May 19, 2023
Two Ways Your Ankles Are Causing Your Back Pain
WRITTEN BY Chris Banks

More often than not, pain in one area is caused by something up or downstream. 

Pain in your shoulders could be your wrist mobility. 

Pain in the front of your shoulders could be a lack of strength in your upper back. 

Pain in your upper back, could be from your chest or front of your shoulders being too tight and pulled forward. 

A lot of times we see people with lower back pain have a common theme with their ankles. 

We’ll put these people in two buckets: Runners & Squatters

Before we get into these, let’s talk about the two necessary ranges of motion of the ankle. 

Ankle Flexion: The degree in which you can bend your ankle by ‘flexing’ your toes up towards your knee/shin. 

Ankle Extension: The degree in which you can extend your foot away from your shin/knee. 

Squatting and Ankle Flexion

For a solid squat, especially one under load, your ankles play a critical load. Your ankles will dictate almost everything about your bottom position, and one critical thing: How much load will be placed on your lower back? 

When the knees aren’t able to extend over and past the toes in the bottom of a squat, mechanically your hips are blocked from lowering. When the hips stop lowering the only way for the torso to continue to descend is for the shoulders to ‘bow’ forward. This puts a ton of pressure on the lower back. 

Check out the image below- Maybe you’ve been in a group class and have seen a coach que yourself or a person who looked like this “chest up!” This person could wish upon a star for their chest to go up and it won’t happen. It’s not their form, it’s their ankles. They simply won’t let them get in to a good and safe position. 

You don’t need more ‘squat therapy’, you don’t need a fancier cue from a coach to correct it. You need more ankle range of motion. 

How can you check if you have enough ankle flexion? 

Try this simple tests. 

  1. Take off your shoes. 
  2. Place a piece of tape on the floor in front of a pole, or end of a wall. 

Place it 4.5’’ away if you are under 5’8 and at 5.5’’ away if you are taller. 

  1. Place your longest toe on that line. 
  2. Without your heel coming off the floor push your knee as close to the wall or upright as you can. 

Can you touch it? If not, you know what you need to work on. 

Runners and Ankle Extension. 

For running, the issue is the complete opposite. While ankle flexion is important, it’s unlikely you are so limited here that it’s causing a problem. If they are, you are probably very aware of how stiff your ankles are. 

The limiter most people are aware of is their ankle extension. Ideally when you run with every step you are extending your ankle by pushing your toe into the ground to propel you forward. 

Now, imagine a string tied from the tip of your foot and anchored to the front of your knee stopping this extension. The repeated nature of running coupled with this added tension from your calf to your glutes can often manifest in lower back fatigue and tightness.

How do you know if ankle extension is a problem for you? 

  1. Take off your shoes
  2. Get in a tall kneeling position. 
  3. While allowing the front of your ankles to straighten, sit your butt back and down on to your heels as far as you can. 
  4. Check your ankles by seeing or feeling if there is a gap between the front of the ankle and the floor. 

If there is a gap, and running has caused you back pain in the past, this is a great place to start in alleviating it!

Back pain is always frustrating. Especially when it robs you of activities you enjoy. 

If this is you, or you have aches and pain elsewhere that are preventing you from living a life well lived, don’t hesitate in scheduling a Free Strategy Session with us. Each of our clients go through a robust assessment process to see exactly what may be causing their troubles. 

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