By Jared Meacham

Personal trainers must look at the concept of physical fitness results through many different lenses. What amounts to optimal fitness for one client may not necessarily be the bee’s knees of fitness achievement for another.

This blog post is a basic informational designed to identify a number of movements and exercises that are known to produce favorable results in clients across a wide spectrum of possible fitness goals. It will then describe a variety of ways that these result-producing movements can be compromised or maximized depending specifically on the status of a client’s ankle mobility. And, finally, knowing that all prospects or clients may not yet understand or appreciate the value of an in-depth screening process, I hope to provide fitness professionals with some tools that can be incorporated quickly and easily, right into an orientation session or workout that may not allow for a standard screen or assessment to be conducted.

First, a Nod to Time-Honored Assumptions

The idea of what constitutes “fitness results” or the right fitness experience for any given client runs the gamut when it comes to possible combinations of desired approaches and outcomes. The PTA Global Exercise & Stress Management Credential deals with this concept in a detailed manner which, in my opinion, sets it apart with regard to personalizing outcomes for training clients. Muscularity, function, body fat reduction, mobility, balance, stamina, strength, proprioception… the list of result combinations is potentially endless. With that, I want to consider some key movements that lend themselves nicely to satisfying just about any of these possible outcomes while still being directly related to the efficiency of a client’s ankle mobility.

Squats

The amount of research conducted on this movement alone is staggering! At least one squat variation is at the heart of almost every fundamental screening process used throughout the fitness profession, and with good reason. The wide variety of possible squat variations puts this exercise on top of the heap when it comes to potential result-producing movements. And, with only a couple of exceptions, nearly all of them require a favorable amount of ankle mobility, namely ankle dorsi flexion, if they are to be performed optimally. Therefore, given that the squat is the sweetheart of both the scientific and the anecdotal, I propose that we agree to the following assumption: the squat is a top-tier exercise that should be present somewhere in virtually every physical fitness improvement plan.

Lunges

As another movement that requires a meaningful amount of ankle mobility, the lunge is a compound exercise that has never fallen out of favor with those looking to create stronger, more stable, more functional, and more muscular physiques. Like the squat, it too is at the center of most functional movement screening techniques. The lunge has implications in everything from walking and running, to bounding and jumping. If it is human movement you are seeking, the lunge is part of the equation. If it’s amazing leg muscle development you are working for, there too is the lunge. Additionally, if you just want to burn some calories and tone your thighs, the lunge is a friend that is held near and dear to the heart. Therefore, as with the squat, let us agree (I hope) that the lunge is also a top-tier, result-producing movement.

Is Ankle Mobility the Problem?

Now that we’ve decided to look primarily at the squat and the lunge as our result-producing movements of choice, let’s explore how we can tell if the ankles are holding us back from getting the most out of each movement.

Assess with Feet on the Floor

Some specificity is preferred when working with the human body. Personally, I have found that assessing ankle mobility on a person that is laying down is not always a great way to assess exercise readiness. I prefer to assess ankle mobility while a person’s feet are on the floor simply because that is how they will be performing a movement while they train. To that end, let’s keep things simple and assess their ankle mobility in the same environment that they’ll be training in: feet on the floor. This also allows me to work with the client so that they can feel the movement’s and benefit from the exercise without spending their session lying on the floor doing weird things with their ankles and never breaking a sweat.

You know from completing your PTA Global coursework that we need to “meet clients where they are.” So, let’s face it, a lot of people come to us thinking that they need to feel some muscle burn and experience some level of output that will give them a sense of achievement. It is up to us to give them what they want while also ensuring we provide what they need. Assessing ankle mobility while your clients go about performing appropriate calorie burning movements will satisfy this aspect of your client retention equation.

Use a Standardized Test

The Overhead Squat Assessment is the first of 7 movements in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and is a fundamental aspect of many other screening processes. Sticking with our approach of keeping things uncomplicated, simply perform an overhead squat assessment and see what happens. If things aren’t going well and you think the ankles may be limiting the quality of movement, elevate the heels using a 2×4 or 2×6 board or small weight plates. While their heels are elevated, have the client perform the movement again; if their movement improves, you know the ankles are not playing fair and you can go about mobilizing them. By placing the client’s heels on the board, you are essentially taking away the need for the ankles to achieve the level of dorsi flexion they would otherwise have to attain to perform the squat. Everything else about the movement is virtually the same, only the ankle position changes and that can often pin point an issue. Sure, it’s science, but it’s not rocket science. Keep things simple!

Get Specific with a Weight Bearing Lunge Test

If the result of the standardized test isn’t great, how do you know if the ankles are part of the problem? This is a simple way to find out if ankle dorsi flexion is part of the issue.

  1. Place the toes of the right foot against the wall.
  2. Place the toes of the left foot next to the middle of the right foot’s arch.
  3. Take a step back with the right foot to brace and place hands on the wall for balance.
  4. Push the left knee toward the wall ensuring the left heel never leaves the ground.
  5. If the left knee touches the wall with the left heel on the ground, your client has good dorsi
    flexion in that ankle.
  6. If the knee does not touch the wall, dorsi flexion needs some work.
  7. Switch sides and test the other ankle.

That, my friends, is mind numbingly simple, but absolutely telling!

If your client can pass this test on both sides, their ankle dorsi flexion is not an issue in either the squat or the lunge. Upon passing this test, any problems you find with their squat or lunge technique is not stemming from a lack of dorsi flexion in their ankles so you can set about looking for the issue elsewhere.

Ruling Out Other Factors: The Bear Squat

The squat and lunge require quality mobility in the ankles, hips and thoracic spine. One way to determine which of these could be a limiting factor is to have your client do the extremely safe but challenging bear squat. This movement can be performed as a stand-alone assessment or it can be plugged into a workout just like any other exercise. I often work it into sessions where I need to quickly assess the squatting limitations of many clients at the same time. In most instances the client performs the movement without even knowing that I am looking to see if there are any mobility limitations that could be compromising their squatting technique. This movement can be useful to a trainer because it mimics many of the characteristics needed to perform an overhead squat while using the ground to provide support where a standing squat requires core stability to accomplish the movement.

In my experience, once the client is warmed-up and their mechanics have been coached most people will have the thoracic spine and hip mobility to perform a relatively decent standing body weight squat.  Even then, if their hips and t-spine do not have quality mobility, chances are their ankles don’t either. So, regardless of what limitations they display, it is often their ankle mobility that ruins the show and the bear squat will tell me exactly what I need to know. If a person struggles to adequately perform a standard body squat or overhead squat assessment, but they can perform the bear squat satisfactorily, I know the party pooper is probably their ankles (and possibly core stability). Knowing that, I can quickly work to address the issue so that we can get on with another one of my magic-results-producing training sessions.

Ankle Dorsi Flexion Improvement Tip #1:

Teach your clients how to release the fascia on the bottoms of their feet and in their calves. Teach them well and they should show up to every session fully prepped and ready to go. Ignore this simple task and their movement may be compromised during the session. The choice is yours.  The fascia I am writing about is part of what is called the Superficial Back Line (SBL) which originates under the toes, tracks upward along the posterior of the body, runs over the skull and then attaches at the frontal brow ridge above the eyes. Wow! That’s a long line! Thomas Myers, author of Anatomy Trains (2009) writes, “The plantar fascia of the foot is often a source of trouble that communicates up through the rest of the line” (p. 75). Since dorsi flexion range of motion is negatively impacted by a tight SBL, releasing it can work wonders. So, don’t overthink the issue; if you want to instantly improve ankle dorsi flexion, massage, release and stretch the bottoms of the feet, the toes, and the muscles of the calf. Bam! Pow! You are amazing!

 

Ankle Dorsi Flexion Improvement Tip #2:

Systematically work to develop a quality dynamic warm-up that includes sufficient focus on mobilizing the ankles. In the January 2016 edition of the PTA Global Blog, physical therapist Meredith Butulis wrote a post titled Stretching Myths vs. Science: What you need to know. In it she addressed several issues associated with stretching and provided evidence to support the notion that dynamic warm-ups may produce greater, longer lasting changes in range of motion than static stretching alone.

The Wrap-Up

Two top notch fitness-result-producing movements, the squat and the lunge, each come with dozens of possible technique progressions making them some of the most versatile and effective movements in any fitness program.

Mastery of these movements will bring tremendous opportunity to any client wishing to continually improve and reach new levels of personal betterment through fitness training. While there are many possible mobility or stabilization issues that may throw a wrench in the optimal performance of these exercises, ankle dorsi flexion is one of the most overlooked and unassuming culprits. While the ankles may not be the first problem area most trainers would think of when they observe a compromised squat or lunge pattern, they are always part of the equation.

Modern lifestyle habits make it rare to find someone who has great ankle mobility and, therefore, I recommend this become one of the first places any reader of this article look to find shortcomings in their client’s ability to properly perform a squat or lunge.

References

Carlson, R., Fleming, L., Hutton, W. (2000). The biomechanical relationship between the tendoachilles, plantar fascia and metatarsophalangeal joint dorsiflexion angle. Foot & Ankle International. Jan; 21(1), 18-25.

Myers, T. W. (2009). Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists (2nd ed.).  London, England: Churchill Livingstone


Jared Meacham

Over a decade of fitness business and large health and wellness club management. From major athletic clubs around the USA to hospital and community-based wellness centers and entrepreneurial ventures my experience in facility operations and business management is vast. Have overseen and professionally developed hundreds of fitness professionals and numerous health club business systems nationwide. Now directing all fitness aspects of a progressive, massively successful fitness programming enterprise. Developed a grass-roots in-home personal training business into a multi-state, seven location fitness authority within 18 months. I have also directed new club pre-sale, operations and staffing multiple times. Always open to new challenges, I took an opportunity creating and directing all fitness services for a progressive and expanding health club based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.