Adequate mobility throughout the body is important, especially for people who lift weights and athletes that have to move efficiently. Even non-lifters and non-athletes can benefit from postural integrity however, so there is really no valid excuse to have poor mobility. With that being said, the ankles (and adequate range of motion within them) are part of an important foundation that allows you to have better mechanics in all sorts of movement patterns from walking to squatting.
Do You Have Decent Ankle Mobility?
A great way to test ankle mobility quickly is to check whether or not you’re able to get into the bottom position of a pistol squat. A pistol squat places a lot of demands on ankle mobility. Where you’re able to compensate more easily for poor ankle mobility in a bilateral squat, the pistol squat will expose your weakness. The video below from MobilityWOD is where this idea came from.
Strength or lack thereof could be a limiting factor in this test, so if you can’t do a pistol squat and you believe it’s because you simply aren’t strong enough to do a unilateral squat movement, then keep it bilateral. Do a regular body weight squat: Heels on the ground throughout the movement with weight distributed through the tripod of your feet. Your feet should be turned out slightly at about 15° and people with exceptional ankle mobility will be able to keep them pointed straight forward. Don’t try to keep your feet pointed straight forward, unless you know you have great ankle flexibility. This can cause knee pain without the required ankle mobility. Why? Answer part 1 and part 2. 🙂 Squat all the way down with the knees tracking your feet (at minimum) or preferably outside your feet. If your knees cave inward during any part of the movement, or you simply can’t get them to at least track your feet, there is a very good chance you should work on hip mobility. (Note: This does not mean you have adequate ankle mobility, it simply means you have poor hip mobility.)
When doing the squat movement, see if you notice your feet turning outward as you squat down. If this happens, there is a good chance you should work on ankle mobility. The turning out of the feet is how your ankle compensates for less than optimal mobility to reach depth on the squat. Great hip mobility can compensate for this a little bit, but you should still strive to at least have good ankle mobility.
Improving Ankle Mobility
Now that you kind of know where you stand with regards to your ankle mobility, it’s time to improve it.
One of my favorite ankle mobility drills is this one from Kelly Starrett.
More ankle mobility drills: Foam roll your calves like this and stretch them like this. Also mash your calves like this. Improve ankle mobility with a box, jumpstretch band and a friend like this. More ankle mobility work being done here. Another good ankle stretch is this one. If you’re looking for a badass foam roller, the Rumble Roller is your best bet. Your cheapest option is getting a PVC pipe though. Pro tip: Wrap it in duct tape to make it less slippery.
Fix your feet! The feet are also important. Mash them like this with a tennis ball, lacrosse ball (what I use personally) and/or golf ball. Also worth watching: Rebuilding the Feet (from MWOD) – Part 1 and Part 2
Compensating for Ankle Mobility Issues When Squatting
Now you know how to improve your ankle mobility, but it’s not going to be completely fixed overnight (while you will notice a difference immediately after self myofascial release) and there is a very potent trick to quickly mask a deficit in ankle flexiblity: Wear Olympic weightlifting shoes to squat (high bar, Oly style squat with a fairly narrow stance) or when you perform Olympic lifts like the snatch or clean. The 0.75″ heel lift in these shoes allows for greater ankle range of motion, which in turn enables you to squat deeper with less than optimal ankle and/or hip flexiblity. Oly shoes also give you a very stable platform to squat from, because they don’t compress like most other shoes. This doesn’t mean you stop working on mobility. It simply means you can compensate a little bit for less than optimal ankle mobility.
There is usually a fairly easy way to address a mobility or pain issue. In this case, we have a lack of flexibility in the ankle, so we attack what’s above it (the lower leg) and what’s below it (the foot) to improve it. Coupled with poor ankle mobility can be knee pain, which we try to improve by fixing hip mobility and ankle mobility. Above and below again.
And that wraps up ankle mobility. As always, it’s just my opinion. I’m not a doctor or physical therapist. I’m just a guy who lifts and reads. If you have anything to add, leave it in the comments and I might edit this article to include it.