Ankle mobility deficiencies can sometimes go unnoticed to the untrained eye due to compensations that can occur higher up the chain. Significant ankle dorsiflexion limitations (being able to lift your foot up) can cause havoc during squatting type movements, and can lead to injury to team sport athletes requiring changes of direction.
Some of the main compensations occurring from poor ankle dorsiflexion during movements requiring bending of the knee (think squatting, stepping) include:
• Knees and ankles caving in
• Feet turning out
• Excessive forward lean
This can lead to ankle, knee, hip and back injuries depending on the severity of the limitation and the movement compensations occurring. Now don’t think that every time you see these compensations it means that someone is lacking ankle mobility. It’s just one possibility of many things including: poor hip mobility/stability, poor trunk stability, poor movement control, poor glute activation/strength, which will be covered in later articles.
The knee to wall test is an easy method you can use to measure ankle dorsiflexion in yourself or your athletes. To create a setup you can use regularly all you need is a wall, some tape, ruler and a marker. What you do is place a 20cm strip of tape against a wall, leading away from it. (See video below). Using a marker measure 1cm increments on the tape.
To perform the test, line up your big toe with the 12cm mark. Aiming to keep your foot flat push your knee forward to touch the wall in front. The aim is to find the distance between your big toe and the wall where you can touch your knee to the wall in front while keeping your heel on the ground. If your heel moves up off the ground move your foot forward and retest. Since the aim is to find how much quality ankle dorsiflexion range you have, if your ankle rolls in you need to move your foot forward and restest. Otherwise you are measuring how much range you have with compensation. It can help to have someone assist you with testing; your partner can look closely to see when your heel leaves the ground, and when your ankle starts to roll in.
A general recommendation for results of the test is that at least 12cm is required. However, the amount you need is quite individual according to your body shape, activities performed and squat technique. Deep squats, front squats, high bar squats, single leg squats and overhead squats all require a more vertical torso and therefore increased forward translation of knee; meaning an increased need for ankle dorsiflexion is required. People who squat with a wide stance and sit back far will have less requirement for ankle dorsiflexion since there is less forward translation of the knee.
Poor ankle dorsiflexion can be caused by muscular and/or joint limitation. I commonly see people with recurrent ankle injuries present with large limitation in ankle dorsiflexion, such as less than 7-8cm. These can be some of the most difficult to treat as there may be some scar tissue from previous injury preventing optimal joint movement. There are many quality videos of calf stretches and mobility drills to increase ankle range of motion. Check out the Darkside Strength and MobilityWOD YouTube channels for a large range of ankle mobility drills. For stubborn or significant ankle limitations, such as <6cm, a competent physiotherapist may be needed to assist with manual therapy.
For athletes with large ankle limitations which are limiting squat range of motion, you can still train the lower body effectively and safely by choosing exercises which require less dorsiflexion. Some examples include: deadlifts, lunges, RDLs, good mornings, box squats emphasising sitting back, kettlebell swings. These are great alternatives to squatting while you work on increasing ankle range and improving the squat pattern. If your sport requires you to squat, such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting and CrossFit you can try Olympic lifting shoes to see if they help.
This is the setup we use at the Shed:
This video I found on YouTube does a decent job of explaining the test. They use a tape measure instead of tape, which is another way to measure the test.
We are also working on an eBook about common movement deficiencies and injuries we encounter. If you have any that you would like covered in the book, let us know on our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/thestrengthshed
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