The deadlift is often thought of as one of the best exercises on the planet, and I won’t argue with that. Under the right circumstances and with the right approach, deadlifts are fantastic at loading pretty much the entire body from the toes to the shoulders.
However, given the complexity of the movement and that every person has varying bone structures, genetics, mobility, strengths, weaknesses, etc., we see deadlifts performed in many ways. So, I won’t say that deadlifts are the best posterior chain exercise for everyone, but they’re one of the best compound lifts you can do.
I make that delineation because the best conventional deadlifters in the world use a serious amount of ankle plantarflexion (think of gas pedaling the foot) and knee extension (locking the knees) to initiate the pull from the floor. In fact, EMG data shows that the gastrocnemius and quadriceps are highly active in conventional deadlifts. (1)
And do you know how you generate good simultaneous ankle plantarflexion and knee extension? By having ankles that actually work.
Aren’t Deadlifts Hip-Dominant?
This has always been my perspective. If you’re going to set yourself up to deadlift, your goal is likely to load the hips, specifically the hip extensors (i.e., the glutes and hamstrings). Further, your setup should put the safest but most significant stress and load through the hip extensors in the biggest range of motion possible.
And this is how I train my clients to deadlift because I’m ultimately trying to work the hip extensors. However, I modify the deadlift accordingly to ensure this. So, oftentimes we’re changing stance positions, depth (e.g., pulling from blocks), or doing another variation entirely (e.g., Romanian deadlifts).
But this isn’t why or how everyone deadlifts. Some people do it for sport, and others do it because someone told them to. Or, someone might deadlift because they’re trying to do compound movements to save time.
Regardless, deadlifts are not solely a hip-dominant movement unless you make them that way.
Some of the strongest deadlifters in the world rely on knee extension torque off the floor—arguably the most physically demanding part of the deadlift—to complete their rep successfully.
Hafthor Bjornsson’s 501kg deadlift is a perfect example.
The Knees Bend and Straighten in Every Deadlift
Deadlifts aren’t entirely hip-dominant unless you make them that way, which means the knees play a much greater role than most people acknowledge. But let me take things one step further by saying that if the knees are bending and straightening, that force is being generated more from the quadriceps than the hips.
Thus, the greater the degree of knee-bend (knee flexion) at the bottom of the deadlift, the more knee extension force you create.
So how does the ankle fit in?
For the knees to go into more flexion, the ankles have to go into more dorsiflexion. Simply put, to bend the knees and push them toward the toes, you need a more mobile ankle. This is what allows you to create a gas-pedaling, floor-pressing movement when you initiate your pull.
If you can’t go into more dorsiflexion, your calves, and more importantly, your quads, won’t be in an advantaged position to do more work.
Unlocking The Ankle
It’s okay to admit you don’t give your ankles any love other than some seated calf raises. That’s pretty standard for most gym-goers, powerlifters, and even athletes. However, as I explained in my previous article, every joint you can move should be moved daily, and your ankle is no different.
So if you’re new to moving your ankle at all, that’s okay. Try to follow along as best as you can.
If you have tight ankles, specifically in dorsiflexion, it’s common to do generic stretches to fix them. If you Google “calf stretch,” you’ll see what I mean. These stretches rarely work, as Dr. LeRiche explains in another EliteFTS article. Sometimes they don’t work because they’re not what you need, and other times they don’t work because they’re not specific enough.
The ankle is not just a hinge joint (like the elbow or knee), even though we often treat it as such. So, if you attempt to stretch the ankle in more of a linear path (e.g., pushing your knees over your toes), you’re avoiding and missing an integral part of the ankle: rotation.
Bear with me.
For your knee to adequately pass over your toes (dorsiflexion), the midfoot has to drop toward the floor. In other words, the arch of your foot slightly collapses as you drive your knees forward. You may have heard of this as ankle pronation, but it’s also called eversion.
Dr. Chivers from Functional Range Conditioning explains this really well.
Better Eversion Means Better Knee Extension
Eversion is a rotational function of the ankle, just like inversion (think of safely rolling your ankle). Without eversion, your ankle cannot efficiently dorsiflex—you cannot push your knees over or toward your toes.
Thus, to get better ankle movement in dorsiflexion (where you often feel “tight”), you need good eversion.
So, let’s backtrack.
Good eversion in the ankle equals good dorsiflexion.
Good dorsiflexion in the ankle equals better knee extension.
Better knee extension equals greater knee extension torque.
Greater knee extension torque equals stronger pulls from the floor.
How can you not get behind that?!
How To Get Better Ankle Eversion
There is no simple fix for this, but getting into the correct stretch might be enough to start. In this video, I explain how to set up ankle eversion stretching using a slantboard. You can also use a wedge or a kettlebell handle just as long as you allow the midfoot to drop down.
Try to explore the stretch and feel for the biggest lines of pull on the inside of the ankle or the medial Achilles/calf area. Hold the stretch for 60 seconds or more, and continue to press that midfoot down the entire time. It’s tough, but you’ll notice an immediate improvement in dorsiflexion after.
Let me know what you think. If you have questions, I’m here to help. Drop a comment below, and let’s discuss this more.
Brian has spent the last 12 years fine-tuning his skills as a coach and movement specialist to help people move and feel better than ever before. He has worked with and learned from some of the industry’s most revered coaches and personal trainers, like Adam Bornstein, Tim Skwiat, and Justin Kavanaugh. He has held multiple certifications through Functional Range Conditioning (FRC), Precision Nutrition (Pn2), ONNIT, Henselmans, and YogaFit. In 2018, Brian founded Motive Training, a personal training organization that teaches clients how to move with purpose, ensuring they have a well-rounded, functional body. You can find Motive Training in Grand Rapids, MI and Austin, TX.