Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Creator of DVRT Restoration, Pelvic Control/Shoulder/& Knee Courses, & Better Backs, Shoulders, & Knees)
I get it, a lot of people go the gym with lofty fitness goals, but they also struggle with chronic aches/pains. It can feel like an impossible task to help people achieve those fitness goals because the same individuals appear so limited to what they can actually do in the gym. While everyone is their own unique case, I can say after being in the clinic for over 15 years that there are some general things we can do to help a lot of people at least get off to a good start in helping their bodies perform better and feel good enough to start moving towards their fitness goals.
Of all the things we can do, the are really two areas that I believe give us the biggest bang for our buck. That is helping build core stability and ankle mobility. We’ve discussed a lot about core stability in our DVRT posts so I want to focus on ankle mobility. The topic of ankle mobility isn’t new to some, but even those that are familiar with the topic I notice actually struggle to actually achieve results in their efforts. So, whether ankle mobility is a new concept for you or you’ve been aware of its impact for some time, I hope this post will help you get some real solutions.
Why Prioritize Ankle Mobility?
I think everyone can understand that we as humans are designed to be bipedal animals. We stand on two feet, we largely move on those two feet. That means force typically comes from the ground, to our foot, up into our ankle, and keeps moving all the way up to our skull. So, pretty much our ENTIRE body is dependent upon how our ankle and feet function throughout our daily lives. If we come even close to the common goal of 10,000 steps a day, that is 10,000 largely single leg movements where that ankle/foot are going to have a big impact upon our whole body.
This isn’t just my opinion, there is study after study that shows this to be true and not only does ankle mobility have a strong relationship with issues like the knee, but the hip, low back, and even the shoulders (if you aren’t sure how that can be I’ve posted a video that helps explain below). Ankle mobility doesn’t just have to do with building injury resilience, there is also a strong connection to our ability to express power as often power we create is through triple extension (the ankle, knee, and hip).
You can see that triple extension typically in movements like heavy DVRT power cleans.
Renown physical therapist, Gray Cook says it so well….
“The foot has a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of stability and motor control. We can blame poor footwear, weak feet and exercises that neglect the foot, but the point is that the majority of our feet could be more stable.The ankle has a tendency toward stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of mobility and flexibility. This is particularly evident in the common tendency toward dorsiflexion limitation…
It also represents the rule in orthopedics evaluation of always assessing joints above and below a problem region. It would be illogical to expect to improve knee stability in the presence of ankle and hip mobility restrictions. Likewise, it would be impractical to assume that a recent improvement in hip mobility would not return to stiffness if improved stability were not also created in the lumbar and knee regions. Chronic sloppiness would always be more convenient to use than new mobility.”
How Do We Improve Ankle Mobility?
I don’t think it is hard to convince people that ankle mobility is important, but as I’ve heard time after time from fitness pros, they struggle to make real improvements with their clients’ ankle mobility. While it is impossible to cover every possible reason why that is, we can at least have a solid framework that is going to make a big impact upon 90% of people we help in their fitness journey. So, how do we do it?
While there is a lot of discussion of being barefoot and developing ankle mobility, there are not many discussions about how strong feet and ankle mobility are related to one another. If we go back to our familiar “proximal stability for distal mobility” concept, we can see how if we have foot stability we would help increase our ankle mobility. Even if you never heard of the term proximal stability before, it hopefully makes sense that as Gray Cook called a “sloppy” foot would cause our nervous system to want to put the brakes on and that would come in the form of shutting down mobility of joints like the ankle. Moral of the story, if you aren’t cuing the feet with your ankle mobility any mobility you do achieve in a drill won’t last once we get up and move around.
How do we cue the feet? First, being barefoot or in minimus shoes is a great start, but by itself doesn’t make our feet work smarter. Just like any other part of our body we have to actually cue the feet to function properly. There is something called the “core” of the foot and it is a triangle as you see below that you want to create a foundation of stability.
We want the foot to actively be “grabbing for the ground”, there are a few ways to teach this concept. If someone has NO idea what that means, I often like to get them barefoot at least for this little drill. All I do is ask them not to allow me to lift their toes off the ground. In doing so, they begin to feel what it means to grab for the ground. Does that solve everything and do we stop there? No, but it is a SUPER simple way to help people understand important foundations that will help our ankle mobility efforts.
It is key to keep the feet engaged in all our ankle mobility drills so we can help reinforce this by using bands to provide feedback to the body.
This excerpt from my knee program explains some keys in using the feet and how we can use bands to help reinforce them with clients.
Using positions like half kneeling are great because the position itself is much easier to help people understand and feel a need to use their feet. Once we are there, we also want to connect our core to our ankle mobility. That may seem really out there, but again, if we think about how proximal stability (in this case of the trunk) can help mobility down an entire chain then we start to see how we build solutions. Not only that, but we have a much better idea of what functional training really means.
I break down the set-up and the progressions we can use for putting everything together.
What you say above is a starting point, but we can use the concept of building that foot stability in more dynamic movements that really have a huge impact upon our ankle mobility. However, make sure you can control the movements above. You might see an unstable surface being used too which is not typical for us. While we don’t recommend normally training on an unstable surface, because my focus is really the foot/ankle (which research does show value to using) it helps me understand how to use my foot better. Knowing WHY you are using something is so key.
These strategies can make a huge difference on our ankle mobility concepts, but they don’t cover everything. So, later this week I will cover additional strategies that will make your ankle mobility so much more effective so you can see the significance that improving ankle mobility has on your training!
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