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

The Importance of Wrist and Ankle Mobility

barefoot 1How 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.

Wrists

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.

Ankles

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.

Read on to learn how to improve wrist and ankle mobility.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Ever since Pavel’s Super Joints, joint mobility has been interesting to me. It’s funny how something so “common sense” as healthy joints got ignored for so long in the fitness industry (or at least it seems that way).

    Excellent, can’t wait for the follow up.

    Michael Dyer wrote on May 13th, 2010
  2. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s post! I have always had wrist and ankle trouble. Trail running in my Vibrams has actually helped my ankles a little, but I’m looking for ways to make an even better improvement. As for my wrists – well we’ll just say that in the P90X stretch video when we do the wrist stretches, I can’t really even go past perpendicular to the ground in any direction.

    Thanks for such an applicable post Mark – and I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s!

    Melissa wrote on May 13th, 2010
  3. An interesting fact about feet/ankles – dancers tend to sleep with their feet pointed while non-dancers sleep with their feet pointed up. I happen to be a dancer, my husband thinks I’m weird because of my feet sleeping positions.

    Ris wrote on May 13th, 2010
  4. Since I made the switch to Vivo Barefoot, sandals, bare feet when possible or my Vibrams, I have noticed a HUGE increase in my strength and mobility in the ankles. The “over-engineered” footwear on my shelves has remained there since and my feet and ankles are the better for it! Thanks to MDA for all the info on the benefits of barefoot!

    Mike Cheliak wrote on May 13th, 2010
    • I found the same thing when I switched to Vibrams! Any time I tried to run in my regular running shoes I’d have actual pain in my ankles, which would then creep up to my knee as well. I went from walking everywhere in my Vibrams to running in them as well, and my ankles and knees are so much better for it.

      Hannah wrote on May 13th, 2010
    • This then gives me another reason to buy VFF as soon as possible. Unfortunately only 2 stores sell them where I live currently and they are always sold out.

      Reading about more benefits about going barefoot is always enlightening! I do my workouts barefoot in the grass, but hiking barefoot would be an honor!

      Primal Toad wrote on May 13th, 2010
      • Todd,
        If you wait just a little longer, VFF is coming out with some AWESOME new models!

        Ben wrote on May 13th, 2010
  5. Mark, thank you so much for these mobility posts. I just started working on hip, ankle, and wrist mobility so it’s very timely for me.

    Jason wrote on May 13th, 2010
  6. I had a history of Achilles trouble but since wearing my Vibrams for everything including running I now have no problem at all and was only noticing the other day that my dorsiflexion has improved.

    However I am having trouble with an area on top of the foot since going barefoot/Vibram which I suspect is my foot trying to adapt to the natural position compared with over-engineered (and custom orthotic) angles.

    Anyone else found a strained/sore feeling on the top of your foot where the toes join the main foot?

    Can’t wait for tomorrow …

    Kelda wrote on May 13th, 2010
    • I had that problem too. The top of my right foot was swollen and sore, and the bottom of my left foot felt like it was bruised – especially first thing in the morning.

      I attributed it to pushing too far too fast in my Vibrams – I ran my first lap in them only a few days after getting them, and a mile within a couple of weeks. To me that was slow but I guess the “learning curve” should be even longer.

      I went back to running shoes to let my feet heal. They are mostly better (still a little bit with the morning swelling/tenderness) and I am planning to start easing into Vibrams for non-running applications. I just needed to get past the CrossFit games – didn’t want to do anything that might sideline me!

      Kris wrote on May 13th, 2010
      • Mmm, I ran 20 mins on a treadmill in mine, all fine, the gradually upped that to an hour and have done an hour outdoors through the woods in the Trek version, it seemed to happen after a sprint and a short time on a hard surface. Have decided to stop running till the end of June to allow the foot to settle. Like you I have an ‘event’coming up which I don’t want to compromise so was considering going to racing ‘flats’ till it’s out of the way then trying again with barefoot/Vibrams – still wearing Vibrams just for walking around though. Definitely improves posture, muscle balance etc, etc.

        Kelda wrote on May 13th, 2010
  7. Hi, regarding the ankle needing to be dorsiflexed during sprinting:

    In my transition to barefoot running, one of the main things I have to keep focusing on in terms of form is to land softly, towards the middle and forefoot area (One of the great tips from Barefoot Ted at one of his workshops). Accordingly one of the touted “bad” practices from running in conventional running shoes is landing on your heels.

    If we’re supposed to be landing with a dorsiflexed ankle during sprinting aren’t we landing with our heels, promoting shock up the bones into the joints? Or is there something more subtle to the form that I’m missing?

    Allen wrote on May 13th, 2010
    • You still land on the forefoot with the ankle dorsiflexed. You just take shorter strides, so you’re not reaching out with your toes to catch the ground. Shorter strides allow both a dorsiflexed ankle and forefoot landing.

      Erik Cisler wrote on May 13th, 2010
    • Those were exactly my thought processes.

      Kelda wrote on May 13th, 2010
  8. want tomorrows post now!! hehe
    i cant squat with my feet parallel, only on my toes which i know must be bad for me. i cant even get my ankles close to the ground and ive been trying for months now. tho i do have some messed up ankles from old athletics injuries..which might have something to do with it.

    norcalgal wrote on May 13th, 2010
  9. I NEED ME SOME KNEE MOBILITY!!!

    Mallory wrote on May 13th, 2010
  10. Thank you for this series! I hope there’s shoulders and knees coming soon!

    jojo wrote on May 13th, 2010
  11. I got my VFF last weekend and I love ‘em! In fact, I wore them to work today (I teach high school) and a couple of my students have them as well. They’re great (and in addition to being comfy, they greatly boost my “I wanna play!” factor).

    Tiki Jane wrote on May 13th, 2010
  12. I do Olympic-style lifting and Crossfit type activities and have been having wrist issues for several months. As a result I have had to limit doing these things that I love. Seems like most of the comments are geared toward ankles issues, but I really look forward to your thoughts on wrist mobility. Thank you for covering this topic.

    Erica wrote on May 13th, 2010
  13. i begain barefoot running at age 45 – i had been running for a few years before that, but my ankles and calves were as weak as they ever were – i suffered from “pronation” and lateral ankle tendon strain…. after 2 years running barefoot, i notinced a thick band of tendon runing from the inside of my anckle to the underfoot had developed… i begain a 9 mile fell (hill) run an twisted my anckle about 40degrees – i felt nothing before, during or anytime after… my ackles and aclves are now super strong. proof to me that shoes, especially trainers, make your feet and lower leg weak…
    M
    {;¬)

    markus wrote on May 14th, 2010
  14. Indoors barefoot five-a-side football.

    An hour of that gets the feet working.
    Only really a problem when the others (wearing shoes) step on your feet.

    Striking the ball with your toes is impossible, but every other part of the foot can still be used to kick.

    The first couple of weeks I noticed aches in the ankles, and the forward part of the arch.

    Derek wrote on May 14th, 2010
  15. Thanks Mark, I hope your post tomorrow addresses ankles that have been twisted. I have had some bad ankle twists in the past few years that have left me with poor ankle mobility and prone to more twists.

    Tom wrote on May 14th, 2010
  16. LOVE this post. This stuff is so important. And the best part is, simply greasing up/loosening ankles and wrists makes an immediate difference in how you feel doing your normal activities! A good one to try is in a seated position, one ankle crossed over opposite knee, hold upper part of the foot with one hand and heel with the other. Just twist your hands in opposite directions a few times, gently, like you’re wringing out your foot. This will go a long way to creating more mobility in the foot/ankle/lower leg. (I stole this from Eric Franklin of the Franklin Methode.)

    Christina wrote on May 14th, 2010
  17. Yup, I can tell you how much it sucks to have your wrist not working properly.

    Jenn wrote on May 17th, 2010
  18. I see it everyday in my treatment center. Other than head and neck injuries, the ankles are the cause of so many other issues. The sad part is that it can be so easy to fix.

    Terry Zwart wrote on May 19th, 2010

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