We often blame our feet last for performance problems or tension leaks. But as our main connection to the ground, they are the foundation to all movement and the vessels through which we generate power and express our strength. Neglecting them is not an option. Learn four drills by Master StrongFirst Instructor Karen Smith to regain your ankle mobility and improve your performance.
Are you Ignoring your Limitations?
What do you think is the single biggest limitation we see at our StrongFirst Bodyweight (SFB) certifications? If you said movement restrictions, you’d be right. Today, I’m going to address limitations that, maybe because they happen so close to the ground, are often ignored or dismissed. Yes, we’re talking ankles. But it goes farther than ‘just’ limited ankle dorsiflexion in an exercise context.
Our feet—all 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments—are engineering marvels that need attention, otherwise, they get cranky. A simple sounding restriction in big toe extension or flexion can cause major problems for your normal, everyday walking. What may start with stiff toes and arches can quickly lead to ankle tightness, which can cause difficulties further up the chain—to knees, hips, back, neck. Thinking we’ll get anywhere near our physical potential while neglecting foot mobility is rather naïve.
Where Should I Start?
At our Bodyweight Course and SFB Certification, the pistol wins in terms of foot and ankle mobility demands. But before we even attempt to teach it and mobility drills, we use a simple, yet telling, range of motion baseline assessment: a feet together/knees together deep squat. Restrictions show up in limited depth. Then we start layering mobility drills, retesting our baseline between each. Drills delivering the most improvement—either increase in range or ease of movement—become part of a student’s recommended daily movement prep.
What Foot Drills Should I do?
We always work toe mobility first, which quickly elicits grimacing faces and groans. What better way to drive home their neglect? This video demonstrates a few drills to liven up and mobilize your toes.
- Manual joint manipulation. Sit barefoot with one leg extended and cross your other ankle over it just above the knee as in a figure four. Grip your toes with your hand and gently begin moving them in circular motions. Next focus on your arches by doing hand assisted point/flex drills.
- Toe/Heel walks. Begin by walking on your toes as if you are in high heels (sorry gentleman, this is for you also). After a few minutes of toe walking, switch to heel walks focused on pulling your toes toward your shins.
Next, we shift our attention further up the chain to arch and ankle drills. Don’t forget to retest your baseline after each drill to assess your progress.
- Ankle prying. Dorsiflexion is one of the most commonly seen restrictions, so prying practice is time very well spent. You can pry in many ways. Today, I’ll focus on the ½ kneeling prying drill since it’s very effective and a familiar position for most. See the video demonstration for details.
- Loaded arch work. Possibly the best drill too few are doing and one of my favorite foot drills. With dorsiflexion being the most common restriction, we can’t forget to counter the prying stretch with loaded arch drills. Be sure to start very gently at first. This video shows how to slowly increase your arch loading over time.
Finally, we would make our way to the calves, hamstrings, and hips. While this article largely focuses on the feet, don’t forget that most lower body exercise—whether they are hinging, squatting, or lunging movement patterns—require these muscles to be both flexible and mobile to get the most out of them. So whenever you perform lower body movements like deadlifts, squats, swings, or pistols to name a few, good movement preparation includes your:
- Hip flexors
When a joint is restricted, your brain will find another way to get the job done—we compensate for what we can’t do. And because the ‘new’ way isn’t always a good way, a compensation can cause tightness throughout our whole body. Do you have pain in your spine and out to your extremities? Remember it is important to look at the cause, not just the symptom. Tight feet can cause tightness all the way up the chain. By adding foot work into your weekly training, you can produce greater results, often in unexpected places. You might be surprised by a new PR in your upper body pressing and pulling, as well as your lower body, by increasing your foot and ankle mobility.