Starting from the ground up
Mobility of joints is how much range of motion (ROM) and range of freedom a joint has, if we look at a ball and socket joint, the ball glides in the joint in many directions until something ( muscle, tendon, ligament, bone) stops it from going further that could lead to subluxation or dislocation out of the socket.
Many associate mobility with flexibility, flexibility has to do with muscles lengthening through a ROM, so let’s put that to rest. When you stretch you are putting influence on a muscle to contract and influence the bone and joint it attaches to, when people do yoga they are increasing mobility of joints which will increase range of motion. The important thing for most people is the ability to keep mobility and range of motion daily. Some people we have seen will see acute results after doing a session but a couple of hours later will fall back into certain patterns and their mobility will go back to what it was before the session.
Often in the gym we see people trying to gain more mobility in the ankle through stretching, certain footwear, elevating the heels while lifting or through training. All of these techniques are helpful at increasing mobility but how can we make these modalities stick?
From now on in our blog I will refer to stretching as inhibition techniques. These are techniques that inhibit a certain muscle or muscle chains that may be overactive due to position causing tightness or limitations in mobility.
Back to the ankle and possible problems
The left ankle, right ankle and foot are what connect our two halves of the body together through the ground, they provide feedback for the brain of what the ground is, where our center of mass is, and how we operate that center of mass. Limitations of the joints of the ankle can lead to compensatory patterns of the foot and influence what can happen up the chain (e.g.- the knee and hip).
When looking at mobility of the ankle and foot we first have to consider the skeleton system above; hip and knee stability play a crucial role in ankle ROM (range of motion). If there is improper positioning of the pelvis then the ankles can compensate, adjust to the demands your body places on it so it can perform its daily tasks (Such as walking). We will go more in-depth with the hip in the next blog post to gain control of the pelvis and help position the ankle. But back to the ankle and foot. The joint itself consists of many bones, the biggest players are the talus and calcaneus (heel). The calcaneus is what steers the ship. Then we have the muscles that connect the tibula and fibula (lower leg) to the ankle, peroneals, anterior tibialis, gastrocnemius (calf muscle), these muscles act upon the bones of the foot and ankle to create movement patterns that drive motion.
Ankle mobility helps with many forms of movement, gait cycle (walking), running, squatting and many exercises that are performed in the gym. The ankle moves in a triplanar motion, it can supinate, pronate, abduct, adduct, plantar flex, dorsiflex, invert and evert. We need all of these movements to be able to walk correctly, run and live life. If we lose a portion of these movements or are stuck in certain positions we have tendencies to compensate, which will lead to the use of other muscle and bone strategies to walk and move.
If compensation occurs, ankle mobility is lost or reduced and we become less efficient through joints above the ankle as well as the ankle. This can lead to shin splints, tight calves, tight hamstrings, tight lower backs. Limitations of dorsiflexion have been shown to lead to knee valgus and high risk of other knee injuries. Consequently, on the opposite side, too much ankle movement can lead to frontal plane instability which increases risk of ACL injury and patellar-femoral pain.
The goal of the techniques is to take tension off the tissues of the ankle that can be toned up and cause the limited range of motion. Restoring muscles to correct length and function is the strategy we are seeking to improve range of motion through the ankle and foot joints.
The deep squat test is one of the best screens to check to see ankle ROM and if you may need to increase ROM. The goal of the deep squat test is to be able to have your hips sit on your heels and maintain that position for a pause. Limitations are seen when the knees do not go over toes and/ or hips are unable to get past parallel. If there are limitations of getting the depth required for the optimal position of the test then you might have to inhibit and get the ankle moving properly.
One of the biggest issues we see as trainers is the lack of ankle mobility in the squat. When performing the squat test or bodyweight squat there are limitations in how far the knee will track over the toes and bend forward and how far the person can sit their hips down towards the floor. They will also present with tightness in the front lower leg area and feel tight shins.
To avoid this issue many will put plates underneath the heel and elevate the heels placing the ankle and hips in a different position, muscles in a lengthened state allowing for more range of motion on the squat. It gives them the depth they need to perform the exercise but they are not changing any mobility. It has actually been shown that squatting with a heel wedge can lead to decrease in quadricep activity, so if you are looking to train the legs the heel lift should be used sparingly and work the person squatting with feet flat on the floor. It will be more advantageous to progressively work to inhibit the tight muscle chains that are causing the ankle to be stiff or increase muscle activity to help if you have too much flexibility.
The inhibition techniques go a long way for a perceived tight ankle, one of the best inhibition techniques we use is out of an all four position respecting the position of the pelvis and ribcage while progressing slowly into the stretch- you should feel the stretch through the back of the legs, calves and back of the heel.