The most overlooked joint during athletic movement is the ankle. It is important to focus on the muscles of the lower leg and their role in ankle flexibility. While the hamstrings, hip flexors, and groin make up the foundation of most stretching programs, the gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior cannot be overlooked. Flexibility of these muscles can improve body positioning both on the field and in the weight room, making movements safer and more efficient.
The most important benefit of ankle flexibility is its positive effect on performance on the field. Flexibility in the lower leg will allow an athlete to push his/her knee farther over the ankle. The resulting positive shin angle is the only way to maintain a vertical (and safe) torso position while staying low to the ground. Staying low maintains a lower center of gravity, and gives the athlete a stronger foundation to deliver and receive blows, accelerate and decelerate, and quickly change direction.
The key to all land-based sports is the ability to deliver force into the ground. An upright torso position delivers force more efficiently because the force travels in a straight line. Force transmitted through the body into the ground can help the athlete explode quicker from a static position, or help an athlete decelerate and change direction, as in a lateral cut.
Greater ankle range of motion enhances force production not only through efficient force transfer, but through greater force application. When the athlete dorsiflexes (toes up) the ankle to a greater degree it acts like slingshot. The farther you pull it back, the harder it fires in the other direction. In addition to more forceful ground contacts, greater dorsiflexion increases the distance to get to plantar flexion (toes down) and extends the period (time) of force application.
Ankle sprains are very commonplace in athletes whose sports involve constant changes in direction. A comprehensive ankle-flexibility program can prepare the ligaments and tendons of the ankles, as well as the muscles of the lower leg, for the sudden forces that occur in these rapid accelerations and deceleration.
Ankle flexibility should be very important in the weight room, particularly in the Olympic lifts, ensuring proper technique to maximize performance and prevent injury. A large component of the snatch and clean, is the squat. Sufficient ankle flexibility is required to allow the knees to track past the ankles. This keeps the lifter’s hips proximal to his/her heels, ensuring the essential vertical trunk position mentioned earlier. This upright position places the center of gravity of the body and bar (weight) over the athletes’ hips and large muscles of the upper leg, rather than placing pressure on the knees. Proper (upright) full squat positioning reduces sheer forces placed upon the knee and lumbar vertebrae of the low back.