Today, I want to discuss one of the most overlooked areas in your body: your ankles.
Before I describe why ankles — and more specifically, ankle mobility — are important, allow me to explain this: Too often, athletes set a narrow goal, and forget the seemingly unrelated steps required to hit that goal. They want six pack abs, so they'll only do crunches; they want to grow their glutes, so they only do glute bridges.
Here's why that causes a problem: Your body is one complete system. Meaning, you cannot target one muscle group and simply ignore the rest of your body. This is why we preach the four pillars of fitness (strength, cardio, nutrition, and recovery), to help you achieve a well-rounded approach to wellness. You can learn more about this holistic approach in my new online course “Understand and Leverage the Key Areas of Fitness to Improve Your Performance.”
Ankle mobility is important because it allows you to do powerful (and necessary) strength movements, including squats, deadlifts, and lunges. Limited ankle mobility prevents you from doing these exercises correctly, and can manifest in heel, calf, Achilles, and knee pain when you run, jump, or do other cardio movements.
Below, I'll explain what causes limited ankle mobility (and why you should care), and the best ankle mobility exercises to increase your range of motion.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. If you have limited ankle range of motion, please speak to a physical therapist about mobility exercises to work into your training program.
Signs of Limited Ankle Mobility
To assess your ankle mobility, try the following exercises:
- Squats: Sit deep into a parallel squat. Can you keep your heels connected with the ground? Now, try to sit below parallel — can you still keep your heels connected with the floor?
- Downward dog: Stretch back into a downward dog. Can you keep your heels connected with the ground?
- Foot raises: Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Now, try to raise the ball of both feet off the ground, keeping your heels connected with the floor. Can you get the ball of your foot off the ground, so that your foot is at least at a 20 degree angle?
If you answered no to any of these questions, you have poor ankle mobility, or limited ankle dorsiflexion (the movement of the top of the foot toward your shin).
Limited ankle mobility will cause problems in your workouts and daily life. You need a mobile ankle joint to perform Power or Olympic weightlifting movements, like squats, deadlifts, or cleans. You also need it to run down the street, do standing broad jumps, or perform sprints on the track. Lastly, you need ankle mobility to stand up from a seated position, climb stairs, and even kneel to tie your shoelaces.
What Causes Limited Ankle Mobility?
Limited ankle dorsiflexion can be caused by a previous injury, such as an ankle sprain, or tightness within other muscle groups.
Typically, limited ankle dorsiflexion is caused by tightness in your calf muscles — particularly your soleus (the very center of your calf). Your soleus sits just above your Achilles tendon and beneath your gastrocnemius (the top part of your calf). Both your calf muscle and Achilles can become inflamed if your ankle is not functioning properly.
Since limited dorsiflexion is often caused by tight calves, I encourage you to begin any ankle work with self-myofascial release (foam rolling) and stretching. When foam rolling, begin at the top of the calf first, then slowly move lower toward your Achilles. Don't move to a new spot until you feel the soft tissue "release."
Here's how I would warm up for any ankle mobility exercises:
- Grab a foam roller and roll out the top part of your calf muscle (the gastrocnemius). If you hit a tender spot (i.e., a knot), pause and do ankle circles until you feel it release.
- Slowly work down your calf muscle toward your Achilles tendon. If you hit particularly tight areas, use a lacrosse ball to work out the tissue.
- Using a wall, perform a calf stretch two times for 20 seconds on each leg. Be sure to bend your front knee considerably, which will help stretch out the soleus.
4 Ankle Mobility Exercises to Increase Dorsiflexion Range of Motion
These ankle mobility drills will help increase the range of motion in your ankle joint. I recommend doing these every other day at minimum, or before you do any strength workouts.
1. Ankle CARs (Controlled Articular Rotations)
Sit down on the floor. Grip your tibia (your shin bone) with both hands, so you isolate the ankle joint, preventing your lower leg from doing the work.
Bring the ankle up into dorsiflexion (bring your toes toward your shin), then rotate into pronation (point your toe inward, toward your opposite foot), then point your foot straight down into plantar flexion, and finally rotate your toes outward, away from your body.
Finally, complete your ankle circle by bringing your toes back into dorsiflexion, then switch directions. Once you complete 10 rotations (five in each direction), switch legs.
2. Knee to Wall (i.e., the Wall Test)
You can perform this drill standing or kneeling. I find that I can isolate my ankle joint better if I perform this exercise from a kneeling position.
Kneel in front of a wall, with your front foot positioned 2-3 inches (5-7 centimeters) away from the wall and your back knee resting on the ground. Bring your front knee forward until it touches the wall, while keeping your front heel connected with the ground.
If your knee connects with the wall with ease, move your front foot backward 1-2 inches (2-5 centimeters). Tap the wall with your knee again. Continue this process, moving your foot away from the wall until you struggle to keep your heel connected with the ground. Once your heel fails to maintain contact with the ground, tap the wall 10 times with your knee, then switch legs.
For this exercise, you will need to wrap a resistance band to a sturdy piece of furniture (such as a desk or sofa leg) close to the ground. The end of the resistance band should form a loop large enough to fit the ball of your foot.
Sit on the floor in front of the resistance band. Take a foam roller or rolled up towel and place it under your right ankle. Slip the toes of your right foot through the resistance band loop so that it wraps around the ball of your foot.
Slide backward away from the desk or sofa leg so the resistance band is taut. Now, bring your right foot into dorsiflexion, bringing your toes toward your shin bone. Do 10 repetitions, then switch legs.
Wrap a resistance band around a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a desk or sofa leg. Loop your right foot through the end of the resistance band, then face away from the sofa or desk leg. The end of the resistance band should be wrapped around your ankle.
Come into a kneeling position, with your right (wrapped) ankle in front of you and your left knee resting on the ground behind you. Now, deepen your lunge by trying to push your right knee past your right toe. Relax, then do another rep. Do 10 repetitions on your right ankle, then switch legs.
To deepen this stretch, you can place a weight (such as a kettlebell or dumbbell) on your forward knee.
Ankle Mobility Exercises Benefit Your Strength and Cardio Workouts
If you can't sink into a parallel squat or flow into downward dog without your heels losing contact with the ground, you have limited ankle mobility.
Ankle mobility issues will negatively impact your strength and cardio workouts, preventing you from injury free improvements in running, jumping, or weightlifting. Ankle joint restriction can also cause injuries throughout your lower body, such as inflammation in your plantar fascia, knees, Achilles, or calf muscles.
To improve your ankle flexibility, you should perform ankle mobility exercises. Ankle circles (i.e., ankle CARs), knee to walls, and banded dorsiflexion exercises can dramatically improve your range of motion.
For more guidance on mobility drills, I recommend following the Bullet Proof Your Health training program. Here, we incorporate the four legs of fitness — strength, cardio, nutrition, and recovery — to achieve a well-rounded approach to wellness. You'll see why recovery work (like mobility drills, stretching, and self-myofascial release) plays an essential role to achieve your health and fitness goals.
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