Is Your Ankle Mobility Holding You Back?
My father and I always get into discussions about weight lifting and strength training. John has been lifting almost his whole. If he wasn’t born with a set of fisher price dumbbells as a kid, he definitely got into exercising very early on. He had plans for military with his sights on the marines, unfortunately he injured his ankle badly during basic training. He was discharged honorably because of it.
A few decades later, he manages to injure It again. This time, due to the scar tissue built up around the tendon, the ankle sprain turned into an ankle fracture. The tendon pulled on the bone and fractured his ankle along the lateral side. After 2 surgeries, one was to completely replace his ankle and the other to repair his ruptured tendon, he now has what he calls a “FUSA” (standing for Fricked Up Shotty Ankle, I’ll let you fill in what the actual words are).
Long story short, this injury has prevented him from doing certain movements in the weight room. He was never able to squat without his right heel lifting off the ground, after he trained legs his ankle was unbearably sore. Pain medication and some therapy helped, but the long term stress on his ankle severely reduced his ROM (range of motion) and overall strength of his bad ankle.
Early on in my coaching, I used my dad as a back board. To bounce ideas off of and get his opinion things. He’s been lifting longer than I’ve been alive, so he’s bound to have some good philosophical points on weight training. However, we seemed to disagree on the approach one should take for training with a condition like that. He believed that with his ankle, even with it being replaced, he was never going to be able to do the movements he wanted in the weight room. Movements like squats, carries, and even deadlifts were things he never considered doing due to his FUSA. My thought was the opposite, we find ways to effectively train his ankle so that we can get him to where he was earlier on in his training age. Maybe not before he initially injured it, but certainly after it happened.
This did not come with a lot of push back. He was ok with working through the pain during his lifts, it was the soreness post workout and his instability he was worried about. The man has metal ankle with one less tendon than he should. There was a mental block that needed to be broken in order for physical progress to be made.
The inciting event happened when he hurt his back lifting a keg of mead (yes, we brew our own). This plastic carboy weighted roughly 30-40lbs. Something very simple to lift for a guy like John, however he never trained all pulls from the ground (i.e. deadlift) so he tweaked his back due to his weakness stemming from his ankle and posterior chain.
Now we have a saying in my parents house, “Don’t poke the bear!”. This was especially the case when Pops is in injury mode. When else was I going to tell him that he needed to start training his body differently? I gave my father the following prescription...
1.) Start Training Full Body Movements
This included things like deadlifting and squatting. Both exercises work the entire body systemically. At no part during any of these lifts is a muscle truly relaxed, in fact the entire muscular system is being trained to work in cohesion with itself. If the deadlift or squat gets stronger each week, so too does his ankle and back.
2.) Limit the Amount of Work on His Ankle
With his ankle being less than anatomically normal, his training needs to adjust with his current condition. Doing cafe raises for sets across for high reps is not something people with a FUSA should be doing. Instead, train the ankle alongside the body. Doing exercises standing, or weighted carries are both good ways to keep volume work on the ankle high enough to promote strength. But wont overwork the ankle, so that he can still function as a human.
3.) Mobilize and Maintain
The reduced range of motion I mentioned earlier was due to his ankle having one less tendon, and the scar tissue of 2 surgeries built up around his ankle joint. With entropy being the cruel mistress it is, applying attention to the ankle through stabilizing and mobilizing is going help drive positive progress. Below are a few stretches I had him do to relieve some scar tissue from that area, and help him stabilize his ankle through strength and mobility.
Talus Mobility Stretch: This pulls the bone in the ankle (the talus) posteriorly, so the ankle has more free range of motion. Pressing the knee out over the toe allows for more mobility with those with very stiff or immobile ankles.
Banded Flexion Stretch: Put the band over the toes and allow it to pull you forward and stretch the Tibilialis Anterior. Point your toe towards your face and hold for a 3 count. After 3 seconds, relax the muscle. Do multiple reps until ROM is optimal.
When I initially told him these things, he was very defensive about his training patterns and what exercises he is willing to do. But overtime his progress skyrocketed. He starting deadlifting heavy (his current PR is 405x5), once he did that for a while he added weighted carries and pulls into his routine. Now that his ankle wasn’t sore and his strength numbers were going up, he felt comfortable enough to switch from a leg press to a safety squat. In the grand scheme of things, these changes were for the better. Now John has a different problem...most of his clothes don't fit anymore. He’s gaining more muscle mass and is getting stronger as a 60 year old man.
Him and I always joke about muscle definition and size. He has way bigger biceps than me, but I have bigger cafes than him. He was wearing shorts the other day and I saw that his calves were more defined and bigger than before his programming change. I jokingly said, “Nice cafes, how many calf raises did you do in the past year?”. His response was a smile and laugh with the phrase, “None”.
Ask yourself the following...Am I training the entire body? Is my ankle getting the right type/amount of stress? Am I mobilizing my ankle before or after my workouts? There may be an underlying condition like my father, but the approach is about the same. If you answer no to any of these questions, ankle mobility may be stalling your weight room progress.