Standard anatomical textbook approach to our body’s joints is to identify the action; flexion, extension and rotation; and the muscle groups that control these actions. Following this identification, strength coaches identify which muscles should be trained to enhance performance in a given sport. Often this approach is applied to prime movers like the hips and knees, with the ankle as an after thought. Neglecting the ankle is a missed opportunity for creating a powerful, healthy athlete, especially if there is a misalignment, mobility or stability issue.
There are many tools and positions coaches and athletes are quick to jump to in order hide ankle inadequacies, provide a false support and bypass inflexibility. Field sports differ from training in that there isn’t a simple relationship between velocity, angle and torque about a single joint in the complex movements of any sport. This becomes very evident when you begin to see the effect unhealthy joints have on an athlete’s movement when they cannot rely on the oly shoe heel on the field or toe out squat position for change of direction.
The greater the potential of a joint, the greater the risk for injury and limitation.
As we learned from our previous write up about dorsiflexion, the ankle has the potential to generate a lot of force and is at a very high risk for injury if that force is applied in an unstable position. Where we can expand on this article is the tibialous anterior and calf control the ankle, which controls knee position and everything upstream. If the ankle is in a bad position or limited, our knee is then put in a bad, limited or overcompensated position. It may not stop at the knee either, forces can travel upstream to put hips, lower back and even shoulders at a risk for injury. This article will look the ankle as a connection to the knee and hips and how to increase flexibility and stability to improve alignment and prepare for the stresses of both training and playing on the field.
Lets get a quick review of the multidirectional movements the ankle is capable of; Dorsiflexion, Plantarflexion, Inversion, Evertion, Internal and External rotation. If there is a limitation in either of these movements, whether it’s stability or mobility, there will be issue somewhere up the chain where something is working twice as hard as it should to overcompensate. Watch how limited dorsiflexion and poor ankle flexibility on one foot can travel upstream and across the body, potentially putting the opposite hip and lower back at a risk.
Taylor sent us in a video on Bedrock’s training feed for a critique of his squat. Hoping for a simple form check, we were able to identify a limiting factor that affects his squat progress and is a biomarker for an ACL tear risk. Taylor is performing a 3RM back squat, and I want you to pay particular attention to his left ankle, especially on the second rep. Watch as his left navicular bone drops and rolls his ankle in, then see how the left knee begins to cave in. The valgus knee then causes a shift in weight into the right leg to overcompensate for the weak positioning of the left ankle and knee. Now imagine this action at high speed, high force during an athletic competition. Many of the non-contact injuries that occur in field sports can be linked to poor ankle stability and mobility.
By the time most of you are working with an athlete, they have played field sports for some time, and they are bound to have done some damage to the joint that has locked it up one way or another. Odds are they also never warmed up those ankles or stretched them properly, either. When people do stretch their lower leg, they often only hit the calves and neglect the soleus and the tib anterior. Below are three tools to brake up some of that scar tissue, increase the flexibility of the plantar and dorsiflexors, and prepare you building a stable ankle. There are many options for attacking the flexibility of these, I simply love to hate these. Choose a few for your tool kit and continue progress the stretch stress.
1.Lateral/Anterior Compartment Smash:
Work the anterior tibialis and the peroneals along the front of your shins and outside of your leg from the knee to your ankle. Use the methods of smash and floss, pressure wave and contract and relax.
2. Global Plantar Flexion:
Kneel onto the ground with your feet in plantar flexion positioning both toes next to one another. Maintain a long posture and knees straight while leaning back and working to allow your knees to come up off the ground.
3. Classic Calf Wall Stretch:
Stand a few feet away from the wall and place the ball of your foot as high on the wall as possible with your heel on the ground, foot in straight ahead position, and glute fully engaged. Explore different ranges at the knee, from a straight leg to a bent knee. You may also explore further with external and internal rotation of the knee, but remember to keep you glutes engaged!
Stretch to Strengthen
There is a method to increasing flexibility, building stability of the joints all while preparing muscles to effectively reduce and apply force. This method and tool comes from Raphael Ruiz he calls this “Stretch to Strengthen”, and we will revisit this approach as we cover different joints and movements throughout the body. The variation of this approach for the ankles will involve Manual Resistance Dorsiflexion. Other variations include active PNF and increasing ROM during movement such as a True Push Up. The following progression and focus should be taken for developing strong, stable joints, as well as rehabilitation.
- Force Reducers: Begin by teaching the primary movers and stabilizers of joints to be dampening springs to protect the joint, this is accomplished through controlled eccentric movements.
- Force Producers: Once this control through the range of motion is establish, begin to work in the concentric focus with the muscles producing the force.
- Isometric force: Then advice to isometric holds throughout the ranges of motion, with a special attention on the dorsiflexed positions for the ankles.
- Protective Force: Applying resistance from different angles and maintaining position and ROM integrity.
- True Eccentric: Muscles unable to overcome resistance, our Manual Resistance protocol.
Each of these approaches can be utilized in the exercises below, all leading up to the Manual Resistance. We include the cocky walks at the end following the MR Dorsiflexion for movement integration. You need to know how to use all of this strength you are developing in the ankle girdle moving through space, so there is a carry over to the field.
Ankle Training Movements
Internal Rotation w/ Dorsiflexed Foot
Hook the resistance bands outside the feet, and attach to dorsiflexed feet. Bend the knees to shut off the hips and knees, and hold an object between your knees to occupy the ADductors and isolate internal rotation at the ankle. Once locked in and a dorsiflexed position is assumed, internally rotate the ankles. Use the above approaches to guide how this movement should be applied to your program. Ex. Isometric holds, controlled Eccentric, etc.
External Rotation w/ Dorsiflexed Foot
Hook the resistance bands on the inside hooks, and attach to dorsiflexed feet. Bend the knees to shut off the hips and knees, and give your knees a hug to occupy the ABductors and isolate external rotation at the ankle. Once locked in and a dorsiflexed position is assumed, externally rotate the ankles. Use the above approaches to guide how this movement should be applied to your program. Example: Isometric holds, controlled Eccentric, etc.
Manual Resisted Dorsiflexion w/ Plantar Hold
Working with a partner, one athlete will lay flat on the ground in bent knee position with calves resting on a bench in dorsiflexion. The second athlete will use the bench to anchor themselves in order to apply necessary force. They will then apply a true eccentric force to athlete #1’s dorsiflexed ankles. Athlete #1 attempts to hold dorsiflexion and is forced into plantarflexion. Athlete #2 will hold this resistance for a 5 count while athlete #1 continues to fight, pressing their toes into #2’s hands. After the 5 count, athlete #1 returns to dorsiflexion for the next rep. Continue for 3 x 4-12 reps, no more than once a week.
After all of our Manual Resistance exercises, we must perform a dynamic movement, for this article we will use the Cocky Walk. Athlete will alternate plantarflexion and dorsiflexion on each feet with a slight lean forward. The knees must remain locked and the hips must remain open, no kicking out in front of the athlete.
Seeing the body as a whole is becoming more accepted in the strength and conditioning community, and it amazing to see the role the ankle plays in movement or lack there of. If the above protocols are done correctly in training, muscles protecting the ankle become not only dampening springs to protect the joint, but also powerful generators of force. I stated earlier, the greater the potential of a joint, the greater the risk for injury and limitation.
There is a great amount of potential stored in the ankle and you see it displayed in an array of sports from high jumping to Aussie Rules. Ankle training is not sexy, so not a lot of coaches implement it into their programs. Lazy coaches and athletes are quick to throw fixes to work around ankle issues versus taking on the problems. This kind of investment will blunt performance progress and continually put the athlete’s training and athletic career at high risk. Sound investment in flexibility, mobility, stability, and strengthening will lead Power Athletes to Power Ankles!
PODCAST: PA RADIO – EP 358: THE ACL EPISODE w/ DR TIM HEWETT
BLOG: WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS: YOUTH WEIGHT TRAINING by Ben Skutnik
BLOG: REHABILITATION AFTER ACL SURGERY by John Welbourn
BLOG: A TALE OF RECOVERY FROM AN ACL TEAR by Carl Case
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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