Poor ankle dorsiflexion range of motion often gets the blame as being problematic in weight lifters, gym goers, and people experiencing pain but are we actually screening to see if we have sufficient mobility before placing the blame? There are many reasons why someone’s movement pattern can be problematic and lack of ankle mobility is just one of them.
The joint-by-joint approach developed by physical therapist Gray Cook and strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle tells us that our body consists of alternating joints where each joint has a training preference towards mobility or stability. The ankle joint has a tendency towards stiffness and would therefore benefit from mobility and flexibility. The term regional interdependence further explains that as a result, one joint can have a direct influence on another interacting both biomechanically and neurologically.
If adaptations are what we are seeking from training, we need to be asking ourselves: Are our joints able to get into the ideal positions in order to absorb and adapt to stress? It’s important to assess whether your ankle mobility is a limiting factor in your ability to move optimally. Dorsiflexion is an important motion required during activities like walking, running, and squatting and restrictions can hinder performance and lead to dysfunctional movement patterns. Let’s dive into the anatomy to get a better understanding.
The talocrural joint or ankle joint is a hinge joint that is formed by three bones: the tibia and fibula of the lower leg and the talus of the foot. The tibia and fibula are bound together by strong ligaments and together they form a socket called the mortise. The talus fits smoothly within the mortise and allows for dorsiflexion and plantar is flexion. During the movement of dorsiflexion, the talus rolls anterior and glides posteriorly.
Self-Assess Your Dorsiflexion Range of Motion
Prior to engaging in activity, we need to have a baseline level of mobility and something we can use quickly to assess, intervene and reassess. Poor ankle dorsiflexion range of motion can influence the entire kinetic chain from the ground up and limit your ability to move optimally like mentioned earlier.
Half Kneeling Dorsiflexion Assessment
- Your biggest toe should contact the top of the measuring stick
- Drive your knee as far forward as you can without letting your heel come off of the ground
- We are looking from the top down for 4 inches
Closed Chain Dorsiflexion Screen (utilizing the measure app)
- Utilizing the measure app on your phone, set it to the level option
- Place your phone on the mid portion of your lower leg right on your tibial tuberosity (bump below your knee)
- Drive your knee as far forward as you can without letting your heel come off the ground. We are looking for 40 degrees.
Soft-Tissue Restriction vs. Joint Restriction
You have figured out that your ankle mobility is a potential problem but how do we address this? When performing the above screens, we need to differentiate between a soft-tissue restriction or a joint restriction. Discomfort felt behind your ankle or leg indicates a soft tissue restriction. Your calf musculature including your gastrocnemius and your soleus (the deeper calf muscle) is the limiting factor here. This should be addressed with self-myofascial release techniques to these soft tissue structures followed by self-stretching
Foam Roll Calf with Active Release
Standing Gastroc Stretch
Standing Soleus Stretch
If discomfort or a pinching sensation is felt in the front of your ankle this would indicate a joint restriction. Here, emphasis should be placed on self-mobilizations to the ankle joint complex
Standing 3-way Dorsiflexion Mobilization
1) Place your hands on a wall and the ankle you are working should be placed in front
2) Drive your knee as far as you can towards the wall without letting your heel come off the ground
3) Perform this in three directions, straight forward, to the right, and to the left to encompass all aspects of the joint
Banded Half Kneeling Self Mobilization with Kettlebell Overpressure
1) Start in a half kneeling position with a resistance band below the malleolus (bones on the inside and outside of your ankle)
2) Place a kettlebell or dumbbell on your front thigh for overpressure
3) Drive your knee as far forward as you can without letting your heel come off the ground
Lock in Your New Range of Motion With Strengthening
So you have determined you have an ankle mobility deficit, you have identified the limiting factor as either a soft-tissue or joint restriction and have addressed this with the techniques mentioned above. Once improved range of motion is noted, the window in which it will likely stay is minimal if not directly reinforced with strengthening. It is important that we are directly loading and reinforcing newly acquired ranges of motion to promote long term gains. Exercises such as banded ankle PRE’s (progressive resistance exercises) or calf raises with both knees straight and knees bent focusing on a large range of motion into dorsiflexion and plantarflexion is a great place to start. Focusing on isometric contractions at end ranges will help drive corticomotor-excitability while focusing on an eccentric lowering will promote a motor learning effect. This should be followed by functional movements like squats and lunges to really drive that new motion to stick.