Most 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.