Welcome back to Squat University! During these past few weeks we have covered the ankle joint. Two weeks ago we discussed how the role of the mobile ankle contributes to our movement pattern in the squat. The deeper we squat, the more mobility we require at the ankle.
Previously, we introduced a screen to test our ankle mobility. We also discussed two common reasons for the development of ankle stiffness. Most restrictions are due to either joint immobility (such as a bony block) or soft tissue tightness (stiff muscles and/or fascia). The goal of this weeks lecture is to introduce a few simple tools to address these restrictions.
Today I wanted to share a few of my favorite tools. I also want to share with you my 3-step process in dealing with ankle stiffness.
- Foam Roll
A restriction in joint mobility should be the first area to address. During the ankle mobility screen, a “pinching” sensation felt in the front of the ankle indicates a bony block. These types of restrictions will not resolve with conventional stretching and foam rolling. Therefore, any pinching sensation or bony bock must be addressed first before moving onto possible soft tissue stiffness
One of the easiest ways to improve joint restrictions on your own is to use a band mobilization. The rubber material of the band is elastic and strong enough to affect the tough joint-capsules.If you don’t have access to one, the Superband from Perform Better is a great product.
Band distraction joint mobilizations assist with the way our bones glide over each other. A joint glide is sustained while the athlete actively moves into the specific range-of-motion we are trying to change. If we look at the ankle, the talus bone of the foot moves backwards as the shin moves forward into dorsiflexion as we squat. In order to help improve this movement to increase mobility, the band must help push the talus bone backwards (1,2). Often athletes will have the band placed too high on the ankle. This backwards pull on the tibia will actually do the opposite of what we want to achieve.
These types of mobilizations (simply termed mobilizations with movement) have been used for years by physical therapists. The goal is to alleviate any painful or pinching feelings deep in the joint.
Physical Therapist Manu Kalia gives an easy explanation for this banded mobilizations.
Once joint restrictions have been addressed the next step is to clear up any soft tissue stiffness. This starts with using a foam roller. I usually recommended athletes spend at least 2 minutes on each area they are trying to address with a foam roller. Every athlete should foam roll on a daily basis!
Physical Therapist Dr. Mike Reinold has an excellent video demonstrating this technique. Start by moving slowly up and down the lower leg muscles until you find a tender area. Pause on this area and ‘tack it down’ with your opposite leg for ~10 seconds before moving to find another spot. You can also add in some ankle pumps during this pause to increase the effectiveness.
Soft Tissue Stretching
Once foam rolling is complete, stretching the muscles is the next step to addressing soft tissue restrictions. The heel drop stretch is a good go-to in order to make some quick improvements. Before starting your workout, using this stretch after foam rolling is a great way to decrease any amount of stiffness in the lower leg.
Another version of this stretch is one I like to use prior to training sessions that include any form of barbell squatting. It is very position-specific and therefore has good carry over to the exact movements we are going to perform. To start, drop into a deep squat. This can be performed with either a kettle bell, a weighted plate, or a barbell. From this position, shift your weight onto one foot. Push you knee as far forward over your toe until you feel a stretch in the lower calf. After holding for ~10 seconds, shift to the other leg.
After you have addressed your stiff ankles, its time to check and see the progress you have made. Always employ a test-retest strategy when performing mobility exercises. This allows you to see if the tools you are using are effective in addressing the change you desire.
Performing the ankle mobility screen is a great way to measure and see if you have made any change. However, our goal is to make a lasting change in our overall movement pattern of the squat. After you have been working on improving your ankle mobility using these tools, perform a deep squat. Also attempt a deep pistol squat. Do you notice anything different?
My hope for this lecture is to give you the tools necessary to address any ankle stiffness problems. If you want to remain competitive or move around pain free, it is vital that you improve and maintain good ankle mobility. Band mobilization, foam rolling and/or classic stretching is the way to go.
Until next time,
- Vicenzino B, Branjerdporn M, Teys P & Jordan K. Initial changes in posterior talar gide and dorsiflexion of the ankle after mobilization with movement in individuals with recurrent ankle sprain. Manual Therapy. 2004 May; 9(2):77-82
- Reid A, Birmingham TB, & Alcock G. Efficacy of mobilization with movement for patients with limited dorsiflexion after ankle sprain: a crossover trial. Physiother Can. 2007; 59:166-172