A Weak Foundation: How to Screen Your Ankles, Improve Performance, and Decrease Injury

No one would’ve opened this article if I called it, “screening your ankles and increasing your mobility.” However the truth is the ankle may be the most ignored joint next to the wrist in terms of athletic performance, flexibility, and injury prevention.Speaking in terms of a structural integrity, the base is the single most important factor. Our ankles are stability joints that must very quickly impact the ground, absorb force, and help shift weight for the next movement. This occurs at speeds faster than we can think, so it relies upon learned motor patterns and reactions.

You would never build a house on a muddy foundation, yet as athletes we operate on both stiff and weak ankles. This article will provide you with fast, but accurate screens to assess your current mobility and strategies to improve performance in any sport or activity.

It may seem silly to look for gains in strength in such a small joint, but having an effective and efficient base will effectively translate to improving all other standing movement patterns.First we need to establish proper range of motion and then stabilize the joint.Once we have control of the joint we look to enhance the performance through ground reaction time, coordination, and power output. This follows the same patterns put forth in the squat and deadlift articles posted previously.

In the screens outlined below we will examine both flexion and extension of the ankle:

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Start position for screening.

Screen #1: Active Dorsiflexion Lying Against Wall1

Lay on the ground with feet together and flat against the wall. Have your legs flat and together, with arms rested by your sides and palms facing up. From here, pull your toes back and as far away from the wall as possible while maintaining heel contact with the wall.

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Flex the toes and feet toward yourself as much as possible.

  • Inability to move the ball of the foot from the wall constitutes failure of the test
  • 0.1-1 inch from the wall is acceptable
  • 1+ inch from the wall is optimal (if you are able to slide the opposite big toe behind your flexed foot this would clear your 1+ inch range)

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Examine flexibility one foot at a time. If you can fit big toes behind with no contact, you are greater than 1 inch.

Screen #2: Active Ankle Plantar Flexion Un-Weighted2

Begin lying on your back with your feet in a vertical position. Under control, point your toes away from you as far as possible and hold at your end range of motion.

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Passing extension test – greater than 20 degrees.

The goal is to achieve at least 20 degrees range of motion, and ideally 30. Visually if you reach a flat line between your foot and shin you have optimal range of motion passing the test. If you are unable to reach 20 degrees you fail the screen.

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Failure of extension test.

Screen #3: Passive Dorsiflexion Weighted3

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Stand with your right foot perpendicular to the wall, with your big toe 1 inch from the wall and knee in line with the second toe. Flex the right knee and attempt to touch the wall while keeping the entire foot flat on the ground paying specific attention to the heel. If successful, move 2 inches from the wall and repeat the process until maximum distance is found.

  • <2 inches = failure of the test
  • 2-4 inches = acceptable range
  • 4+ inches = optimal range

If you have optimal range of motion in all three tests, you may then skip the mobility portion and jump ahead to the performance section. If you failed any of the tests or are in the acceptable range continue through the mobility drills first.

Read the Corrective Pattern Sequence and how to fix any issues you pick up in the screen

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