There! Can you see it?!
Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

If the glutes are the powerhouse of your body, the engine room of your youth, then the ankles are the window to your butt. When the ankles lack mobility, especially in dorsiflexion (the shin moving forward towards the top of the foot), your butt won’t get the signal that more hip extension (the movement that the glutes are meant to do) is needed.

Instead, all of that work that the glutes are meant to do is taken over by your quads and calves. This can lead to issues up the chain in the knee, hip, low back, even shoulder or neck.

As a side note, calf-butts are a tragedy.

It’s not uncommon to see people with huge calves and tiny butts. Not because of some trendy, but doomed, anti-Kardashian Instagram movement. But because the calves in those bodies are doing all the work that should be given to glutes. In simple terms, it means that their butts now live in their calves.

But(t) would make a great side-plot in anything by Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

And even if there is no pain anywhere, you could be wasting time doing all the hip bridges, glute strength and deadlifts in in the world. It wouldn’t help you to run, hike or play sports any better because the hip extension strength is not accessible without an ankle that works.

How much ankle mobility you need depends on the activities you do

Here’s a simple ankle screen you can do right now. We are measuring the ankle of your rear leg.

As a general rule, you want to be able to get your rear knee inline with the ankle of your front leg.

Based on your results in the above ankle screen, we can decide what to do next:

If you lack mobility and feel pinching pain

For a pinching pain in the front of your rear ankle, or even directly in the achilles, see a manual therapist to have the ankle evaluated. Their hands can do things you and I can’t. Instead of foam rolling and whatnot for months on end, a professional can probably clear the ankle within a session. Or at least show you how to proceed to get there quickly.

If you have enough mobility and feel pinch in front of the ankle

This often means that you have the mobility, but lack the strength to control it, resulting in a pinch. Here’s an exercise you can try to strengthen the ankle itself.

For ankles that already have the adequate mobility, but lack the strength, stop short of where you feel the pinch and omit the two and one minute holds. On the next round see if you can move a bit deeper into the dorsi flexion without feeling the pain.
Also, I repeat, do not go where you feel the pain.

If you don’t have enough mobility and feel tension in calf

Follow the principles in the above Ankle Mobility PAILS/RAILS video. Include the long two and one minute holds between bouts of isometric contractions. Do it daily.

And combine it with the steps below. Except #4, which you ideally wouldn’t do until your ankle moves like a champion. But, I know there’s the perfect scenario and the real world.

If you have enough mobility and no pain

  1. So much of your ankle strength comes from the hip. Follow this single leg hip progression to build a stronger butt and therefore a stronger ankle.
  2. Because COVID, use the principles (even the exercises) of Minimalist Strength Training for The Housebound.
  3. Add some calf raises with a slow heel drop. You know this one, but here’s a video.
  4. Include power/plyometric work once you’ve built a base level of strength. Obviously there’s no gym access right now for nobody, so perhaps jump on some steps at an appropriate level. Or I don’t know, that sounds kind of dangerous. Either way, use something sturdy that allows for a proper landing.

Start with box jumps
x5-6 reps x 1-3 sets

Land like Kanye or Ninja: silently. It’s not just how high you jump, but how gracefully you land. Step down instead of jumping.

Progress to 1-leg box jumps
x5-6 reps x 1-3 sets

And eventually, lateral/medial box jumps
x5-6 reps x 1-3 sets

Now, go do it. And then come back. And eat some muesli while admiring your newly discovered brilliance of ankles. How good are they?