Limited ankle dorsiflexion has been associated with a whole host of lower extremity injuries including plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinopathy, calf strains, shin splints, patellofemoral pain, IT band syndrome, and even ACL injuries. Additionally, limited ankle mobility manifests itself as a functional limitation in everyday tasks such as walking, negotiating stairs, and even in athletic endeavors such as achieving proper squat depth or cutting. While the problems associated with limited ankle mobility are well known, the solutions on how to increase ankle dorsiflexion are not. Who else has spent hours and hours stretching without any increase in ankle dorsiflexion range of motion? In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about ankle mobility. From defining what ankle mobility is, why you need it, how to assess it, and most importantly, how to improve it! Hang on tight for the best ankle mobility exercises to improve ankle dorsiflexion that you can do from the comforts of your home to decrease your risk of lower extremity injury, improve your functional abilities, and enhance your athletic performance!
What is Ankle Mobility?
Ankle mobility refers to the amount of motion that is available at the ankle joints. There are multiple ankle joints, but the most commonly referred to and easy-to-identify ankle joint is the talocrural joint (where the tibia aka shinbone meets the talus). Joints in the human body are where two bones meet and connect to allow controlled motion. The talocrural joint is primarily responsible for ankle dorsiflexion and ankle plantarflexion (pointing your foot up and down).
Our focus in this article is to show you the best bang for your buck ankle mobility exercises to improve your ankle mobility, specifically ankle dorsiflexion, as this can cause trouble up the kinetic chain if it is limited.
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Why Do You Need Ankle Mobility?
Ask yourself, on a daily basis do you ever have to…
Put on shoes
Squat down to pick something up
Go up and downstairs
Drive a car
Sit down with your feet supported on the ground below you
Example of Ankle Dorsiflexion Going Down A Step
If you answered yes to any of these questions (and trust me there are A LOT more), then you need to unlock ankle mobility! Ankle mobility is an essential necessity for a lot of movements and activities of daily living. Ankle mobility is just one of those things we take for granted until we have it taken away from us. Have you ever walked around in snowboard or ski boots? It can suck sometimes right?! That’s because your ankle mobility is restricted in those boots, thus movement up the kinetic chain is affected! If you know someone that has experienced a badly broken or sprained ankle they will tell you having a stiff ankle is no fun and it affects them with a lot of movements.
The large majority of lower extremity injuries associated with ankle mobility deficits like Achilles tendinopathies, calf strains, and shin splints all kind of make sense, right? If the ankle is limited in its ability to dorsiflexion due to the tightness of the calf muscles, it may put more strain on the calf itself or the surrounding tissues. However, what about ACL injuries and plantar fasciitis? How is a lack of ankle mobility related to that?
Quick Tips To Improve Your Ankle Dorsiflexion
ACL Injuries and Limited Ankle Mobility
Ankle mobility is very important for athletes, especially in sports that involve jumping, landing, cutting, and pivoting motions. When it comes to uncontrolled knee valgus (knee caving in) and the motions we don’t want to see that can contribute to ACL tears, we know the glutes and quadriceps play an important role in controlling knee position. However, we have to respect the fact that the ankle also influences knee position in many functional tasks like squatting, step downs, and even jumping (Dill et al., 2014). When athletes decelerate or land from a jump, the goal of our body is to rapidly absorb that impact. If an athlete has limited ankle dorsiflexion during landing, it means that their knee will not be able to move over the toes as much and the amount of knee bending will decrease (Fong et al., 2011). This inherently doesn’t sound bad at first; however, the body will always take the path of least resistance. Meaning that to absorb those forces, we will see increased amounts of knee valgus along with other compensations at the rearfoot and midfoot joints with the arch collapsing, the shinbone rotating in, and the knee caving in. If we want to decrease the risk of ACL injuries, attacking limited ankle dorsiflexion with ankle mobility exercises is a very easy low hanging fruit for athletes (Amraee et al., 2014)
Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common forms of heel pain that approximately 10% of the population will develop – if you’re ever had it before you know its no fun! Similar to the landing example above in ACL injuries, when we walk our bodies will always take the path of least resistance even if we have limited ankle mobility. To progress our bodies forward with each step, our arch will collapse and we will overpronate through our midfoot, which puts increased stress on the plantar fascia! Furthermore, there is also a direct relationship between the fascia that connects the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and the plantar fascia. Thus, by improving the flexibility of the calf muscles along with performing ankle mobility exercises, we can improve outcomes for those with plantar fasciitis (Martin et al., 2014)!
For those that get under the barbell regularly, you know that limited ankle mobility equals limited squat depth. That’s why lifters have a heel drop to artificially give our ankles more range of motion! This allows the wearer to get deeper in their squat or receiving positions on cleans and snatches – all of which can be the difference between a new 1RM or not!
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What Can Limit Ankle Mobility?
Ankle mobility in functional positions is usually defined by the ability of the knee to travel past the toes (no this is NOT bad! Check out THIS VIDEO to learn why) When looking at just the ankle, dorsiflexion occurs at just the talocrural joint. The talocrural joint connects the bottom sides of your lower leg bones (tibia and fibular) to the talus bone of your foot. However, when determining what can limit functional ankle mobility as a whole, we have to look at more than just the talocrural joint itself to determine possible areas of restrictions so we know which ankle mobility exercises to prioritize! The 3 main things that can limit functional ankle mobility are:
the talocrural joint itself
the soft tissues that run behind the joint which include the muscles and fascia/connective tissues
the 1st MTP joint of the big toe
The Talocrural Joint Can Limit Ankle Mobility
When our joints move, the bones which make up the joint slide and glide in certain directions, which allows for the seamless movement that we are used to seeing! In the talocrural joint specifically, as we move into dorsiflexion the talus glides backward within the ankle joint (similarly this can be thought of as the ankle joint moving forward on top of the talus). If the joint becomes stiff, it limits the ability of the bones to glide, and thus limits your ankle mobility! This is usually one of the first places to target to increase ankle mobility!
The Soft Tissues Can Limit Ankle Mobility
As the knee moves over and past the ankle, the soft tissues on the backside of the joint get stretched. If there is limited flexibility/excursion of these tissues, it can also limit ankle mobility! Typically when people think of the soft tissues that limit ankle mobility, the triceps surae muscle which consists of the gastrocnemius and the soleus come to mind. However, there is more to our bodies than just muscles and bones. The connective tissue or fascia that connects the calf muscles to the Achilles tendon and to the heel also has an interplay with the plantar fascia on the bottom of the foot. Thus, both the calf and the plantar fascia must be addressed through ankle mobility exercises if they are limited.
The Big Toe Can Limit Ankle Mobility
Just as we’ve discussed how limited ankle mobility can affect knee position up the chain, limited big toe mobility can also affect ankle mobility up the chain! Going back to gait once again, once we move over our foot and our ankle moves into dorsiflexion, we then push off the ground with our back foot. This push-off motion requires a good deal of big toe mobility, 50-60 degrees (which most people simply do not have)! As we discussed earlier, our bodies will always take the path of least resistance. Thus, if our body knows we are lacking big toe mobility, in the push-off phase of gait our foot will simply spin out and we will progress by pronating through our midfoot and not by going through our end range of normal ankle dorsiflexion! The goal is to take 10,000+ steps a day, right? Each step is an opportunity for us to maintain or improve our ankle dorsiflexion. However, if our foot is spinning out with each step we can eventually lose our ankle mobility, especially if we are not using it with other functional tasks throughout the day like deep squatting or going downstairs.
How To Assess Ankle Mobility
Now that we understand just how important ankle mobility is, we must first assess our ankle mobility! “Assess, don’t guess!” The benefit of assessing is that you can establish a baseline value and track your progress as you perform your ankle mobility exercises. This is something you can actually do with our Ankle Dorsiflexion Overhaul [P]Rehab Program!
Below you will find our favorite option to self-assess ankle mobility. It is important to watch the entire video and listen to the instructions/details as it can be easy to compensate and get false measurements. As long as it’s done correctly, this test has been shown to have good reliability and allows measurement of error (Konor, Morton, Eckerson, and Grindstaff, 2012). This is a good assessment to start with because we are limiting degrees of freedom and removing the weight-bearing component. In a half-kneeling position with a wall nearby for support and balance, you can focus on just moving at your ankle and getting a clean measurement!
Improving ankle mobility is going to look similar to assessing ankle mobility! When it comes to ankle dorsiflexion, we categorize the ankle mobility deficits by either joint (talocrural) or soft tissue (calf muscles) limitations, while also being mindful to look at the big toe joint. To be honest, trying to differentiate between the two for the average person would be challenging and may not be the most important thing to focus on. However, typical signs of joint limitations are pressure/sensation in the front of the ankle with ankle dorsiflexion whereas soft tissue limitations are typically noted with pulling sensations in the back of the ankle/calf. All ankle mobility exercises are going to fall into one of the two categories of soft tissue mobility or joint mobility. For the increasing range of motion, we are always going to recommend starting on soft tissue mobility first and then following it up with joint mobility work!
Soft Tissue Ankle Mobility Exercises
Working on increasing flexibility/decreasing tone of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calf can and will improve ankle dorsiflexion. Some of the popular methods to do this include stretching, soft tissue massage, ultrasound, heat, cupping, and instrumented assisted soft tissue mobilization. Of the group, static stretching and soft tissue massage are the most efficacious, researched backed, and guess what – easiest to perform. (Stanek, Sullivan and Davis, 2018 and Young et al., 2013).
When it comes to static stretching of the calf muscles, we must remember to stretch both the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscle. While both muscles have a similar attachment to the heel bone via the Achilles Tendon, they originate on slightly different portions on the back of your leg. The soleus muscle originates on the back of your shin bone (tibia), whereas the gastrocnemius originates on the back and lower end of your thigh bone (femur). Because the gastrocnemius originates higher up above the knee joint in comparison to the soleus which originates below the knee joint, we can preferentially bias stretching the gastrocnemius muscle by keeping the knee straight when we move into ankle dorsiflexion.
If you’re looking for just a really good calf stretch because they feel extremely tight, below you will find your traditional static gastrocnemius and soleus stretches. When it comes to warming up before an athletic event, we only recommend static stretching after activity versus before activity. However, when it comes to increasing ankle mobility static stretching is extremely important. The more time we spend at end range the better!
The following are some examples of our favorite static stretches. The first one in particular not only stretches the gastrocnemius because the knee is straight, but it also hits the plantar fascia that runs underneath our foot due to the position of the big toe in extension.
Dynamic 3D Calf Stretch
This is my personal go-to dynamic stretch before any type of running, jumping, or agility exercise. Due to the muscle fiber architecture of the gastrocnemius, certain muscle fibers will get stretched when you add in angles to your calf stretch versus just moving in a linear fashion. Some say that letting the arch collapse on a 3-way stretch is bad, although we’d argue that we are hitting other parts of the muscle and it doesn’t seem to influence gains in ankle dorsiflexion (Johanson, Baer, Hovermale and Phouthavong, 2008). Less is more, you don’t need to be aggressive with this or feel a really intense stretch, just think of it as warming up your calf. I will combine this with heel raises before or after as well to help warm-up the calf and unlock ankle mobility!
If you’re feeling a lot of pain/discomfort in your Achilles tendon versus your calf muscles, you may want to back off. Stretching is not the best recipe for managing tendons, instead, you want to load it.Learn why by listening to our podcast with the master of tendons, Dr. Jill Cook.
We are demonstrating this with a foam roller here, but you can also use other things like a lacrosse ball for more pinpoint soft tissue mobilization. We are big fans of pin and stretch methods, which Arash goes over around the 1:10 part of the video!
Ankle Joint Mobility Exercises
Joint mobility exercises attempt to improve the slide and glide of the talocrural joint! Typically we can better attack a stiff ankle joint by slacking the soft tissue around it (bending the knee) or by utilizing mobilization bands. These banded mobilizations are designed to try to mimic a physical therapist whose manual mobilization techniques are effective at improving ankle dorsiflexion (Marron-Gomez Rodriguez-Fernandez, A. and Martin Urrialde, J., 2015). While they look fancy and oftentimes are performed wrong, they do hold merit as recent research has demonstrated that this banded mobilization below is even more effective at improving ankle dorsiflexion than static stretching alone (Jeon et al., 2015).
Unlock Ankle Mobility With This Dynamic Ankle Mobilization
This tends to be my go-to ankle mobility exercise before lower body workouts, especially squatting! Spending a couple of minutes grooving the motion and working the directions that feel limited always helps to unlock ankle mobility.
How To Make Your Mobility Gains Stick
We want to be loud and clear – we are not promising you will unlock ankle mobility forever with just these exercises. Mobility is dynamic, it can come and go. If you don’t use it, you can lose it! However, if you work on something daily it tends to improve and it tends to stick better than if you don’t do it. Mobility is more than just bones, joints, and muscles, there is a neuromuscular component as well. Your brain and your body will allow you to move into a specific range of motion if you train it! Below are some of our favorite exercises to do immediately after the mobilizations and stretches shown above to unlock your ankle mobility and make it stick!
Using a Weight Plate To Force Dorsiflexion
Placing a weight plate under the forefoot is an extremely effective way to force your ankle into that newly gained range of motion! Typically you will see people with poor ankle mobility squat with their heels on a plate. This is to put their ankle in more relative plantarflexion so it allows them to go into more dorsiflexion excursion and thus a deeper squat. Putting a plate at the forefoot does exactly the opposite. This starts the foot in a relatively more dorsiflexed position, so when you descend you will hit that barrier faster! The goal is to continually drive into that barrier as you descend. While not necessary with every exercise, it is a way to avoid any compensation. While the following two exercises are designed to maximize your available ankle dorsiflexion, you may not actually hit end range due to a lack of strength or balance.
Anterior Reach with slider
Ultimately, to unlock ankle mobility you have to understand what contributes to it, how to assess it, and how to manage it. With the tools and skills you’ve learned in this article, all you need is discipline and you’ll be on your way to optimal movement throughout the kinetic chain
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Craig is a South Jersey native & Penn State Kinesiology Alumni. When the opportunity came, Craig packed his bags and drove to California to pursue his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California. With [P]rehab, Craig oversees all digital content creation and multi-channel publication that reaches millions of people on a weekly basis. As a PT, Craig has a wide array of experience from working with various neurological conditions to working with collegiate & professional athletes across the Big Five in North American sports. Experiencing physical therapy first-hand as a soccer player in high school, Craig has a passion & special interest in adolescent athletic development working with young athletes to overcome injuries. In his spare time, Craig enjoys exercising, playing golfing, hiking, traveling, watching Philly sports, and spending quality time with his family.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.