The Myth of Better Ankle Flexibility

5 min read.

This blog is covers ankle dorsiflexion and how, for some people, there’s only so far you can get. 


My own ankle mobility bugged me for years.
 

I really wanted to be able to do pistol squats, it was the only CrossFit move I hadn’t acquired yet and I just wanted to have them! I could do everything else but the pistol - it drove me insane.

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Everywhere I looked there were articles telling me how limited ankle mobility ruins your squat and will damage your knees. So, I started to implement every banded joint distraction drill out there and 'smashed' my calves 3 times a day.

Believe me, when I decide to put the work in to something, I put the work in. Every day was now ‘Ankle Mobility Day’. 
 

Change of Tactic


For a long time, I made minor changes my dorsiflexion after 20 minutes of stretching and rolling, but the next day it would regress, as if I’d had done nothing the previous day. After a while I was just sick of it. Sick of the bands, the stretching, the foam rolling with no results - I was getting nowhere (I meet so many people who are that are at this stage). 


I had already started my journey of knowledge, development & research that would lead me to write the Simplistic Mobility Method, and I realised that: surely what works for hip mobility (strengthening and improving muscle awareness) would also work for increasing ankle dorsiflexion?

 
I completely stopped using my old ankle flexibility exercises, even the ones that felt like they gave me a good stretch, and I started experimenting.

 
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The two most effective things that I noticed making an almost instant improvement were:

Slow Prowler Pushes


Slowly straighten your back leg as you use it to push the sled, while trying to get your back heel as close to the ground as you can. There was no goal of getting a sweat on or building leg strength, I was just trying to use the calf muscle in its lengthened state: 

 
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Deep Split Squats


After that I needed something that represented an actual squat (i.e. ankle dorsiflexion when the hip is in deep flexion) so I chose the split squat, not to be mistaken for lunges. The stance is similar to a lunge, but you’re aiming to get your knee far forwards over your toes and get your body used to that position: 

 Split Squats start at 1:35
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After a few weeks of focusing on these exercise… my ankle mobility hadn’t changed.

 
My ROM was still the same BUT I could now do pistol squats.
 

I wasn’t missing range, I was missing strength, awareness and control over my ankles, and that’s what I see over and over again with people who believe their ankle mobility is holding them back. 
 

This never-ending chase for a range that will never be there is insane, and the worst part is people in the fitness industry that feed this obsession – intentionally or unintentionally. Some people have incredibly large levels of dorsiflexion and some people don’t, neither are dysfunctional, just some movements will less favourable to some people, but not impossible. 
 


Too Much of a Good Thing?


On the flip side, having a huge level of dorsiflexion isn’t always a good thing.
 
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I have met a lot of people over the years with back pain who reckon it’s “not a mobility issue” because they appear to have a “perfect squat” with low depth and an upright torso… but if test their hip flexion like the Deep lunge test, they fail miserably. They have no idea that they have terrible hip mobility because their ankle mobility is good enough to hide it. Their hips are usually immobile, stiff and lacking healthy movement patterns. It’s also quite common for people with good ankle mobility to never have issues with squats, get back pain every time they deadlift. 


 

"As Far As It Goes"


It’s funny, being on the other side of my ankle mobility woes, I just think why on earth did I spend months trying to stretch my way to something unachievable when I could have been getting stronger and working on controlling my ranges instead.
 

Yes, my ankles were slightly limited, but when it got to a certain point, that was just “as far as it goes”, and then they weren’t actually restricting anything I wanted to do.
 

As soon as we start to read/see things about joint capsules, fascia and specific issues with things like our “Gastroc/Soleus complex”, we start to believe we need fancy drills, vindictive self-massage techniques and joint banded distraction to make a difference, when really, you just need to figure out if the range of motion you’re trying to achieve is realistic, or if you’re just weak in your end range positions.
 

Another thing to bear in mind if you’re struggling with your squat is: are your ankles really to blame? They’re a pretty easy target, but a major limiting factor in most people’s squats is their upper back mobility. If you can’t extend your thoracic spine when you squat, your hips will have to shoot back to counterbalance your forward torso, so you don’t fall over. This in turn pulls your knees back and gives you a vertical shin position - but purely down to the body’s search for equilibrium. Always think full body when it comes to your mobility. 

So, if this relates to you, start thinking about strength and control instead of hours of stretching. Some people adapt quickly, for others, it takes hard work. Strive to work on your ankle mobility regularly with good movements like the split squat, but if you reach a point that it doesn’t go any further no matter what you do, you are probably fine.
 

If you want a bit of structure to improve not only your ankle mobility & stability, but also your thoracic, shoulder & hips ranges then check out the easy to follow Simplistic Mobility Method.

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