When we think of mobility in CrossFit, we usually focus on our shoulders, traps, IT band, quadriceps—pretty much the entire posterior chain (which includes the glutes, hamstrings, posterior deltoids, and more). But what about the ankles? You might scoff at the notion of spending time to work on the flexibility of the joint, but what if I told you that doing so would significantly help your squat, improve your strength and reduce the risk of injury? Now I’ve got your attention.
To learn why ankle mobility is so important in a squat (or any closed chain movement where the foot is in contact with the ground), we must learn more about dorsiflexion and how it relates to the ankle.
Dorsiflexion and the ankle
The ankle is a hinge joint and is only able to move (on its own) through one plane of motion—the sagittal plane. There are two movements within this plane, plantarflexion and dorsiflexion. Plantarflexion is the movement or pointing of the toes downwards (like a ballerina going on to her tiptoes). Dorsiflexion, as you might imagine, is it’s opposite. This is when you lift the ball of the foot with the heel in contact with the ground as if you were pulling your foot upwards towards your knee. Now the reason why dorsiflexion is considered to be the most important of the degrees of freedom of the ankle is because it allows for the tibia (the shin) to move forward, relative to the position of the foot. This is crucial for correct body positioning and the efficient production and application of force.
What causes poor dorsiflexion?
Poor dorsiflexion can be attributed to a number of factors. These include:
- Flexibility issues with the Gastroc/Soleus complex (muscles of the calf).
- Ankle joint restriction. This can be due to a tight joint capsule and/or scar tissue and adhesions in the joint from prior injuries or surgeries.
- Anterior pelvic tilt posture. Bad posture (how often do you slouch when you’re sitting at your desk?) brings the body’s center of mass forward, which causes the ankle to plantarflex in an attempt to balance it out.
- Other injuries in the lower body. If an athlete is experiencing knee, hip or back pain as well as any other muscle soreness in the lower body, they will instinctively limp or modify their movement to avoid discomfort. Doing so will cause the ankle joint to tighten and limit its range of motion.
- Frequently wearing shoes with elevated heels. Most shoes have a heel that is slightly higher than the front of the shoe, so wearing them excessively will result in a progressive loss of flexibility. Now, I know what you’re going to say: “What about OLY shoes?” There is a varying debate on the usefulness of OLY’s—Matt Chan has actually attributed a knee injury he sustained to lifting in this shoe. On the other hand, Greg Everett points out that OLY shoes are around for a reason—to increase an ankle’s range of motion and allow them to dorsiflex. Obviously an OLY shoe doesn’t have as high a heel as, well, heels.
How to test your ankle mobility
So how do you know if you have poor ankle mobility? There are a couple of ways to find out:
- Perform a basic air squat a few times and have someone watch you. A telltale sign of poor mobility is if your heels routinely come off the ground.
- Stand straight with your feet together. Can you lift the ball of your foot off the ground without moving your body?
- Kneel on the ground and assume a position similar to stretching your hip flexors, with one knee on the floor. Your lead foot that you are testing should be lined up 5 inches from the wall. From this position, start to lean in towards the wall while keeping your heel on the ground for as long as possible. This position allows you to measure the tibia angle in relation to the ground and measure the distance of the kneecap from the wall when the heel starts to come up. If the kneecap can touch the wall from 5 inches away, you have good mobility in the ankle.
How does poor dorsiflexion affect your performance?
Depending on the level of inflexibility in the ankle, it may cause a complete inability to perform a movement, or create a negative knock-on effect all the way up the posterior chain with the serious potential to cause an injury. As I mentioned, poor ankle mobility causes the tibia to be dragged into a more vertical position, the trunk to lean forward and the loss of a neutral spine (as well as a host of other maladies). So what are the practical implications of poor dorsiflexion of the ankle? Primarily, it severely decreases the ability to generate maximum force, thanks in large part to the loss of a neutral spine impairing the ability to transfer force from the hips to the load. In particular, it will affect the front squat (and therefore clean) and overhead squat (and therefore snatch). Furthermore, if you are performing lighter or unweighted variations of these movements, you are building negative technique habits and unsafe joint loading patterns that will leak efficiency, reduce your work capacity and increase the risk of injury.
Obviously, it’s important to spend time working on ankle mobility to improve dorsiflexion. Here are a number of exercises to help get you started:
- Self-myofascial release on the foam roller. Grab a foam roller (the harder the better) and sit on the ground. Place one leg on the roller, just above the ankle. Roll up and down the entire length of your calf and Achilles’ tendon for 1 minute. If you hit a tender spot (you’ll know if you do), pause and focus on this area for 10-20 seconds. The great thing about this exercise is that you can turn your body to the side and hit both the medial and lateral aspect of your calf, and you can add in active movements during the rolling such as actively dorsiflexing the foot or performing ankle circles.
- Banded heel cord with anterior bias. Take a monster band and fasten it against something stable such as a rack, and loop your foot through the front. Maintain contact between the front crease of your ankle, and have the cord pull you back. Step up and place the ball of the working foot onto a 25 or 45lb plate, or just an elevated surface, allowing your heel to still be on the ground. Drive your knee forward and backward, to put pressure on the front of the ankle to get a good stretch into the joint. Move into the end of the available range, and then move out of the end range, for about 1-2 minutes.
- Heel raises. This is a simple and quick drill that is easy to perform. Simply place your toes on a slight incline (like two 5lb plates) and move into dorsiflexion by bending your knees. Increase the incline as you progress.
- Half kneeling PVC drill. As the name suggests, start with one knee bent on the ground, so you are half-kneeling. Keeping your chest straight and high, hold a PVC pipe upright at the outside of your front foot. Lean into dorsiflexion, ensuring that your knee goes outside of the PVC.
There are a ton of additional exercises you can find by doing some research online, or you can ask your coaches for some useful exercises. Just make sure that you start adding in an extra few minutes to your daily mobility routine to start reaping the benefits of proper ankle dorsiflexion!
Photo credit: Nik Martinez