How mobile are your wrists and ankles? They’re the primary hinges for our two major sets of extremities – hands and feet – and yet they often go neglected. They’re two of the most common sites of debilitating pain and acute injury, and yet people do little else to correct the problem than tightening the high tops, strapping on some constrictive sleeves, or avoiding activity altogether. All those “solutions” miss the point entirely, in my opinion. Rather than fix the root issue, they skirt it and apply expensive band aids. If you know anything about how I approach other issues of health and wellness, you can guess that I’m not satisfied with the band aid approach to wrist and ankle mobility. We can do a whole lot better than that.
The importance of wrist mobility is pretty self-evident – the things are literally built for flexion, extension, adduction, and abduction. Imagine how utterly useless our ability to grasp and grab things would be without a properly greased wrist hinge. It’d be like amputating your forearms and replacing them with those grabby arm things . Who wants that? They’re good for picking up trash, or maybe goosing buxom waitresses if you’re a dirty old man (or lustful robot with an eye for sentient beings), but for living, breathing humans interested in performing a wide range of activities that require active, mobile wrists, they won’t cut it. You need adequate wrist mobility, whether you work a keyboard for a living (carpal tunnel syndrome), catch barbells in the rack position , throw projectiles, cradle infants or small animals, examine books and magazines in book stores, use coffee mugs with handles, play darts professionally or recreationally, regularly direct others to “talk to the hand,” drink cocktails with a raised pinky, wave goodbye (especially if you employ the “royal wave”), play Ultimate Frisbee , or shoot hoops (with good follow through ). If you plan on giving awesome high fives or becoming a dominant arm wrestler, you absolutely need mobile wrists.
Seriously, though, adequate wrist mobility is important for everyday life and intense exercise alike.
Most people have fairly mobile wrists because almost everyone uses their wrists on a regular basis. They can usually use some extra mobility, especially when engaged in intensive exercise, but they can get along fine in normal, everyday mundane life. Ankles are different. Whether from disuse or misuse, most people suffer from poor ankle mobility, which typically manifests as a lack of dorsiflexion. In case you aren’t aware, dorsiflexion refers to movement that decreases the angle between the top of the foot and the shin; plantarflexion is movement that increases the angle. Plantarflexion is generally not an issue for most people, but lack of dorsiflexion is common, especially among shoe-wearers. Wearing shoes with raised heels forces plantarflexion and reduces the dorsiflexion requirements, and habitual shoe-wearers might find their natural dorsiflexion lacking in bare feet or minimal footwear. When the ankles are stiff, the knees overcompensate. Something’s got to bend, after all, and if you can’t mobilize your ankles, the stress of motion will simply move onto the next possible joint – just like tight hips can lead to lower back (and knee, for that matter) pain.
Poor dorsiflexion reduces the ability to squat at or below parallel, whether you’re just resting on your haunches in a Grok squat or squatting with some weight on your back. Oftentimes, people with tight ankles are unable to break parallel without shifting the weight to the toes and raising their heels. Raising the heel and keeping the toes on the ground to achieve dorsiflexion place massive shearing stress on the anterior portion of your knee, while keeping your heels on the ground distributes stress evenly, as it should be. Ideally, you should be able to squat deep while keeping your toes off the ground. (Don’t make that a habit, especially with a significant amount of weight. Just use it to check ankle mobility.) Either way, the more dorsiflexion you’re able to achieve, the lower you’ll be able to squat and avoid shearing stress on your knees. Power lifters will often wear weight-lifting shoes with elevated heels specifically designed to increase squat depth, but they’re hitting loads most recreational lifters will never reach. For the average active individual, relying on weight-lifting shoes (or any shoe, really) to make up for poor ankle dorsiflexion will only compound the problem.
Reduced ankle mobility also reduces your ability to engage the posterior chain. If you’re squatting with poor dorsiflexion, with most of the weight resting on your toes, the movement is going to be all quads, with minimal glute and hamstring action. This is arguably “good” for bodybuilders looking for massive quads, but bad for anyone else interested in overall strength, joint health, muscular balance, and general fitness functionality. Athletes need to be able to produce the most power in the safest, most efficient way possible, and that can really only be done by pushing off with the heel and engaging the hamstrings and glutes – and those things simply don’t happen without adequate ankle mobility and good dorsiflexion.
If you can’t achieve good dorsiflexion via the ankles, your body will get it from someplace else, and that means knee, hip, and even lower back overcompensations. Injuries will mount, too, probably in that order. Your knees undergo anterior stress, your hips will strain, and your lumbar spine will round.
Poor dorsiflexion negatively affects your ability to generate power while sprinting , too. When sprinting, you should land with a dorsiflexed ankle ready to immediately push off, as Michael Stember mentioned in his PrimalCon lecture. That way there’s no downtime, no need to go from plantarflexion to dorsiflexion. Reducing “time on ground” increases speed and energy efficiency while minimizing the chance of injury.
It’s clear that both wrist and ankle mobility are important for proper function in sport and everyday life. If either is compromised, especially the ankles, the rest of your joints will make up the difference. In a survival situation, this makes sense. It’ll keep you alive in the short-term. In the long term, though, regularly performing movements with the wrong joints will catch up with you. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss a few simple ways to improve wrist and ankle mobility so that you can take care of any issues you have before they become serious problems with lifelong reverberations.