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By Carl Valle
If I had to pick one of the least efficient training approaches to improving athletes, it would be working on ankle mobility to increase dorsiflexion. It may be uncomfortable to admit that ankle mobility is strongly tied to genetics, but we need to embrace the evidence and logic that is available today. It’s perfectly natural to find unpleasant the notion that some things we do on a daily basis don’t work, but for us to make progress, we need to look honestly at the topic and ask the tough questions.
I want to make myself perfectly clear: I do value ankle range of motion and I actively respect efforts to restore it, but many of the drills we see in instructional videos are clickbait or misinformation. Most mobility exercises are underpowered or simply only appropriate for injuries, not for healthy athletes who have maxed out their anatomy. In this article, I will cover the details of ankle mobility, and review what potentially works and what might just hemorrhage time from training. Again, ankle mobility matters, but the unfortunate reality is that many corrective exercises waste time and give false hope to athletes.Most mobility exercises are underpowered or simply only appropriate for injuries, not for healthy athletes who have maxed out their anatomy, explains @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
This article makes the simple case that athletes who do have a need to restore their natural range of motion should invest in sound therapies, and those with no issues or room left to move should continue to skip the endless drills and use weight-bearing exercises with full range to maintain what they have. If a test shows an athlete has sufficient range of motion or is anatomically restricted, we need to leave the athlete alone and train them with what nature gave them.
In this article, I lead you through the logic of the following:
- Clearly defining ankle mobility, specifically weight-bearing dorsiflexion.
- Exploring whether ankle mobility really helps reduce injury or helps with performance.
- Learning how to measure dorsiflexion reliably and precisely for monitoring purposes.
- Evaluating intervention strength to see if anything is worth adding to a program.
I also devote one section to the marketing hype of ankle mobility, and I want to make sure we are constructive and not just critical. I believe some of the videos have merit, but I am not convinced of an exercise’s benefit unless the evangelist has data to back up their claimed changes. I know some programs really do a nice job developing joint range of motion, but those programs are usually conventional and use heavy strength training and manual therapy, not a few corrective exercises at the end of a workout.
In short, restore what nature has given your athletes, but don’t blindly run in and add exercises. Even if you can actually make a difference, it’s just wishful to think you will see dramatic changes in performance and injury rates from mobility training. On the other hand, the preservation or conservation of joint range is important and must be guarded carefully, as cascades of injury could happen when athletes are “not themselves.”
What Is Ankle Mobility Scientifically?
Just to make sure we are on the same page, ankle mobility is not just dorsiflexion of the joint, but the available range of motion in all three planes. For the purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on dorsiflexion, the main quality coaches and sports medicine professionals work on improving.
Anatomically, the foot and ankle system is extremely complex, and should not be boiled down to plantar flexion (pointing the toes) and dorsiflexion (bringing the toes up). Other motions such as inversion and eversion happen in the frontal plane, and abduction and adduction in the sagittal plane. The ankle is a mortise joint, so it does move anteriorly and posteriorly in a sliding manner, but we will cover the most widely known motion, gross dorsiflexion of the ankle. Plantar flexion matters, but most sports outside of swimming care about the range of motion the other direction. Medically, some athletes struggle with extending their foot in a plantar motion, but that is way beyond the scope of this article.
Ankle dorsiflexion can differ in two situations, one weight-bearing and the other unweighted. During load bearing, the foot stays flat and the tibia rocks forward, but during the swing phase in running, the foot recoils and actively dorsiflexes slightly, just enough to let the great toe and forefoot land slightly ahead of the center of mass. The foot doesn’t actively dorsiflex to full motion during sprinting, and this relaxation happens 4-5 times a second at full speed, an event that we can’t cue or consciously control.
Limitations to ankle range of motion can come from soft tissue or the architectural design of the foot, and with motor control issues at times. I will not get into disease for this article, so I am only addressing the arthrokinematics of the foot and ankle and not brain injury or similar. A few soft tissue restrictions coming from the calf may be a culprit, but most of the blockage from range of motion comes from the tibia and talus, along with other structures.We are all born with different ranges of motion and need to accept that we are unable to modify that range, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A joint can only go so far, and for structural integrity, the foot needs a design constraint to actually improve its function, not be a hindrance to performance. The simple truth is that the foot is remarkably durable and wonderfully engineered, but the ankle is also stubborn to change. Bones and hard structures are there for a reason. We are all born with different ranges of motion and need to accept that we are unable to modify that range.
How Important Is Ankle Mobility for Sport?
When coaches look at ankle mobility, they often think about squatting or deep leg angles, or perhaps athlete injuries. Walking, the most important form of gait, requires 20-40 degrees of range of motion. When athletes have poor ankle mobility, exercises that require large ranges of motion often become problematic.
Chronically training and competing with poor dorsiflexion appears to be an issue with jumping sports, but some research shows that those with lower ankle mobility could benefit from more stiffness with regard to running fast and jumping high. I have seen a pattern where the best athletes have poor ranges of motion and those who are deep squatters are great in the weight room but have poor speed due to anatomical tradeoffs. Sometimes we have an athlete who is blessed with long limbs and tendons, along with a mobile ankle.
So, what do we believe? What is ideal for an athlete? Does the type of sport matter? What about durability or injury resilience?
I love the squat, but understand that depending on one exercise is moronic. I have seen poor dorsiflexion scores tend to lead to patellar tendon overload in many athletes I have worked with. I do think a connection exists, but the relationship is rather weak and can’t be distilled to one clinical test. What we do know is that talent can’t be identified by poor or high ankle mobility, but durability may have some connection if an athlete has a severe restriction.Talent can’t be identified by poor or high ankle mobility, but durability may have some connection if an athlete has a severe restriction, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Based on injury rates and performance profiling, having great ankle mobility isn’t proven to be a significant advantage on the field. However, if you are a strength coach, you likely want more range of motion to work with. A proper strategy is to look for normative data and see how each athlete responds to training and restoration techniques. Coaches need to conserve range of motion, not seek out phantom benefits that may not actualize from a very stubborn joint system. So far, the research isn’t clear that those with average or poor mobility are doomed to get hurt, but I think in a few years we will see better information.
Why Marketing Fooled Us All with Mobility Drills
Perhaps the muse for this article is the disappointment of experimenting with countless ankle mobility routines for years and having very little to show for it. You have likely been on the internet yourself and read the articles promoting improvement in ankle mobility if you do XYZ drills daily. The ugly truth is that most of the drills are fluff movements or butchered sports medicine exercises bundled together in the hope that a healthy athlete will suddenly start opening up their ankle joint further, released by some near magical motion.
The reality is that many of the mobility exercises we see don’t make a dent in mobility improvements. They just help normal adults or athletes learn how to get full range in their existing ankle joint, not make further gains in range. I have seen a few athletes improve their range of motion a few degrees, but again, they restored it to what they were born with, they didn’t change the limiting factors.The reality is that many of the mobility exercises we see don’t make a dent in mobility improvements, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Those who currently promote routines or methods to improve ankle mobility need to be clear on what they are promising. Are they actually increasing range of motion or doing an exercise that feels good? Do the drills actually improve ankle mobility—specifically dorsiflexion—or do they restore it if an injury or other impairment occurred previously? If the system or drills actually do improve ankle mobility, what are the expectations for human performance or injury reduction? What are the typical changes in programs over the last two decades? Usually, when I have this kind of discussion with an ankle mobility proponent, it leaves me empty-handed for any type of evidence.
What I can do is show my own experience with athletes and demonstrate that, at times, ankle mobility work is useful. But I also want to warn the coaching community that the magnitude of change is not as good as the videos and blogs I see online. On the record, if you do one or two ankle correctives a session, don’t expect much change. If you put in enough time with a coach or therapist, change can happen, provided you are not fighting uphill during the season.
I added a few exercises in the past, but totally forgot that I was squatting deep as well, thus giving me false hope that the drills were doing everything. They weren’t, but the combination likely was a great fit for us.
How to Measure Ankle Mobility Efficiently
When you know how to measure ankle mobility correctly and take copious notes on corrective exercise prescription, you will realize that most of the gentle and unloaded routines simply don’t make much impact. Measurement is not about showing that we can collect data; it’s internally auditing that what we think is happening is actually occurring. Coaches can measure ankle mobility with smart devices or orthopedic options, but I prefer a combination of methods instead of one summary metric. Ankle mobility can be measured in three dimensions, but for the sake of practicality (time) and responsibility (role), let’s review the two options for gross dorsiflexion. If you have read Louis Howe’s article on joint range of motion, this section adds a lot of value to what he recommends. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you do.
Based on the research, you need to use a weighted or ground-based lunge test, otherwise the data is not reliable if it’s measured by others on your staff. I personally use a force plate now as I see too much baseline data that is weight-bearing but not maximal effort. Athletes who go through a season with follow-up screening will know they have eyes on them. Measuring with a force plate reminds an athlete that you can’t cheat the effort and it also connects the barbell to mobility maintenance.
Adding a force plate sounds extreme, but I personally don’t have enough psychological bandwidth to watch athletes do corrective exercise drills—even if they did work well—so the reminder of how loading matters is the reason I use the technology. I don’t care about athletes buying in, I care about them cutting out the sales process altogether. Simply adding a force plate adds more precision and repeatability to the process and promotes the barbell over looking for others to do the dirty work (manual therapy).
You should test ankle mobility roughly once a month if you have a jumping athlete and quarterly for most field sports, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The ankle lunge test is not new. Coaches can do it with tape and a wall, and measure the distance away from the wall or the angle of the tibial position. I prefer both, since athletes are likely to want to self-test out of curiosity and we can use the angle to connect ankle mobility to squatting and other leg movements. You should test ankle mobility roughly once a month if you have a jumping athlete and quarterly for most field sports. The second option is unweighted testing, which I don’t believe is appropriate for coaches and is not very reliable in a clinical setting, in my experience.
Research on Ankle Mobility Restrictions and Interventions
The most comprehensive study on dorsiflexion in this article is this meta-analysis done years ago by Queensland University of Technology. While I don’t agree with the summary about “a paucity of quality evidence to support the efficacy of other non-surgical interventions,” I do think we should read over the list of references carefully.
In 2017, Howe published a great review of mobilization in his article on dorsiflexion, and I, too, have seen a few degrees from extensive interventions, but not for casual inclusion. Interpreting both conflicting resources, if you just do one intervention, it’s unlikely to be effective, so you may want to instigate a more intensive approach.
The scientific literature is riddled with conflicting and confusing outcomes; therefore, let’s create a framework of questions before coming up with a conclusion beyond the meta-analysis. A good example—perhaps the best example—is the study from Howe again, where the researchers measured ankle mobility and found no differences in kinetics during landing tasks. Basically, the researchers had a group of athletes with various levels of dorsiflexion land on force plates and they used motion capture to see how the athletes absorbed the impact.
Other researchers did see a change in motion, potentially a way to judge non-contact ACL risk if used properly, but the impact characteristics are still there without any reduction in ground reaction forces. In summary, those with higher dorsiflexion had different movement strategies, but still had to pay the piper with force impacts from jump landings. I expect in 10 years the necessary details of tendon and joint stress will be deciphered with applied research on joint structure and local stress.
A cool study from Spain recruited players from a couple of teams to track their ankle range of motion chronically using the lunge test and a measurement device. The group of scientists included workload utilizing RPE and GPS tracking to ensure the comparison would be fair in regard to time and effort on the pitch. Not shockingly, they found that, over time, ankle mobility was lost during the course of the season, thus supporting the notion that it’s common to see negative patterns if no intervention is present.
I wish we knew more about the type of weight training and warm-ups done, as we need more context. While no intervention was recorded, the expectation is that mobility doesn’t increase or stay the same, so you likely need to do something to restore range. I don’t test ankle mobility before games, but I would be curious to see if technology could see changes during potentiation warm-ups, as the frequency during the week of the study wasn’t high enough to fully ascertain restoration or restrictions.
In closing, adding an intervention or two is improbable with athletes, but it’s clear that a need exists and a more aggressive program may help. I believe in very intensive approaches to restore ankle mobility; I don’t support the notion that adding a few drills to a team program will result in significant changes. Howe has convinced me that you can make changes, as he uses validated testing and multiple interventions, but his system is not typical of the average program.
Are Mobility Exercises Worth Implementing in a Program?
Honestly, most of the exercises don’t do much to improve ankle range of motion unless they occur after injury. Typical programs see a few degrees of improvement if an athlete is very dedicated, but the average program won’t see enough of a trend to get excited about. If you are a believer in anything performance, you are likely measuring it.
Where are all of the super-mobile basketball teams? I ask this not in jest, but if you are going to promote a method, a measure keeps us honest as to how modifiable a variable is. If you typically get a few degrees, that range better show value if it takes up hours and hours over the course of a year. It’s better to cut something out of a program or find a better way to get mobility than invest countless hours and reap so little.
Efficient and effective are similar but not the same. Therefore, the question is: Can we do something about ankle mobility if we apply interventions, and how much effort is needed? When we know something is possible, how can we do it better so we reduce the total amount of resources and so it’s easier to administer in a program?
I have seen manual therapy and heavy traction-style mobilizations, along with heavy lifting, get athletes about 5 degrees if they start under double digits. If they are about 10-12 degrees, I tend to see a few degrees if they invest a lot of resources full-time.
Most coaches should think about using the PCA test and distance away from the wall in centimeters and not clinical range. Again, the use of clinical goniometers and other instruments like an inclinometer is fine if you are a skilled sports medicine provider. I only used them as old reference values, as I have gone to wall distance as a primary number for coaches. I keep repeating measurement because if the purpose of the exercise is to get range, you need to see changes show up or you are simply wasting time or doing stuff to keep athletes busy.
I have yet to see systemic change with groups that are known to be restricted, such as professional basketball teams. If someone has a team that measures at the end of the spectrum (read high mobility) across the board, I want to visit. I am not saying it’s impossible, but with all of that mobility in the ankle, where are the perfect overhead squats?
We are strangely accepting of hip architecture being a culprit for posterior tilt of the spine and pelvis during squatting, but look at the ankle as an anatomical opportunity to improve the craft. If an athlete has a severe limit in range, you can add a heel wedge to the squat, have them wear weightlifting shoes, or some sort of combination of the two. Often, an exercise is not worth it, so coaches just attack other movements that jive with an athlete’s anatomy.
Most athletes who are young and healthy don’t need ankle mobility drills; they need training that loads the joint safely and ensures the range is exploited rather than “enhanced.” Click To Tweet
In summary, the effort to improve ankle mobility means you need to really invest time one on one with the athlete or sacrifice other areas in order to tap into the promised range of motion. Most athletes who are young and healthy don’t need ankle mobility drills; they need training that loads the joint safely and ensures the range is exploited rather than “enhanced.”
Based on the routines shared by Howe and others, you can’t just sprinkle a few minutes of ankle mobility in group training and expect dramatic changes. The time investment needs to be hours per month, not minutes per session. Ankle mobility can’t be done half-heartedly—it’s an either/or proposition that scales poorly with elite athletes.
Know the Limitations and Spend Your Time Wisely
I am confident that I covered the bases with ankle mobility. If you read the article carefully, I was very precise with my words and shared plenty of research and common sense and you probably came to the same conclusion. The ankle and foot system is a very complicated joint, but let’s not overthink things and forget that gross dorsiflexion is dictated by anatomy and genetics.
If you want to improve ankle mobility beyond what you normally have, good luck, as the limiting restrictions are bone, not tight calves. All of the ankle mobility work in the world will not change someone who is born with a severe range of motion deficit to suddenly be able to squat deep and hit the ranges of motion we see with Olympic weightlifters. Still, make sure you track and preserve whatever range of motion you do have, as changes, especially asymmetrical ones, may be a problem with regard to injury and career longevity