When we were born, achieving a full depth squat occurred naturally. We sat there for hours, playing with toys and eating our food. It was normal, but as the years pass by, our bodies have become rigid and stiff.
"Our sedentary lifestyle is slowly eating away at any athletic ability that we had and the sad part is, most people don’t even realise it."
Our bodies are amazing at adapting. When you impose a stress on the body, it breaks down, adapts and you in turn become better. The reverse however is also true; if you don't continually impose stress on the body and challenge it, you lose the ability to perform. We often use the saying “use it or lose it” to explain this concept. If you don’t regularly move your ankle through its full range of motion, it will stiffen and remain restricted.
To achieve a full squat depth you need a significant amount of ankle range. Without this your centre of mass will shift backwards and you will lose balance in the squat.
"Limited ankle mobility causes biomechanical compensations and increases the risk for various injuries"
If you don't have enough ankle range for movements such as the squat, your body will compensate in a negative way, affecting your ability to lift efficiently and also increasing your risk of injury.
What are we looking for?
Below is a comparison of the difference between squatting with limited ankle mobility (on the left) and squatting with adequate ankle mobility (on the right). As you can see, having enough ankle mobility (dorsiflexion) is a very important factor in reaching a full-depth squat.
If you have restricted ankles, it is important to improve your ankle range. Failure to do so may mean you compromise your squat pattern and overload areas like your lower back and knees. Fixing your ankle range is an easy way to improve your squat mobility.
A restricted ankle joint can result in the following:
- Increased Knee Valgus (Inward Collapsing of Knee)
- Increased Pronation of the Feet (Rolling In)
- Reduced Knee Flexion
- Increased Forward Trunk Lean (In Squat)
Quite often the hip mobility and thoracic spine are the focus for improvements in mobility and little attention is paid to ankle mobility. It's important to not forget how important ankle mobility is!
Training Tip: If you notice yourself folding forward during a squat then poor ankle mobility may be your problem!
Ankle Mobility Test
The knee to wall test is a great way to find out if you have a restricted ankle joint. The test will tell you two things:
1. If you have a difference in range between each ankle
2. If you fall within the optimal range of ankle mobility
It is not uncommon to have one side more restricted than the other, particularly if you have had a history of ankle or calf injuries. Finding this information out is important as it helps guide any extra corrective work you can do to ensure you move optimally.
Starting the test
To begin the test, take off your shoes and place a ruler next to the wall. Place one foot 14cm from the wall and the other about another foots distance behind it. Bend your front knee forward and try to touch your knee against the wall while maintaining a neutral foot and knee position (keep your knee straight over your toes and don’t allow your foot to roll inwards) and keeping your heel on the ground.
If your knee cannot touch the wall without your heel lifting then shift your front foot forward and repeat the test until you can. Repeat the test for the other leg and record your distances for each side. Ideally there should be symmetry between both sides.
The distance you want to achieve here is 14cm. Any less indicates a restriction in dorsiflexion range.
Training Tip: If you pass this test but still feel like you struggle to keep upright in the squat, check out our article on improving thoracic mobility.
What restricts ankle dorsiflexion?
The three main reasons that ankle joint might be restricted:
- Soft Tissue Restrictions
- Joint Restrictions
- Structural Changes
Knowing you have restricted ankles is one thing but knowing how to fix it is another. The feeling of restriction will impact the treatment protocol.
Below are some ankle mobility exercises and drills we recommend:
1. Banded Ankle Distraction
If you feel a “pinching” sensation in the front of the ankle it may indicate a bony block or ligament restriction of the joint. These types of restrictions won't improve with mobility drills or using a foam roller. In these cases we suggest the mulligans mobilisation method using a resistance band. In normal ankle ROM, the talus bone of the foot moves backwards as the shin moves forward into dorsiflexion as we squat. In order to help improve this movement to increase mobility, the band must help push the talus bone backwards as you move into dorsiflexion.
Training Tip: Ensure the band is not placed too high and is pulling down on the talus not the tibia! This backwards pull on the tibia will actually do the opposite of what we want to achieve.
If you feel tightness at the back of your ankle or calf region as you move through dorsiflexion, this is a good indication that you have a soft tissue restriction. We recommend you do the following exercises to improve this.
2. Self Myofascial Release with Massage Stick
Tight calves can really restrict the ankle joint. We recommend using a massage stick to work through this area. This is best done in a seated position as it takes the stretch off the gastrocnemius. Apply pressure using the massage stick and roll up and down for a few minutes each side.
3. Forced Dorsiflexion on Box
This particular ankle mobility drill is more advanced and aggressive than others but a great way to improve dorsiflexion. Place your foot on a small box and use your body weight and arms to force your ankle into dorsiflexion. It is important to keep your heel in contact with the box and ensure your knee tracks laterally and does not collapse inward. This drill is best done rocking back and forward holding in the stretch position. This drill focuses more on stretching the soleus as the knee is flexed.
4. Heel Drop Exercise
The heel drop exercise is a great stretch for the gastrocnemius muscle. Standing on a small box, raise up onto both toes and then transfer all your weight onto one leg. Now slowly eccentrically lower down to the fully stretched position as in the picture on the right. Hold this position for 3-5 seconds then repeat for multiple reps. This exercise is great as it allows you to put all your body weight into the stretch.
5. Plantar Foot Release
The plantar fascia is the flat band of tissue that connects your heel to your toes. It is made up of a thin sheet of fibrous tissue and is located under the sole of the foot. It's role is to provide support to the arch as it spreads from the heel to the toes. There are 5 layers of muscles that run under the foot and numerous tendons that attach to the foot from muscles that are located in the lower limb. Excess tightness in any of these can play a role in ankle restriction. These muscles have attachments to the plantar fascia. We suggest a plantar foot release technique by using a small ball to roll under the arch for reducing tightness in this region.
In the case of restricted ankle mobility, a tight plantar fascia will cause unnecessary tension throughout the whole posterior chain. The plantar fascia is the starting track for the superficial back line which is a sling of fascia that connects the whole posterior chain.
To learn more about fascial lines be sure to check out the work of Thomas Myers book, Anatomy Trains.
It is also advised to take note of the footwear you choose. If you regularly wear shoes that have an elevated heel, you will cause the soft tissue around your ankles to stiffen, contributing to reduced ankle dorsiflexion. If you are trying to improve your ankle mobility we suggest you choose footwear with a flat heel.
In some cases, these exercises will not improve ankle mobility. If you find these exercises aren’t helping, or you continue to experience pain on loaded dorsiflexion of your ankle then chat to your trainer about seeing a professional to get this assessed.