Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 May

How to Improve Wrist and Ankle Mobility

ankleMost people have enough wrist and ankle mobility to get around life all aright, but most people think they’re doing just fine with grains, sweets, and seed oils comprising the bulk of their diets. We can always improve our abilities to rotate, extend, and flex our various joints. We must, if we’re interested in retaining maximum mobility through old age and beyond.

How does one go about obtaining that much-vaunted wrist and ankle mobility?

Wrists

Let’s first figure out the extent of your immobility. To test the wrists, explore a few situations and ask yourself some questions:

Do you wrists ache after long days at the office sitting behind a keyboard? You may have poor wrist mobility, and it’s probably exacerbated by your sitting/typing/working conditions and wrist position.

When catching barbells in the rack position, or doing front squats, barbell thrusters, and handstand pushups, do your wrists hurt? Again, you probably have poor wrist mobility.

As opposed to the other major joints, there’s no easy way to objectively test wrist mobility without equipment or a trained eye. It’s very subjective. If your wrists are bothering you, if they’re proving to be a constant, noticeable impediment to your enjoyment of an active life, that’s usually enough to self-diagnose poor wrist mobility and initiate the following drills.

Wrist Rotations

This one’s pretty simple. Lace your fingers together and, using plenty of push-pull oppositional strength, put your wrists through every possible range of motion. Rotation, flexion, extension, adduction, abduction – just make sure you’re fully extending and fully flexing and fully rotating. If you’re working at the computer with stationary wrists for hours upon hours, it’s a good idea to work the wrist rotations every few hours. Be sure to hold the extreme positions for a few seconds to get some static stretches going.

Prayers

Stand up and place your hands together in front of you, as if in prayer. Maintaining contact between your hands, lower them. Go as far as you can. The longer you can keep your hands together, the better you’ll stretch the wrists. At the bottom, reverse things so that your fingers point downward and your hands remain together. Come back up.

Nail the Rack Position

Practice racking barbells, especially if this gives you trouble. A lot of times people complain about wrist pain because they’re trying to support the weight with these relatively puny wrists. Look at them – they’re tiny. They aren’t meant to support a couple hundred pounds of barbell. Racking a weight isn’t about using your wrists to lift the weight; it’s about using wrist mobility to keep the barbell atop your shoulders. Your shoulders/frame are supporting the barbell, and the wrists merely keep it in place. Stiff wrists will make it seem like you’re supporting the weight with them, while mobile wrists will have no issue in the rack position.

Typing

Make sure your workstation set-up allows a neutral wrist position when typing. If it does not, don’t rest until it does. A standing workstation might be in order.

Ankles

Next, let’s test your ankles. Luckily, it’s really easy to establish whether ankle mobility is a problem. Perform a full squat with proper form: sit back into your hips, maintain an arch in your lumbar spine, and go below parallel. If you can go into a full, deep squat while fulfilling the aforementioned requirements and keeping your heels on the ground, you have adequate ankle mobility. You may (actually, probably) still be able to improve, but at least you’re not completely tight down there.

If the only way to reach full squat depth while maintaining a tight lumbar curve is to raise your heels and rest on your toes, you have very poor ankle mobility.

For another illustration, refer back to my “How to Squat” post from last year and check out the “Asian Squat” vid at the end. The classic Asian/third world/Grok/indigenous people’s squat (whatever you want to call it) is the resting position of choice for billions because it’s sustainable and it’s sustainable because it maintains contact between the heel and the ground. With the heel down, the weight is evenly distributed; with the heel up, the weight bears down almost entirely on the anterior portion of your knee. Try resting on your toes for twenty minutes and see how you feel, let alone trying to toe squat with serious weight involved. It’s a bad idea all around.

Another sign of ankle immobility is pain or pressure in your feet, right where it meets your ankle, when dorsiflexing. It’ll feel like you’re pinching something in your foot right along the section covered by this woman’s ring finger, when you should be feeling your calves stretch.

Wall Dorsiflexion (Video)

Stand a few inches away from a wall and place one foot behind you. Bend the lead leg, trying to touch the wall with your knee by dorsiflexing your ankle. Don’t pause at the wall; bring it right back, because this is a mobility drill. Do five touches with each ankle, then move back an inch or two and repeat the process. Go as far back as you can while keeping your heels on the ground. Keep the weight on your heels and don’t push with your toes.

Wall Dorsiflexion with Tennis Ball Work (Video)

Perform the wall dorsiflexion as usual, only this time use a tennis, lacrosse, or baseball to work your calf. Each time you dorsiflex, roll your calf, starting right below the calf muscle and working up toward the back of your knee. Go easy at first. This should break up the tension and relieve that pressure on the tops of your feet (if you had it).

Foot Rolling

Fascia, the layer of fibrous connective tissue in the body, is continuous and uninterrupted. Tight fascia in the feet, then, is connected to and has an effect on tightness in the ankles and calf. Take the same tennis ball and roll the bottom of your foot along it, working the fascia. If it hurts, you’re probably tight, and that tightness could be carrying over to your ankle mobility.

Raised Dorsiflexion (Video)

Stand with your toes on a raised (several inches) platform. This should force you into a dorsiflexed position. Now, dorsiflex some more, using both ankles at once. For added fun, do the raised dorsiflexion on a pair of tennis balls.

Beginner’s Ankle Joint Mobility Medley (Video)

Dorsiflexion is a common problem for people, but there’s more to ankle mobility than just a single range of motion. Frequent commenter John Sifferman’s short and to the point video treatment of ankle mobility is perfect for anyone interested in all-around ankle mobility.

Once you’ve got pretty good mobility, practice! Do plenty of squats, making sure to hit parallel with good form. Throw a bit of weight on there if you’re feeling up to it. Play sports, like Ultimate Frisbee, that test your ability to change direction and subject your ankles to the full range of motion. Go on hikes, and don’t shy away from the hilly parts. If you’re having a mellow day, at the very least keep your ankles active by doing some passive rotations. That’s why moving around at a slow pace almost every day is so important – it keeps your joints lubricated and it maintains your sense of how to move and use your body. We don’t have to move around if we don’t want – we could order takeout, have our groceries delivered, and hire help to clean, cook, and do yard work – but our genes expect us to constantly be on the move. That doesn’t necessarily require hours and hours of grueling work in the gym or on the track, but it does mean we have to move our limbs daily.

Hopefully these ankle and wrist mobility drills will help you move fluidly and pleasurably.

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Good suggestions, and I like the mention of deep tissue massage. How often would you recommend doing joint mobility work?

    Michael Dyer wrote on May 14th, 2010
    • I’ll quote what I said in last week’s post on thoracic spine mobility. It applies here as well:

      “I don’t particularly like doing many time-consuming exercises just to loosen up one area of my body, and I bet you don’t either. Do as I do and simply do a self test on your hips, your back and other joints (coming soon!) from time to time to gauge where your at. If you could use a little work then spend some time with these drills until improvements are seen.”

      Mark Sisson wrote on May 14th, 2010
  2. I know I have poor wrist mobility. Front squats, cleans, and barbell thrusters are always limited by my wrist pain.

    I never took mobility seriously until reading Pavel’s Super Joints book. Ever since mobility has been a priority for and I try to start every day with about 20 minutes of mobility work. It really does work wonders for stiff joints!

    Justin wrote on May 14th, 2010
  3. Since standing desks was mentioned again, I’ll note something I just received in the mail today. I have a fixed desk at my work, so can’t replace it with a standing desk. I decided to try out a desktop solution that allows you to raise and lower your monitor and keyboard: http://www.ergodesktop.com/

    I got the Kangaroo version. Like I said, I just got it today, but so far it seems great.

    Justin wrote on May 14th, 2010
    • That thing is too awesome. But, mighty expensive! I purchased a stand up workstation for around $220 and love it. Luckily the size is perfect!

      Of course as I am typing this I am sitting down… but, I go back and forth.

      I tend to not take enough breaks and so my feet begin to hurt if I stand in one spot for too long. So, sitting and standing seems to work well. :)

      Primal Toad wrote on May 14th, 2010
  4. I have to give another shout out to my Vibram Five Fingers for ankle mobility, it wasn’t until I started walking everywhere in them that I was finally able to squat properly. Once my ankles had proper mobility, keeping my heels to the ground while squatting suddenly made sense! I never understood how people could squat on their heels when I was working out in regular running shoes, but that’s because I had barely any dorsiflexion to speak of.

    A good example of excellent dorsiflexion would be the ski jumpers at the recent olympic games…look at this guy’s form, his feet are at a 45-ish degree angle to his shins!
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/26/Calgary.jpg

    Hannah wrote on May 14th, 2010
    • I have the same problem you had, my ankle mobility is terrible. I’ve been trying ankle mobility work but none of it has helped me so far, are the vibram 5 fingers really that good? I would buy them in a heartbeat.

      Paul

      Paul wrote on February 8th, 2011
  5. This is especially important if you are doing anything athletic. I was involved in gymnastics for a number of years and properly stretching wrists and ankles for maximum mobility was invaluable. I still have some ankle issues and I feel it would be worse if I didn’t pay attention to it at all!

    Joey wrote on May 14th, 2010
  6. Thanks for the link, Mark! Ankle and wrist mobility is largely neglected in not just most strength training programs, but also many mobility programs. We store a lot of tension in our wrists from the time we spend in front of a keyboard, and also in our ankles from our over-engineered footwear – among other things. A few mobility drills daily can go a long way to restore and maintain full range of motion at these joints.

    John Sifferman wrote on May 14th, 2010
  7. Thanks for this, My wrists seem ok, but ankles need a lot of work.

    Steven

    Steven R. McEvoy wrote on May 14th, 2010
  8. Anyone know where I can find a pair of shoes with a heel that is LOWER than the forefoot? I figure walking around during the day in shoes that help stretch the calf and dorsiflex the feet would help build mobility pretty quickly. Would that even be a healthy thing to do?

    Kirk A wrote on May 14th, 2010
  9. Try earth shoes – http://www.earthfootwear.com. They have a heel that is 3.7 degrees lower then the toes. I have found them to be great for my back.

    Inga wrote on May 14th, 2010
  10. Ankle mobility is limited in a proper squat. Your knees should not be in front of your feet. If you stand facing a wall and can touch your toes and knees to it, then your ankle mobility is not the cause of poor squatting form.

    Wyatt wrote on May 14th, 2010
  11. I used to be a professional baker and cook, and I have also done a lot of typing. In baking there is lots of strain on your wrists–kneading, shaping bread, foolishing pulling pans out of the oven with one hand, etc. With cooking there is the chopping, stirring, etc. Though typing doesn’t bother me, doing anything involving weight causes pain in my wrists. It’s bearable, but I avoid it. Think pushups. I thought the damage I did to my wrists was permanent if subclinical. It’s nice to know that perhaps I can bring them back full use again.

    Shebeeste wrote on May 14th, 2010
  12. Gotta say, I’m really digging this mobility series thus far. About a year ago I started doing some yoga and have found it worked wonders with my flexibility, balance, and mobility. Primal it may not be (perhaps just because it’s so closely associated with the veg*n crowd), but effective? Oh yeahz.

    Darrin wrote on May 14th, 2010
  13. As a 55 year old woman who has only recently (since February) been released from durance vile (the SAD and lifestyle) I have very weak hand and arm strength.

    Fortunately I recently found a great way to both strengthen and stretch my wrists and hands. I got a soft 4lb medicine ball and I toss it around several times a day. Hubby and I also play “catch” with it as a warm up exercise.

    Love all your posts, Mark, but have benefited especially from all the mobility ones. Thanks!

    Kansas Grokette wrote on May 15th, 2010
  14. I can maintain heel contact through to the ground with no trouble at all in a full squat, but I DO have trouble with excessive plantar flexion-for example, when swimming, my right ankle will hyperextend against the water and cause considerable pain.

    I’m sure that it’s a strength issue, but no PT or doc that I have ever asked knows how to fix it! Just tape it, they say.

    Uh huh.

    Mark-or anyone else-do you have any ideas? It’s unstable on full heel lifts compared to the left ankle-wobbles in and out-yet the left ankle is the one that I am prone to turning. I’ve done myriad versions of heel lifts, but I don’t think it focuses on the right part. Am I hopeless?

    Laurel wrote on May 15th, 2010
  15. This is good stuff, Mark! Have you ever heard of Scott Sonnon? His Intu-flow exercises are great for mobility! They are free on you tube:
    http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=4CA5649284873731

    I particularly appreciate the wrist and hand exercises. I work at a computer most of the time, so my body thanks me for it.

    A. Wingren wrote on May 15th, 2010
  16. walk gently in sand every day. Never to fatigue.

    Also watch out for a tight right calf (this may not be the cause but rather a symptom).

    Stand about two feet from a counter that comes half way up to your thigh. Put the ball of your right foot on the counter (with the rest of your foot hanging from the edge). Slowly lean into your foot, decreasing the distance between your right heal and your right butt. MAKE SURE your knee is tracking over your foot completely 100% of the time. When you press into a spot that gives you maximal calf tension, be sure to consciously relax the calf.

    Wyatt wrote on May 15th, 2010
  17. Loving all this information, Mark, but I have a question.

    I feel as though I have decent ankle mobility, but so far, I’m not finding a lot of exercises or stretches to help out with the outer tendons of the lower legs. After any strenous jumping or even slow jogging, these tendons tighten up painfully, almost excrutiatingly, in some cases. I’ve taken time off from these activities and it’s gotten better, but it’s still troublesome.

    I’ve lost a fair bit of weight and that eases the pain to a degree. Should I just continue on with light activity and losing weight, or is there a better approach? I’d like to avoid taking any sort of muscle relaxer or ibuprofen that a doctor would be sure to throw my way, instead of addressing the underlying problem. Any suggestions?

    Victoria wrote on May 19th, 2010
    • Again, FISH OIL FISH OIL FISH OIL!!!
      It’s the single best most effective supplement to relieve pain from inflammation. And a person need A MINIMUM of 3-1 gram gels a day just to get the 1000mg minimum daily requirement of omega 3’s. 3,5,7 grams a day is not unusual, the more I take the better I feel.

      So if you’re not eating the whole, fresh, raw and cooked balanced diet Mark recommends, if you’re eating too much fast and junk foods and sugar, too much coffee and sodas that acidify your system, if you don’t eat fish cause you don’t like it and cut out other good foods too and if your gums bleed when you brush then you likely have chronic inflammation and the related muscle, joint, ligament and tendon pain that comes with it.

      andyinla wrote on May 20th, 2010
  18. Just to add a bit to your thoughts on the squat –

    “With the heel down, the weight is evenly distributed; with the heel up, the weight bears down almost entirely on the anterior portion of your knee.”

    For those of us with Morton’s Toe, if we squat with the heel up, that also puts additional pressure on the joint of that second toe (already a problem for us even when we walk!) – that joint is much too small and not built to hold so much weight, especially for extended periods of time! All the more reason to work on your ankle flexibility and proper use of your feet :)

    Meredith wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  19. These exercises are terrific! I’ve wondered for a few years now what’s wrong with one ankle. Been told gout or osteoarthritis but it seems that poor mobility caused in the first instance by an Achillles tendon injury ten years ago is closer to the truth!

    Mari wrote on August 5th, 2011
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  21. The Kangaroo desks mentioned above now have models now available for $239.00 Might just be a great solution for your standing desk desires. The cool thing about standing while you work is you can do calf lifts and squats all while working on your computer.

    Dan Sharkey wrote on December 11th, 2011
  22. I definitely need to improve ankle flexibility so that I can out-perform my younger brother with 1-legged squats. But I have a concern: As a barefoot runner, does improved ankle flexibility harm strike energy storage? While running (especially uphill), I feel like my inflexible ankles act as springs — storing energy from the foot strike and returning it as upward/forward thrust. Thoughts?

    Charles wrote on March 30th, 2012
    • Sounds like an injury waiting to happen. The Achilles is really strong but do you really want to load it up that much? The point of barefoot running is to use the lower leg as shock absorption. The muscles do this by eccentric deceleration. If you have no ROM, then its all tendonous. Somethings gotta give sooner or later.

      Nate wrote on July 11th, 2012
  23. Thank you so much Mark. I began to stretch using the squat hardcore because I was having persistent problems(read major pain) with my ankle/achilles as well as tightness in my hips. I can already tell my foot is doing a ton better but the reason that I am astonished with the results is that my TMJ has been completely resolved. Totally gone. I can’t believe it. I had been starting to worry that I would need surgery to fix it and this is such a relief you have no idea. Simply wonderful. Thanks again.

    Olivia wrote on October 4th, 2013
  24. I found a wrist mobility test;… well, it’s a test for me at least! While standing with elbows at your sides, flex so the forearm is straight ahead, palm down, making a right angle with the upper arm. Then extend the wrist back fully, so the palms face ahead, fingers pointing up. This is essentially making a ‘U’ shape between upper arm, forearm and hand; and is the same shape they would find themselves in at the lowest point of a correct push up.
    I have just discovered my right hand is unable to extend back fully, so I’ve officially self-diagnosed with poor wrist mobility… bummer, I thought crazy tight hamstrings at 27 was bad enough! Ah well, the beginning of an adventure of transformation, I spose..

    Joe wrote on November 25th, 2013

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