Continuing with self-assessments that athletes training on their own can use, let’s look at the next one up the chain.
When looking at ankle mobility what is most important is the range that you have moving forward and back (which we refer to as dorsi-flexion and should be between 4 and 6 inches); and the range that you have moving left to right (which will be less than 4 inches but should still be present).
This assessment is important for identifying potential red flags when performing lower-body work in the weight room. If there is limited range in the ankles, it is likely that there will be unwanted motion in the knees and lower back. For sport performance, limited ankle range of motion could expose the Achilles Tendon to more stress than it is prepared to handle, lead to more severe ankle rolls, and cause problems in the patellar and quadriceps tendon (the tendons below and above the knee, respectively).
1. The Knee to Wall Test
With the toes starting four inches away from the wall, you should be able to take the knee and bend it all the way forward over the toes toward the wall with the heel remaining flat on the floor. If you can successfully accomplish this, see how close you can perform the exercise successfully up to six inches from the wall. If you cannot successfully accomplish this, then work at it until you can.
You should also work on bending the knee toward the wall slightly to the outside (over the pinky toe), and also slightly to the inside (over the big toe). You should be able to get two to three inches going to the outside; and going to the inside should net you between three and four.
For athletes with less than a five-inch Knee-To-Wall going forward, try foam-rolling the calves (inside, middle, and outside), and perhaps even perform a manual release/rub-down on the Achilles tendon. After that, try the following:
A.Ankle Rockback: With the hands and feet as flat on the floor as possible, walk the feet backward until the heels are just off of the floor. Then place the weight of one foot on the back of the other and breathe full and gentle (usually seven deep breaths gets the job done) as the heel of the grounded foot stretches toward the floor. Repeat for the other leg.
B. Knee-to-Wall & Big Toe Knee-to-Wall: Assessments can actually make effective exercises. After the Ankle Rockback, perform the knee-to-wall exercise as you normally would. Then follow that with a slightly different knee-to-wall exercise where the big toe is placed flat against an elevated surface, with the base of the big toe still in contact with the floor. As the knee bends forward toward the toe, you will feel a stretch through the bottom of the foot and into the Achilles Tendon and calf. Bring the knee as far forward as you can with the heel flat on the ground, same as the assessment. Hold the end position for a full breath in and out before returning the knee to the start position. Just as in the regular knee-to-wall version, you may bring the knee toward the wall over the big-toe (slightly inward) and over the pinky toe (slightly outward).The ultimate purpose being, again, that the heel remains glued to the ground.
C. Exercise Selection: In your training, choose exercises that are going to allow you to challenge the new range of motion that you are attempting to acquire in your ankles. The best ones would be split-squat, step-down, and side-squat exercises where you can really push the knees over the toes while keeping the heel of the foot hard-pressed into the floor.
Give this protocol a try if you score poorly on the Knee-to-Wall test, and watch your score improve.