23 Dec Exercises For Stiff Ankles
Normal ankle motion is so critical for [P]Rehab of the lower body. The ankle moves your foot primarily into plantarflexion (toes away from you) and dorsiflexion (toes up towards the shin). For the sake of this article, we are going to discuss ankle dorsiflexion motion, specifically how you can improve motion in this direction. Ankle plantarflexors (aka the calves) are a muscle group that often limit the dorsiflexion motion. Ankle dorsiflexion is crucial for squatting, going downstairs, jumping and many other movements. This article will show you exercises for stiff ankles, by addressing limitations that may be present in the ankle joint and its surrounding muscles and tendons! We’ve also included a FREE program to improve ankle mobility.
Impaired or limited ankle dorsiflexion is thought to increase forefoot pressure due to an early heel rise during walking. Abnormal or faulty ankle movements are asocial with problems of the foot and ankle including metatarsalgia, plantarfasciitis, achilles tendinopathy, ankle sprains, and plantar ulceration. There are a few structures that can limit ankle dorsiflexion motion, including calf stiffness (gastrocnemius & soleus), ankle joint restriction, or a boney block. If we are to really dig in, a few studies have found that the medial gastrocnemius is the most common cause of reduced ankle dorsiflexion. However, there is no consensus on how to identify a stiff medial gastrocnemius.
Why does the ankle get stiff?
Think about how frequent you put your ankles into end range dorsiflexion on a daily basis, probably not too often. The body will adapt, and if you don’t give it a reason to maintain the dorsiflexion you’ll lose it. Look at shoes people have on their feet, you may be surprised with how common large heel lifts are. This will ultimately place your foot into more of a plantarflexed position, limited dorsiflexion even more so on a daily basis. The goal of this article is to help you regain the mobility you once had.
Before jumping into interventions to improve ankle mobility, I ALWAYS recommend measuring the amount of motion you currently have as your baseline. As you perform the exercises shown in this article, you should notice a subsequent improvement in ankle mobility. Here is a quick test you can use to assess ankle mobility; the goal is to be able to have your toes 4 inches (roughly your hand width) from the wall, then drive the knee towards the wall while the heel remains in contact with the floor.
Soft Tissue Mobilization To Improve Ankle Stiffness
Follow along with the video to learn how to roll out your calves!
Stretching Exercises For Stiff Ankles
Stretching is the most common approach used to enhance dorsiflexion range of motion. Stretching has been shown to increase flexibility and attenuate exercise-induced muscle soreness, which is why stretching is so common in the rehabilitative and training space. There are three main approaches to stretches include:
- Static Stretching
- Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)
- Ballistic stretching
The most researched of the 3 is static stretching into dorsiflexion which we will cover in this article. This type of passive stretching has been shown to improve flexibility into dorsiflexion. Ballistic stretching is a type of dynamic stretching that involves a fast bounce which has not been shown to improve the dorsiflexion range of motion. PNF has also been shown to improve dorsiflexion range of motion, however, oftentimes requires assistance from another individual. The two common types of PNF stretching includes contract-relax and contract-relax agonist contract. Below are a few static stretches great for improving ankle mobility.
Static Soleus Stretch
I like this stretch because it can often tell us whether the limitation is from soft tissue or the underlying joint. If you feel a pull in the calf and Achilles tendon, likely soft tissue is your barrier to getting into more dorsiflexion. If you feel a pinch at the front of your ankle then it is likely more of an ankle joint or boney limitation. Either way, you want to stretch into this position and re-assess to see if there was an improvement in mobility.
The key here is to avoid collapsing your arch, which is why I bias the knee towards the pinky toe when prescribing calf stretches.
Static Gastrocnemius Stretch
HOW: Get set-up standing with a wall in front of you and place your hands on the wall. Take a step back with the side you plan to stretch. While keeping the foot you stepped back with flat on the ground, knee straight, and toes facing 12 o’clock, slowly lean and shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch.
FEEL: You should feel a stretch in the calf of the foot that is behind you, specifically behind and below your knee and potentially right above your ankle. You shouldn’t feel pain or a pinch in front of your ankle.
COMPENSATION: Be sure to keep your back foot facing 12 o’clock, do not let your foot turn out or in. Try to keep your heel down. Keep the knee straight
Ankle Dorsiflexion Overhaul [P]Rehab Program
Ask anyone in the industry, ankle dorsiflexion mobility matters. Without it, you run the risk of exposing other body regions to excessive strain due to compensatory strategies. This program is for anyone looking to improve their ankle dorsiflexion mobility. If your mobility is limited due to an injury/surgery in the past, or you’re just dealing with stiff ankles that are limiting your workouts and athletic performance, this program is appropriate for you as long as you have general workout experience! Click HERE to learn more about the program.
Static Ankle Mobilization
This is, in my opinion, the best bang for your buck ankle stretch!
HOW: Get your foot set-up and supported on an elevated surface while balancing on the other leg. To perform the mobilization, bring your knee and shin bone forward over your toes while keeping your heel down on the ground. Begin loading more of your weight onto the elevated leg, until the back leg is light on the floor.
FEEL: You should feel a stretch in your calf and/or your ankle joint.
COMPENSATION: Keep your entire heel flat on the ground as best as you can.
HOW: Get set-up seated with your back supported and support your leg by wrapping your arm under your knee. While keeping your thigh still, draw large circles in a clockwise and counter-clockwise direction with your ankle.
FEEL: You should feel your calf and ankle muscles working to control the movement.
COMPENSATION: Keep the rest of your leg and thigh still, focus on movement at the ankle.
Strengthen To Lengthen
Stretching of the calf is often recommended when the goal is to improve ankle range of motion through muscle-tendon length, however, stretching was shown to be no better than just eccentric exercises. This means when performing an eccentric exercise, go through the entire range of motion! You should be feeling a stretch in the calf at the end of the motion. If you were looking for alternative ways to improve your ankle and calf mobility, here is a comprehensive calf mobilization video you can try!
With the goal being to improve ankle mobility, make sure the heel gets as close as possible to the floor! Hold at the bottom for a second prior to returning back up into plantarflexion. We hope you enjoyed this article on exercises for stiff ankles! Let us know in the comments below what you think about these movements and if there are any other topics you would like us to cover.
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- Chimera NJ, Castro M, Davis I, Manal K (2012) The effect of isolated gastrocnemius contracture and gastrocnemius recession on lower extremity kinematics and kinetics during stance. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon) 27(9):917–923.
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- Crawford F, Thomson C (2003) Interventions for treating plantar heel pain. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews (3):CD000416.
- Pascual Huerta J (2014) The effect of the gastrocnemius on the plantar fascia. Foot Ankle Clin 19(4)
- Gurdezi S, Kohls-Gatzoulis J, Solan MC (2013) Results of proximal medial gastrocnemius release for Achilles tendinopathy. Foot Ankle Int.
- Laborde JM (2009) Midfoot ulcers treated with gastrocnemius- soleus recession. Foot Ankle Int 30(9):842–846.
- Patel A, DiGiovanni B (2011) Association between plantar fasciitis and isolated contracture of the gastrocnemius. Foot Ankle Int 32(1):5–8.
- Baumbach S (2016) Ankle dorsiflexion: what is normal? Development of a decision pathway for diagnosing impaired ankle dorsiflexion and M. gastrocnemius tightness. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg (2016) 136:1203–1211.
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