Poor Ankle Mobility or Is Something Else Going On?
Written by: Coach Slater
I see a lot of people self-diagnosing themselves as having tight calves or poor ankle mobility. These are the same people I see walking/running on their toes or sporting a forward lean of their torso/head, basically making their calves suffer all the time. Ankle mobility is important for proper positioning in many different lifts, and the issue might be as easy as fixing a few other areas then spending some time self-massaging the tissues of your lower leg to get them back to normal.
But yes, if you lack ankle mobility, you either go up on your toes, rely on a crutch like weightlifting shoes, or turn your feet out at the bottom of your squat. That last point is interesting. You might have more ankle mobility (dorsiflexion) with your knee facing the inside of the foot than outside. This isn’t ideal. Your body is compensating for a poor positional issue, like possibly a lack of hip internal rotation.
Anyway, what frequently causes stiff ankles? Well, most of us sit at a desk all day, or we stand all day on flat, hard surfaces. In both situations, the ankle is not challenged in all three plains of motion like it would if we moved around more often. When an ankle stops moving, the calf muscles suffer. Say you lose 25% of your ankle range of motion, now the calf muscles begin to adapt to their new demands (or lack thereof), by tightening up to this new, limited range of motion. Imagine a glue spilled inside your calf muscles and hardening so nothing can stretch anymore. So now, when you try to squat with these newly restricted calves and ankles, you can’t do so effectively.
But, before we talk about tackling those stiff tissues, let’s look at those other “areas” that might be causing you to go up on your toes in the first place. Here are some thoughts on what might be causing it and how to fix it:
If you can’t reach proper depth in a back squat, without compromising your spine or going onto your toes, but can perform a goblet squat to proper depth with good form, then maybe your ankles aren’t really to blame. Maybe it’s your lack of core control. You can gain better core control by creating better tension in your abdomen by taking a bigger belly breath before descending in your squat, striving to feel 360 degrees of air filling your torso. Now, convert that new tension into a better squat by squeezing your armpits and pulling your belly button to your spine. You’ve now braced pretty damn effectively, and this new stability could translate into a deeper squat.
Another interesting theory on why people seem to have ankle issues is that their calves are compensating for weak glutes. Your butt is supposed to extend and rotate your hips, pushing our bodies forward. Fortunately or unfortunately, our calf muscles can mimic the forward propulsion that the glutes perform. So, if the glutes aren’t doing their job, the calves take over. A lot of people experience this when running uphill. Instead of using their glutes to extend their hips, they’re left with cramped calves. If you focused on using your ass to move you, instead of your calves, you could see an improvement in ankle mobility.
That’s some big words there, Slater. Slow it down. Weak tibialis anterior muscles (the muscles on the front of your shin) are often responsible for tight calves. Stand up and try to stretch your calves on a nearby step. Take note of how far your heel drops. Now, while standing straight, take 30sec and raise your toes toward your shins as many times as possible. Now try the calf stretch again. Notice a big change? The muscles of the front side of your shins were acting against the muscles of the backside. A simple attention shift like this could make your calf muscles function the way they’re supposed to.
Related to all the above is poor posture. Quite possibly, your tight calves are due to a slightly forward head angle with a slight forward lean of your torso. To keep from falling over, your toes are digging into the ground to keep you balanced. In this position, your calves are always active, fighting like mad, and getting tighter by the day. Luckily, the fix is easy. Just fix your posture. Pull your head back, create a double-chin, get your torso back over your hips, breathe with your belly instead of your neck, squeeze your butt to make sure your hips are underneath you, stay balanced across your *entire* foot, and voila… you’ll find your calves magically start to relax.
Lastly, here’s a quick video showing some self-myofascial release and ankle mobility options for you. Fix your other issues, like mentioned above, then spend some time fixing your tissues.
These links further explain each of the drills in the video:
1. Bone saw calf smash
2. Lacrosse ball calf active release with band activation
3. Wall ankle mobility drill
4. Lacrosse ball plantar fascia smash with arch activation