By Coach Dustin Hassard
Original Article 4/21/16, Revised 4/25/21
Started from the bottom now we’re here. Drake is correct, it does start at the bottom…with the foot and ankles. You want to be in the best shape of your life, you’ve made fitness a priority and you’re committed to working hard. You recognize there’s room for improvement so you’re looking for all the latest tips to get you to your goals. Well, your feet and ankles are probably the least likely thing you searched for when figuring out how to reach your goals the fastest. However, this could be the most important thing you ever learn.
I’m betting you spend a lot of time on your feet. That’s a lot of years and a lot of reps on your feet and ankles with many more miles ahead of you. Think of this as checking your tires to make sure you have no flats and the treads still have a grip.
Perhaps you’ve heard foot health and ankle mobility mentioned before, but never really cared to understand the importance of it. For starters, the foot is your foundation and a poor foundation weakens everything that’s on it. Your feet are also your first contact with the ground so any limitations will have a chain reaction up the rest of the body that could lead to pain or weakness in legs, back, and elsewhere.
Does this apply to you?
If any of the following applies to you, foot strength and ankle mobility could be your biggest issue:
- You can’t squat to parallel
- You round your back in the deadlift (ouch, poor spine)
- Your knees collapse inward during any leg exercise
- You have knee pain
- Your feet turn out when walking or running
- Your feet turn out when squatting
- You have flat feet
- You experience shin splints or plantar fasciitis
The majority of people I train have dealt with some or all of the above at one point or another. If you do experience any of the above, that’s all the reason to hire a fitness professional, because if you don’t fix it, you’re headed down a dark path (BOO!).
Why you should address your feet and ankles
- To fix the above points, of course. None of those are good things to have.
- You use your feet and ankles in every step, squat, and lunge.
- It will improve your performance. If you can do more, you can get more from your workouts.
- It will reduce impact on your joints.
- It could prevent injury. If you’re injured, you can’t train, and that’s a great way to not reach your goals and lose the results you’ve already worked hard for.
- Working out with limitations makes everything harder and harder is less fun.
- Limitations create compensations elsewhere in the body, increasing your risk of injury.
- Your body should function as a whole, any weakness will negatively affect the entire system.
Do the feet and ankles affect your goals?
- If protecting your spine is important, ankle mobility is a must.
- If your goal is sports performance, ankle mobility is a must.
- If hypertrophy of your quadriceps is your goal, ankle mobility is a must.
- If you want to keep your knees healthy, ankle mobility is a must.
Ok, ankle mobility is important for everyone so don’t ignore it.
My tipping point
I’m going to tell a story. It’s not critical that you read this, so feel free to skip this part.
Limitation of the feet and ankles is something that I’ve been exploring for many years, but admittedly, my clients and myself aren’t exactly excited about the feet and ankles. Part of it also is that I’ve never been able to relate to clients with feet and ankle problems. It’s not something I can recall ever struggling with other than the occasional issue every couple of years that is easily resolved with rest or massage.
Another part of my reluctance is that improving ankle mobility requires spending a few minutes almost daily to do some exercises some will certainly find boring and tedious. I was once very hopeful that, in time, reinforcing good movement patterns everywhere else in the body would improve at the ankle too. Not so much.
So what was the final tipping point for not ignoring it any longer? It happened a few days ago. I was standing on a surface that removed by ankle mobility completely. My toes were lifted higher than my heals as I attempted to squat down to my client who was on the floor. Almost immediately my upper body folded over and my head was suddenly below my knees. I recognized the movement as the typical squat my less mobile clients perform, the one where their hips seem to hover unable to get any lower than when they were standing. It was the most awful squat sensation I’ve ever experienced and I couldn’t get off that surface any faster than if it was on fire. I’ve never felt more grateful for my ankle mobility than that moment. It was very traumatic and is forever a painful memory, haha.
After years of seeing the same issues come up with client after client, finding the perfect solution has never really left my mind. Although I suspected the feet and ankles were part of the problem, I didn’t fully grasp that they could be the source of ALL their problem. After experiencing that one moment, all of my clients sad squats flashed before me and I knew I had to revisit it. After a lot of research, I’ve realized even more, it cannot be overlooked ever again.
One final reason for bringing this up is my girlfriend. She’s unstoppable in the gym. She trains hard 5-7 days a week and her numbers keep going up. Her most recent deadlift with no straps is 290 lbs. This is an impressive, double her bodyweight deadlift (I didn’t ask permission to disclose her weight, so I’m taking a risk telling you…don’t worry, I’m in no real danger).
I believe she can grow so much more as an athlete. Yet, because of her poor ankle mobility, she has some limitations in her squat, overhead squat, and snatch that causes compensations in her ankles, hips, and shoulders. I’m now convinced it’s the reason why she occasionally feels a pinch in her hips and why she can’t train her Olympic lifts at the capacity she is willing to.
She doesn’t think it can be fixed without lots of tedious correctives that don’t have a lasting effect. We disagree on this. She and I can agree on one thing, there is no doubt that her ankle mobility is very poor. I believe if I can improve her ankle mobility, it will make her even more unstoppable for many years to come. More importantly, no one should ever be in pain or have to compensate during their workouts, that’s a guaranteed poor outcome.
I’ve had success with other clients I’ve addressed this with, but she will be the perfect test subject. If you’re not convinced your feet and ankles will help much, please try to prove me wrong (hint: I’m right).
Is it your Feet or Ankles?
More often than the feet, the ankles are the culprit. The feet may still be a part of it, but that’s a whole ‘nother beast so, I’m going to focus on ankle mobility. Yes, I kind of tricked you into thinking about your feet. I still want you to think about your feet, after all, they are connected to the ankle (I hope you knew that), but set aside your foot thoughts for a moment.
STEP 1 – Testing your Ankle Mobility
Let’s not assume this even applies to you so let’s test your ankle mobility first.
How is your ankle mobility?
The Half-Kneeling Dorsiflexion Test (be sure to record the results for your left and right)
Is it your ankles or not?
A Single Leg Squat (aka Pistol Squat) is a good way to highlight problems in the ankles, knees, and/or hips. For now, use this exercise for the purpose of testing ankle mobility; if you don’t have ankle mobility, no amount of strenght will allow you to perform this exercise properly. If strength is your limit, try a TRX Single Leg Squat.
Well, is it your ankles?
If your ankles are good and you still have some of the issues above, let’s look at the feet next (skip to the foot section at the end of this article).
What’s it like to squat with great ankle mobility
Perhaps now you’re having to cope with the reality that you have poor ankle mobility. I’m sorry, I know how painful it can be (one second was too much for me to handle). We can fix this, but before you spend the time to correct this you should experience what it feels like.
- Squat as low as you can.
- Now, raise the heels 1” using some weight plates (at home you can use books or magazines).
- With the heels raised, squat as low as you can.
- How’d that feel? Did you notice a difference? Is improving your ankle mobility worth it to you?
STEP 2 – How to improve your ankle mobility
Improving ankle mobility will require a commitment if you want to see any improvement. You’ll get nowhere if you only do it now and then. The goal is to improve dorsiflexion.
- Wear weightlifting shoes (only a good fix in circumstances where weightlifting shoes are appropriate).
- Massage the calf with a foam roller
- Massage the foot and calf with a lacrosse ball. Pick any spot, you’ll know.
- Stretch the calf in a straight leg position
- Stretch the calf in a bent-knee position
More details for massage and stretching will be covered in Simple Solutions below. I’m going to turn this over to some fitness pros who know the subject very well.
- Ankle Mobility Exercises to Improve Dorsiflexion by Mike Reinhold
- Banded Ankle Distractions
Dean Somerset wrote a fantastic article that explains the problem and provides effective solutions. This article is a pretty advanced read, but it’s in your best interest to at least look into it.
Read the article: Foot and Ankle Stuff for Meatheads by Dean Somerset
STEP 3 – Corrective Strategy
If you’ve determined you need more ankle mobility, here’s what I suggest:
- Remove your shoes during testing and correctives.
- Pick 2-3 corrective exercises (hint: the hardest ones for you to do usually work the best)
- Spend 5-10 minutes every day
- Spend 5-10 minutes every day
- Spend 5-10 minutes every day (yes, you did read that 3 times)
- Do it for 2 weeks
- After 2 weeks, re-test your ankle mobility and see if you’ve made any progress
- If it’s working, I would say keep going until you are where you want to be.
- If nothing worked, contact me or seek out a professional who can really assess you from top to bottom and provide a solution. Don’t even consider ignoring it, you’ll be missing out on something great. Your body may eventually remind you.
Is it the Feet?
If your ankles checked out, congratulations. Assuming you passed the test (i.e. 5” of dorsiflexion), let’s rule the ankles out and move on to check the feet. The feet deserve an entirely new article, more like a book, so I’m only going to give you a small dose below. If you’re really anxious, contact me and I’ll point you to some more great resources.
Check the Arch
All About the Feet
Thank you for making it this far, I realize this is a huge subject that requires tremendous focus to even read about let alone to take action on. I hope this article has served to prove the importance of your feet and ankles. More importantly, if you found you are limited by your ankle, I hope you have a starting point for fixing it. In the future, I will cover more on the foot and the effects of footwear. Please share any discoveries and progress you make on your own. I welcome all of your questions and comments.