I regularly encounter clients who struggle with many different types of lower body exercises due to limited ankle mobility.
It's a problem that can ultimately lead to a painful ankle injury, and many people simply think it’s an issue that will resolve itself by doing general leg exercises.
But improving both the strength and range of motion in your ankle joints requires a careful set of exercises, and on this page, we’ll help you with assessing ankle mobility and how to implement an effective routine.
Dr. Sondema N. Tarr of Direct Podiatry Arizona reminds us that an ankle that is mobile, and healthy, also decreases the risk of injury to other key joints in your foot – the main one being the subtalar joint, which sits just below the ankle.
- The best ankle mobility stretches workouts are ankle circles, toe drag, heel drop, ankle dorsiflexion, and massage rolling.
- To strengthen the muscles on your ankles, try out calf raises, single-leg lunges, toe walk, ankle jumps, and weighted ankle dorsiflexion.
- The benefits of ankle stretches vary from injury reduction, and improved running gait.
How Do You Know You Have Poor Ankle Mobility?
One of the main things I notice with clients at the gym is that they complain about sore ankles on leg days.
This can be due to heavy weight lifting, but also stretching of tendons and muscles that leaves an ache.
If you’ve ever noticed that you cannot complete a squat without your ankle lifting off the ground, then that could be an indication of low ankle joint mobility.
While you might want to have that checked out by a physical therapist, there’s also a quick way to test this yourself.
Here is a simple ankle mobility test you can perform at home to get an understanding of the range of motion you have.
Get a tape measure and get into a half-kneeling position with the tip of your forward foot 5 inches from a wall.
Now push your forward knee towards the wall while keeping your heel on the ground. If your heel lifts up before you get to the wall, then you’re probably struggling with limited dorsiflexion range of motion .
What Causes Poor Ankle Mobility?
One of the most common causes of a limited ankle dorsiflexion range and general ankle weakness comes from previous injuries.
Even if you didn’t have a fracture or torn ligament in the past, minor ankle sprains over time can add up and cause stiff ankles.
Essentially, the tendons, ligaments, and muscles have tightened up for protection, but ultimately, that can lead to further ankle joint injuries .
The good news is that with the right combination of stretches and ankle strengthening exercises, you can reverse such problems and increase ankle mobility.
Before we get to those, let me show you why it’s important for athletes to focus on improving ankle dorsiflexion.
What Are The Benefits Of More Ankle Mobility?
I met up with a physiotherapist that I regularly work with for clients, and he identified three main areas where ankle mobility is important for athletes.
1. Reduced Injury Risk
With an increased range of motion in the ankle joint, sudden movements or a loss of footing when running or playing sports are less likely to result in injuries.
When you have limited ankle dorsiflexion, the ligaments and tendon will be very stiff. Any sudden stretch in them can then lead to tears which in severe cases will require surgery.
2. Improved Running Gait
When you put in the effort to improve ankle dorsiflexion, you’ll also find that your walking and running gait improves.
You’ll have a lot more flexibility to adjust your foot movement to give you the ideal type of ground contact.
The result will be significantly less lower leg fatigue.
3. Stronger Squat Movement
Any bodybuilder that I work with who struggles to maintain strong footing during a standard squat will have to do a regular ankle mobility exercise.
If you can lower your butt all the way down and never lift your heels off the ground, you’ll gain a lot more stability and confidence in being able to securely push yourself back up again.
“Ankle injuries are often thought of as sports injuries. But you don't have to be an athlete or even a "weekend warrior" to turn your ankle and hurt it. Something as simple as walking on an uneven surface can cause a painful, debilitating sprain.”
How Can You Improve Your Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility?
You can improve your ankle mobility by training your calf muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
And there are two things you need to do on a regular basis.
First of all, you’ll need to do some regular stretching exercises to loosen the calf and Achilles tendon.
Secondly, you’ll need to focus on strengthening the muscles in your lower leg to better support and protect the joint.
Let’s take a look at some ankle mobility exercises that I get my clients to do.
The most important ankle mobility exercises should always start with stretching the joints to improve the range of motion.
I find that if you start with strengthening, then you could end up tightening the ankle range more.
Here are five simple exercises to get you started.
1. Ankle Circles
All you need is two chairs and a few minutes.
You could even do this at the office while you’re on a conference call.
Simply elevate one leg so that your foot isn’t resting on the chair.
Then rotate your ankle in a circular motion, both clockwise and anticlockwise, for about two minutes.
2. Toe Drag
Stand up straight and place the tips of your toes of your left foot behind you with your leg straight.
Now, slowly drag the toes forward to feel the stretch along the front of your lower leg.
Repeat this about ten times on each foot.
3. Ankle Dorsiflexion
You’ll need a box that’s about a foot high and stable enough to support your weight.
Put one foot on the box and the other about one step behind it.
Then lower your body down until your forward knee is at a right angle.
Now it’s time to push your body forward to increase the ankle stretch.
You might also find this works well for hip mobility.
4. Heel Drop
You can use the same box from the previous exercise and stand on the edge of it so that only the balls of your feet and toes are on the box.
Then let your heels slowly dip down for strong static stretching in the calves.
5. Massage Rolling
This is technically not a stretching exercise, but using a foam roller both on the front and back of your calves will ease a lot of tension in the soft tissue.
I would recommend this as a way to finish off your stretching routine.
Now we’ll look at some ankle mobility drills to build up some strength in the surrounding muscles of your ankles.
1. Single-Leg Lunge
The first ankle mobility drill I would suggest is to stand on one leg and then slowly go down into a lunge.
If you struggle with balance or strength, then adjust this exercise into a walking lunge with one foot forward before lowering your body. Repeat this 20 times for each leg.
2. Calf Raises
Grab a couple of dumbbells, and then simply push yourself off the ground by lifting your heels up as far as possible.
You can also adjust the impact of calf raises by pointing your big toe inwards or outwards and allow different muscles to take on most of the work.
3. Weighted Ankle Dorsiflexion
Another great way to improve ankle mobility is to attach an ankle weight strap to the front of your foot.
Simply raise the foot off the ground and flex the ankle up and down 20 times before switching to the other leg.
This can feel a bit strange, but what you do is try to jump while keeping each knee straight.
You’ll probably have to bend it just a little, but the idea is to make the calves do the majority of the work to get you airborne.
5. Toe Walk
Finally, pick a distance at the gym or your home and walk it with small steps while remaining on your toes.
You can even use some dumbbells to add more strain around the anterior ankle.
How Do You Loosen Tight Ankles?
You loosen tight ankles by regularly doing stretching routines.
The muscles, ligaments, and tendons  around the ankle joint are easy to stretch, and you can do simple exercises while sitting at a desk.
What Can You Do for Weak Ankles?
You can add a few simple strengthening exercises for weak ankles.
By targeting the lower leg muscles, you’ll ensure that you don’t risk an ankle sprain while at the same time improving ankle mobility.
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