The Essential Role of the Ankle in BJJ
Walk around a Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament and you may hear a coach yelling, “Watch your base!” or “Keep your base!” But what does that mean?
The Definition of “Base"
Before we talk about how to build a solid base, we need a clear definition of the term as it relates to BJJ. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, base is defined as “the bottom or lowest part of something: the part on which something rests or is supported.” In BJJ, base is defined as something that provides support so you do not get swept or submitted. Without a solid base, you getting swept, taken down, or submitted will be easy for your opponent to accomplish.
A successful BJJ practitioner needs a solid base while standing and kneeling. Most of the information you will find on building a base focuses on the hips and core. While there is no doubt that having strong hips and core are important, without proper mobility and strength in your ankles, none of it will matter.
The Anatomy and Function of the Foot and Ankle
The ankle and foot complex is made up of 28 bones that form 25 component joints.1 When people refer to the ankle, they are referring to the talocrural joint. The talocrural joint is formed by the tibia, fibula, and the talus bone.
Bones of the foot and ankle work together to provide stability in movements such as running. They also provide mobility by acting as a shock absorber as the foot hits the ground. In addition to providing mobility and stability, when the foot is on the ground the ankle must oppose forces from the hips, knees, spine, and pelvis.
The bones of the ankle also work with the surrounding musculature to provide support and movement. The gastrocnemius and the soleus work to pull the heel up, allowing the foot to go down. The tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus, and flexor digitorum longus protect the medial aspect of the ankle. While the fibularis longus and fibularis brevis muscles protect the lateral aspect of the ankle.
The Ankle and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
The ankle is important in BJJ to maintain balance. For example, when trying to pass the guard, a BJJ practitioner needs to move either forward or around the opponent’s legs. Every time you take a step to pass your opponent’s guard, the ankle must stabilize and absorb the shock of each movement. If the ankle is unable to stabilize and properly absorb shock, then your balance will be off and your movements slow. If you are one second too slow, it may mean the difference between passing someone’s guard or not.
Besides the performance boost you get from proper ankle and foot function, having a good range of motion and stability reduces your risk for injury. In BJJ the foot and ankle are involved in every position, so an injury would be devastating to your training. Try closing your guard with a bad ankle - it does not feel good. In addition, once an injury happens to the ankle the chance of re-injury is high. So, prevention is the key.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the body the weakest link is any muscle that is not doing its job. A muscle can lose its function for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. Just remember a muscle does not become tight for no reason. There is something going on that is causing that restriction. It may be a weakness or lack of stabilization in a related muscle.
To make sure your ankle and related muscles are not the weakest link, the first thing to do is to develop full range of motion in your ankle. One way to check your range of motion is with the squat. If you are lacking ankle mobility, then getting to the bottom of a squat will be challenging. Flossing the ankle is a great place to start. Try using a VooDoo floss around the ankle joint and move the ankle in its various ranges. Squatting with a VooDoo band around your ankle also works well.
The second thing you need to do is make sure muscles surrounding the ankle are strong. Isometric exercises work well for this. Take your ankle to various ranges of motion and hold that position while lightly pushing against a fixed object. For example place your foot in the down position against a fixed object and hold for around ten seconds. Do this with different ranges of ankle motion.
Third, add in compound movements like squats. Teach your body how to function as a unit. During a squat, the ankle, hips, knees, and torso work together. For even more of a test of your ankle, try doing pistol squats. According to Dr. Kelly Starrett, if you can’t get into the bottom of a pistol, then you are missing ankle mobility. If pistol squats are too difficult, try doing fifty to a hundred full range of motion bodyweight squats a day. If you cannot get into a deep squat, use a door handle or solid surface to hold onto as you lower yourself down.
Keeping your ankles strong and mobile will reduce injuries and improve your performance. Spend some time each day working on your ankles. Having a strong base to stand on can be the difference between passing your opponent’s guard or getting yourself swept.
1. Levangie, P. K., & Norkin, C. C. (2005). Joint structure and function: A comprehensive analysis. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Co.
Photo 1 courtesy of David Brown Photography.