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Excessive Dorsiflexion in Athletes

Written on January 8, 2008 at 2:17 pm, by Eric Cressey

EricCressey.com Subscriber-only Q&A

Q:  I figure you would be a good person to ask about a question I have; it deals with excessive dorsiflexion and athletes.  Kelly Baggett was explaining how people with excessive dorsiflexion rarely are good athletes. He said it is related to hip position. Could you elaborate on the subject?

A: As usual, Kelly is right on the money!  Why else would I have endorsed his Vertical Jump Development Bible last week?  I honestly wonder if the two of us are on some sort of wavelength with one another, as I think you could use our thoughts interchangeably in most cases!

To answer your question, if there is too much dorsiflexion at the ankles, it is generally a sign that you’re not decelerating properly at the knees and hips, so the ankles are taking on an extra percentage of the load. I would suspect weakness of the knee and/or hip extensors.

To be honest, though, not many people are really capable of excessive dorsiflexion, as their calves are so tight. I suspect he’s referring more to the fact that the heel is further off the ground and the knee is tracking forward too much as compensation (related to the quads being overactive, too).  If you look at the research on jump landings in female athletes, you’ll find that they land with considerably more knee flexion than their male counterparts.  We know that weak hamstrings are very common in females, and that this is one reason for their increased risk of anterior cruciate ligament injuries.  The hamstrings are hip extensors, meaning that they also decelerate hip flexion.  If they don’t have enough explosive and limit strength to control the drop of the hips upon landing, there’s no other option but to flex the knees extra to cushion the drop.  It’s an unfortunate trend that just plays back into the quad-dominance (deceleration of knee flexion).

Obviously, dynamic flexibility plays into this tremendously, too. If you can’t get ROM in one place, your body will seek it out elsewhere.

Q: I have an imbalance – one leg vs. the other. Do you suggest doing 100% unilateral leg-work for a while to cure the imbalance?

A: This is a tough one to answer; it’s never as simple as “right and left.” Generally, you’ll see muscles on each side that are a bit stronger or weaker. For example, in right-handed individuals, they’ll typically be stronger on lunging movements with the left leg forward. The left ITB/TFL, right quadratus lumborum, and right adductors will be tight, while the right hip abductors, left adductors, and left quadratus lumborum will be weak.*  There are more complex ramifications at the ankle and foot, too.  Often, the best way to address the unilateral imbalance in a broad sense is to figure out where people are tight/weak and address those issues. I’ve seen lunging imbalances corrected pretty easily with some extra QL work or pure stabilization work at the lumbar spine. The tricky thing about just doing extra sets on one side is that your body will often try to compensate for the imbalances. You might get the reps in, but are you really doing anything to even yourself out if you’re just working around the dysfunction?

This is just some stuff to consider.  I don’t think doing more on that side will hurt, but it won’t always get you closer to where to want to be.

*If you’re interested in learning more along these lines, I would highly recommend Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain (5th Ed.) by Kendall et al.  This is truly a classic text that every fitness professional should own.

Q:  I am a strongman competitor and am thinking about incorporating squat briefs into my training. I talked to a powerlifter buddy of mine and he said he would recommend briefs for max effort squats and deadlifts to keep the hips healthy. What do you think about this?

A: Well, my first observation is that you’re not going to be using the briefs in competition, are you?  Specificity is more important than people think; what’s specific for a powerlifter won’t necessarily be specific for a strongman.

However, given the nature of the training you’ll be doing (powerlifting-influenced), I wouldn’t rule the briefs out right away.  It depends on whether you’re regularly box squatting and/or squatting with a wide stance.  If you are, I’d say that they’re a good investment, and you could use them 1-2 weeks out of the month.

I would, however, caution against using them as a crutch against poor lifting technique.  There are a lot of guys who just throw on briefs because their hips hurt, not realizing that it isn’t the specific exercise that is the problem; it’s the performance of that exercise that gives them trouble.  For example, hamstring dominant hip extension/posterior pelvic tilt allows the femoral head to track too far anteriorly and can cause anterior hip pain.  If the glutes are activated appropriately, they reposition the head of the femur so that this isn’t a problem.  Unfortunately, a good 80% of the population doesn’t have any idea how to use their glutes for anything except a seat cushion.

Have a great week!


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