The ankle is also a crucial point in the overall structure, being one of the most important joints when it comes to weightlifting, not only because of it’s capacity to absorb shocks and impact but also because of it’s force transfer. Having strong and mobile ankles truly consists one of the foundational parts of being a good weightlifter. Yes, being able to generate a ton of force and power with your legs is nice, but if you have unstable ankles is like lifting on bosu balls.
Going even further, “bad” ankles can cause problems that travel upwards( knees, hips, spine) or downwards( the foot), affecting either of the structures and compromising your natural biomechanics. Then sooner or later you are not just slow when you need to be fast, but also injuried. We don’t want that!
Assessing the ankle
In the modern world, we became so comfortable and adapted to having everything we need insight that we just “forgot”( literally) how our bodies can move. We don’t need to sit in a deep squat anymore, because we have chairs. We don’t need to constantly pick things up from the ground. We sit or lay down the majority of the day. By the principle of “use it or lose it” we become stiff, including the ankles, just because we don’t experiment with the full spectrum of movement in them anymore.
Starting with the anatomy, the ankle joint is comprised of two long bones: the tibia and the fibula. It has of course the basis, the underlying tarsal bones.
There are seven tarsal bones in each foot. In total, the ankle allows the foot to move in six different ways:
- Eversion and Inversion
- Medial and Lateral Rotation
Dorsiflexion is the action of raising the foot upwards towards the shin. It’s an important movement for weightlifting because having a good range of motion here will allow you to be stable and have weight-bearing throughout the whole foot, not just on the front part of it.
The Weight-bearing lunge test (WBLT) or Dorsiflexion Lunge Test (DFT) is used to assess the dorsiflexion range of movement (DROM) at the ankle joint.
This test needs to be done against a wall. A standard tape measure (cm) is necessary. Participants are asked to place their foot in such a way that the heel and big toe are aligned with the tape measure( kinda parallel to it, if you want). The distance from the wall is measured by an open hand( a palm) placed on the ground with the pinky fully touching the wall. The big toe slightly touches the thumb. Participants are instructed to lunge forward until their knee touches the wall (vertical line). The heel is required to remain in contact with the floor at all times. The foot is moved away from the wall to the point where the knee can only make slight contact with the wall, while the heel remains in contact with the floor. This puts the ankle joint in maximal dorsiflexion. The leg not being tested can rest on the floor and participants are allowed to hold onto the wall for support. The maximum distance from the wall to the tip of the big toe is recorded. The distance is measured in centimeters (cm) with each centimeter corresponding to approximately 3.6° of ankle dorsiflexion.
If you fail to touch the wall with your knee, without lifting your heel off the ground, you really need to work on your dorsiflexion!
There are many good exercises for improving your dorsiflexion, but first, we need to assess if it’s a joint problem or a muscle stiffness problem. If doing the test you feel the restriction more in the back of the ankle, probably it’s a muscular/tendon stiffness and foam rolling and/or stretching your calves before lifting will solve a big part of it.
If you feel the restriction more on the front part of your ankle, your joint may be restricted and the talus is not working as it should be. So what can you do?
Below I will list 3 exercises for this matter:
1. Goblet squat with dorsiflexion emphasis
Goblet squats are great for correcting many squat faults. And performing them with a focus on pushing the knees forward to work on ankle dorsiflexion mobility can be a great way to help athletes squat with a more upright torso, which is helpful for front and overhead squats. You can just grab a kettlebell in your hands and try pushing your knees as far forward as you can without lifting the heels off the ground. You can pause in the bottom for 3-5 seconds. You can even go in the bottom position and push one knee forward at a time, shifting your weight more on one leg.
2. Banded mobilizations
Banded ankle mobilizations are great for those that feel their ankle dorsiflexion mobility is limited more by pinching or a block in the anterior ankle. But this exercise is often done with the band positioned incorrectly. You actually need to put your band just below the medial and lateral malleolus, those egg-shaped pieces of bone in your ankle.
3. Split squats with a forward knee travel
Loading your bodyweight through the ankle with mobility work is important as your Achilles tendon is very stiff. This stiffness requires heavy loading to get a range of motion improvements. This split squat variation is great for ankle flexibility. Just stand like in a regular split squat but on the descent really try to push the knee of your front foot over your toes, without lifting the heel off the ground.
Plantar flexion is the term that describes pointing the foot downwards. This is really important for stability but more so for force transfer through the feet.
Testing plantar flexion
The test for plantar flexion is more of a “strength test” than a regular “mobility test”. Your ankle needs to be able to generate enough force to lift your whole body up by performing a calf raise. This test has grades and levels on it but that is for the general population, for weightlifting you need to be able to perform perfectly on it, because the calf muscles will be loaded with not just your body weight but also hundreds of pounds extra.
The test is really simple, standing on one foot, holding to something with your hands for support you will perform single-leg calf raises. How many? About 5-8 quality reps will do. Quality means that with each rep your ankles are able to lift your body weight in a controlled manner, with a good range of motion( so that you remain almost entirely on the ball of your foot), and coming down your heel is lightly touching the ground.
Improving plantar flexion
Because here is a matter of strength more than mobility, the best exercises for improving your plantar flexion are really simple yet very effective at doing so. I will list 3 of them down below:
1. Standing calf raises
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and hold on to something with your hands for support. Now perform a calf raises on both of your feet, hold for 2-4 seconds and come down. You can repeat this for sets of 10-15 reps, 2-3 sets a couple of times a week.
2. One-legged calf raises eccentrics
Perform a calf raise and then, remaining on the balls of your feet, lift one foot up in the air, standing on just the other. Now slowly lower yourself down on only that leg. Do 8-12 reps/leg, for 2-3 sets a couple of times a week.
3. Tippy-toe walking
This is a fantastic but so simple way to improve your calf strength. Just walk on the balls of your feet, trying to maintain that position for how long you can until they start burning like crazy. You can do it for time or for distance, your choice, a couple of times a week.
Eversion and Inversion
Eversion and inversion refer to movements that tilt the sole of the foot away from (eversion) or towards (inversion) the midline of the body. Eversion is the movement of the sole of the foot away from the median plane( turning the sole outwards). Inversion is the movement of the sole towards the median plane( turning the sole inwards).
Testing eversion and inversion
Here again, we have more of a “strength” deal than a “mobility” deal. Inversion and eversion are really important for the stability of the foot and for good ankle movement.
Now, test ankle inversion by rolling the bottom of your foot inward as far as possible. This motion is usually about 30°. And finally, test eversion by rolling the bottom of your foot outward as far as you can, which is about 10°. This is only the standard for being able to complete these movements. The final step is to apply a bit of resistance to your foot when doing these. When you test EVERSION apply the resistance on the outside of your foot, just near the toes. When you test INVERSION apply the resistance on the inside of the foot, just near your big toe. You should be able to complete both of these with a bit of resistance applied.
Improving eversion and inversion
To have strong and stable feet you really need to go through these 2 movements easily, period. The exercises are once again very basic but very effective in restoring your ankle strength. I will list down below the best of them, that can be modified according to your needs.
Isometric standing inversion/eversion
Standing, shoulder with apart, turn your feet inward, remaining on the outside of your feet, hold for 5 seconds. Come back to baseline, flat on your feet. Now turn your feet outward, remaining on the insides of your feet, holding this position for 5 seconds. Back to baseline, flat foot, repeat. You can do sets of 5-10 reps( one rep is doing both movements and coming back on your whole foot) for a couple of sets, even daily.
You can really play with this exercise and modify your starting position to stimulate the ankles differently. You can do it from a deep squat or only on one leg, from a split squat position. The ultimate level is doing it only on one leg, not holding on to anything with your arms for support. Now that is not as easy as it sounds!
Medial and Lateral Rotation
Rotation at the ankle provides a limited range of motion centered on the heel. If you sit down, keep your heel on the ground, and slightly lift the ball of the foot off the ground (dorsiflexion), you can pivot the foot medially (internal rotation) and laterally (external rotation). This is a small range of motion, as the bony structure of the ankle limits excursion in both directions. The main rotation happens in the hip joint anyways, but this needs to work properly too.
Testing and improving medial and lateral rotation
There are really no specific tests other than having someone fixing your calf and rotating your foot in and out, the range of motion is by default really small. But the good news is that medial and lateral rotation is tied to inversion and eversion, so improving that will definitely have a positive impact on these as well.
One really good practice you can do to improve all of the above is just walking barefoot, on different surfaces, even unstable ones. That will force your feet to compensate and stabilize the movement, adapt to the stimulus, and will improve your stability and strength in the ankle.
Give the exercises I listed above a try, even if you have “bad ankles” you can improve them, remember they are a bridge to whatever happens upwards and downwards, you can’t just be strong without delivering it in the ground, and back!