The ankles are the first mobile joint between you and the ground. They are not only the foundation but also are responsible for shifting weight quickly and assessing any kind of weight bearing stimulus. This joint is also overlooked when observing a weakness in the kinetic chain. Do you have a hard time with exercises like squats or maybe deadlifts? The ankle may be the culprit. Don’t worry! There is a way to improve performance! The answer is flexibility!
Flexibility improves range of motion (ROM). If we can achieve optimal ROM then we can improve multiple aspects of fitness without plateauing as easily and also prevent injuries from occurring.
For a better understanding of how to assess your ankle mobility, knowing the anatomy can benefit you in where to start.
Compartments of the Ankle and Lower Leg
First, there are essentially four different compartments that make up the muscles of the lower leg and ankle. Within each of these groups is between two- four muscles. It can get tedious explaining every single one. Below is a description of each compartment.
- The anterior (front) compartment is responsible for dorsiflexion (bringing the foot toward the shin).
- The lateral (side) compartment is responsible for plantar (pointing) flexion and eversion of the foot.
- The superficial (surface) posterior (back) compartment is responsible for plantar flexion and flexing the leg.
- The deep posterior compartment is responsible for plantar flexion, inversion and rotating the leg medially (to the middle).
Where do I start?
A good place to start is a flexibility test of the ankle.
Lay on your back with your feet against the wall from heels to toes. Begin by flexing your foot or pulling toes toward the front of your leg. If there is more than an inch between your toes and the wall you have optimal ROM of your ankle, anything below that is moderate or acceptable.
When looking for extension of the ankle, lay on the ground away from the wall. Point your toes as far as you can until your ROM is at its max. Ideally there will be a straight line from your leg to the tip of your toes. Speaking in degrees, 20-30 degrees is acceptable.
What exercises will improve ankle flexibility?
Static stretches (held 20-30 seconds)
Stretch muscles on the posterior side of the leg:
- Gastrocnemius: Place both hands in front of you on a wall. Place the leg you are stretching 3 feet from the wall (this should be behind you) and extend your knee and keep your heel on the ground. As you lean forward you should feel the calf muscle stretch.
- Soleus: This is the muscle underneath the gastrocnemius. Instead of keeping the knee straight, bend it. The weight will shift and the inner calf muscle will be stretched.
- Circle movement: rotate your foot in a circle with curled toes. Be sure to do this on a slow fashion and really reach for the furthest point that your toes can reach. Also, this might create a cramp if done too fast in either the arch of your foot or the calf. Go in both directions. You should feel your ankle loosen up.
- Dorsiflexion and Plantar flexion: This is simply pointing your foot (extension) and pulling it back toward your shin. Point with curled toes and you should feel the stretch in your ankle.
- Ankle Stretch: Take a knee. One leg should be in a 90-degree angle in front of you and the other leg should supporting most of your weight with the knee on the ground. The leg in front should have the heel in the ground. You can use your hands to stabilize your upper body and control the ROM. Push the hips forward and that will create a change of angle at the ankle joint. Push until it is uncomfortable but not painful. Repeat 10-15 times.
- TeachMeAnatomy.com. (2015-2016). Muscles In the Anterior Compartment of the Leg. [Diagram of the Muscles of the Anterior Leg]. Retrieved from http://teachmeanatomy.info/lower-limb/muscles/leg/anterior-compartment/
- TeachMeAnatomy.com. (2015-2016). Muscles In the Lateral Compartment of the Leg. [Diagram of the muscles of the lateral leg; fibularis longus and brevis]. Retrieved from http://teachmeanatomy.info/lower-limb/muscles/leg/lateral-compartment/
- TeachMeAnatomy.com. (2015-2016). Muscles in the Posterior Compartment of the Leg: Superficial Muscles. [Diagram of the muscles in the superficial layer of the posterior leg. The body of the gastrocnemius has been cut away to expose the underlying musculature.]. Retrieved from http://teachmeanatomy.info/lower-limb/muscles/leg/posterior-compartment/
- TeachMeAnatomy.com. (2015-2016). Muscles in the Posterior Compartment of the Leg: Deep Muscles. [Diagram of the muscles in the deep layer of the posterior leg.]. Retrieved from http://teachmeanatomy.info/lower-limb/muscles/leg/posterior-compartment/