tight back, etc. As you can see, what seems like a small insignificant problem can exacerbate in a very large problem with more time and weight.
This can be a problem for people who are trying to learn squats or for athletes who are constantly hearing their coaches yell at them to “land on your heels.” Lets now examine what causes these problems.
Origins and Causes Of Ankle Mobility
Non-surgical ankle mobility problems are typically caused by tight achillies tendon, gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle.
When these muscles get too tight they prevent the lifter from raising his/her toes up. This motion is referred to as dorsiflexion.
When this motion gets restricted, you will notice that lifters/athletes will have trouble squatting below parallel and when jumping/landing.
When squatting below parallel the lifter must avoid letting their chest fall under the weight. This makes the squat look more like a good morning than a squat.
Ideally, you want to keep your chest up throughout the entire movement. When landing from a jump with tight ankles, the athlete will land on their toes, will have a rounded back and will be unstable. All because their base of support is weak.
Treatment – Ankle Mobility Exercises
Fixing this problem requires two things, flexibility and proper motor coordination. The first and most important thing to fix is motor coordination.
This is where that mind/muscle connection takes place. Watch other lifters that are more skilled than you are and just observe how they are moving during whatever movement you are having trouble with. Then close your eyes and in your mind, I literally want you to just imagine yourself doing that movement.
After visualization, it is time to practice the movement with LIGHT WEIGHT!!!
When performing the movement, have total focus on what you are doing. With some practice you will notice that you are able to move through the motions better.
This is the first and most important step for learning any new skill is to have a deep understanding of the movement itself.
Once you understand the movement, the physical problem itself (flexibility) becomes a simple fix.
Motor coordination will solve a large portion of the problem but as the weight gets heavier it will draw out more mobility issues in the ankles. This is where manual pre-hab exercises will do the trick.
You want to first stretch out the calves, both static and dynamic. Once the calves are stretched it is now time to stretch out the front of the shins. This area contains a muscle called the Tibialis Anterior.
This muscle is responsible for a movement called dorsiflexion, which is just a fancy way of describing when you point your toes up.
The following stretches and their descriptions should address the flexibility issue, however, the motor coordination (addressed above) should be given an equal amount of attention as well.
Standing Calf Stretch:
Find a pole, or wall to place your feet upon and raise your toes up (dorsiflexion), until you feel a stretch in your calves and lean your bodyweight into the stretch. Make sure your knee is locked out and you ease yourself into the stretch. Hold on each leg for about 1-2 minutes.
Runners Calf Stretch:
Standing in front of a wall, or pole, stagger your feet and shift most of your bodyweight onto your front leg. Your back leg should be behind you with the knee locked out and the heel flat on the floor. You should feel a big stretch in your calves. If you don’t, then just lean forward more. Hold for 1-2 min each leg.
Downward Facing Dog:
To perform this, start in a pushup position and push backwards through your arms. Keep pushing until your hips are as almost over your feet.
Keep your knees locked out the entire time and keep your heels flat on the floor. Your back should be in a straight line with your head in line with your shoulders. Hold for 30 sec to 1 min.
Barbell Assisted Dorsiflexion:
This one is commonly performed by olympic weightlifters, as this sport requires tremendous ankle mobility.
Stand with a barbell, or broomstick, against your legs and squat down to the floor as low as you can go.
Keep your back flat, your chest up and your heels flat on the floor. When you reach the bottom of the squat, place the barbell, or broomstick, on your knees. You should feel a stretch in the calves, but you will also feel a tightness in the front of your shins.
The muscles in the front of your shins are working double-time to stabilize you in that bottom position. This exercise is very challenging at first so try 1-3 sets of 30 seconds for this one.
Anterior Ankle Stretch:
Now we are going to stretch the front of the shins out. Find a bench and rest your knee on the pad. From here, place your shin on the bench with your toes pointed away from your knee. Now just slowly move your hips down toward your heel as far as they can go and hold this position for 1-2min.
Internal Rotation Stretch:
Find a jump stretch band and wrap it around your foot. Now turn your foot inward and put some tension on the band. You should feel a decent stretch on the outside of your shin. Hold for 1-2 min.
External Rotation Stretch:
Same drill as before, except this time just turn your foot outward and then pull on the band. The stretch should be felt on the inside of your leg this time. Hold for 1-2 min.
These stretches will help to loosen up tight ankles, if ankle mobility is the problem, then these stretches (along with the mental visualization mentioned earlier) should solve the problem. Just remember, mobility work is just as important as strength work, therefore, it should be treated accordingly.