Simple Exercises to Improve Ankle Mobility

Free download: Top 10 Natural & Easy Remedies for Joint Pain from Home. Learn these helpful remedies. 

Healthy ankle mobility can be tough to obtain if your ankles are naturally tight or there is surrounding ankle weakness.

What does it mean exactly to have a mobile ankle?

In order to know this, we must first define the term mobility itself.

What Does it Mean to Have Good Ankle Mobility?

Mobility is often confused with flexibility. They seem to mean the same thing, right?…

Not quite.

Mobility is technically the ability to move through your full range of motion with control, which requires both flexibility and strength.

So you see, to have good ankle mobility, your ankles must both be flexible AND strong. One of the best ways to achieve this is through ankle mobility exercises.

The question, however, is what are the best exercises for ankle mobility?

Let’s find out!

Why is Ankle Mobility Important?

why is ankle mobility important?


Before we jump into the fun exercises, it’s helpful to understand why ankle mobility is important in the first place.

It’s natural, as we get older, for the joints in the body to lose their mobility. Ankle mobility is no exception to this.

Poor ankle mobility can cause many problems for us in our day-to-day and recreational activities. With poor ankle mobility, you may notice one or more of the following:

  • Limited ankle range of motion or stiff ankles
  • Higher risk of ankle injury, including an ankle sprain
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty with balance
  • Difficulty squatting
  • Ankle or foot pain

The list could go on and on!

As you can see, we have to have ankle mobility to function.

Ankle Anatomy

anatomy of ankle


The ankle, or talocrural joint, is a very important and complex joint. There are many bony and soft tissue structures that make up the ankle.

Bony Structures That Make Up the Talocrural Joint

bony structures that make up the talocrural joint


The primary bony structures that make up the ankle joint include the following:

  • Talus bone
  • Tibia bone
  • Fibula bone

These bones come together to allow ankle dorsiflexion and plantar flexion.

ankle dorsiflexion and plantar flexion.

Other Bony Structures and Joints to Consider

While the talocrural joint is technically the ankle joint, you can’t have optimal ankle mobility without proper movement in the foot as well.

Subtalar Joint

subtalar joint


The subtalar joint is made up of the talus bone and calcaneus, or heel bone.

The subtalar joint not only assists with dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, but also is the primary joint involved in ankle inversion and eversion (joints within the foot also play a role in these directions, but we’ll dive into that another day).

The combined motions that come from the subtalar and talocrural joints allow for foot and ankle supination (ankle plantar flexion, adduction and inversion) and pronation (ankle dorsiflexion, abduction and eversion).

Clearly there are a lot of motions that occur in this area!

Muscles

muscles in elbow


There are an incredible amount of muscles that connect to and around the ankle joints.

We’ll break these down into 4 main groups:

  1. Anterior ankle
  2. Posterior ankle
  3. Lateral ankle
  4. Medial ankle

Anterior Muscles

The anterior muscles of the ankle are primarily involved in ankle dorsiflexion, but some can also help with eversion.

Tibialis anterior is a main ankle dorsiflexor. It also receives help from extensor digitorum longus, extensor hallucis longus, and peroneus tertius.

Posterior Muscles

The posterior muscles of the ankle are primarily involved in ankle plantar flexion, but some can also help with inversion.

The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are the most well-known calf muscles. The Achilles tendon connects these muscles to the heel, or calcaneus.

Other posterior muscles to consider include the tibialis posterior and plantaris muscles.

Lateral Muscles

The lateral, or outside, muscles of the lower leg include the peroneus longus and peroneus brevis. They play a role in both ankle plantar flexion and eversion.

Medial Muscles

An important medial, or inside, lower leg muscle that assists in ankle plantar flexion is the flexor hallucis longus.

Ligaments

Ligaments connect bone to bone. The ankle ligaments assist in stabilizing the ankle joint.

In addition to stabilizing the ankle joint, the ankle ligaments also help keep the bony structures that make up the ankle joint in place, prevent ankle sprains, and assist in shock absorption when in motion.

There are 3 main groups of ligaments that help to stabilize the ankle joint:

  1. Lateral group (outside of the ankle)
  2. Medial group (inside of the ankle; a.k.a. deltoid ligament)
  3. Syndesmosis group (connect the tibia and fibula bones)

The ligaments in each group are as follows:

Lateral Ankle Ligaments

  • Calcaneofibular ligament
  • Posterior talofibular ligament
  • Anterior talofibular ligament

Medial Ankle Ligaments

There are superficial and deep layers to these ligaments.

  • Tibiocalcaneal ligament (superficial)
  • Tibionavicular ligament (superficial)
  • Anterior tibiotalar ligament (deep)
  • Posterior tibiotalar ligament (superficial and deep layers)

Syndesmosis Ankle Ligaments

  • Anterior inferior tibiofibular ligament
  • Posterior inferior tibiofibular ligament
  • Interosseous ligament

Causes of Poor Ankle Mobility

causes of poor ankle mobility


Limited ankle mobility can be caused for a variety of reasons. This may include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Previous or current foot injuries
  • Ankle sprain
  • Stiff ankle from arthritis
  • Bone spurs in the ankle joint
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Ankle fracture possibly needing surgery
  • Shin splints
  • Foot and/or ankle weakness
  • Muscle tightness causing soft tissue restriction

It’s important to understand what is causing your restricted ankle joint mobility in order to properly correct it.

This is where an ankle mobility test can be helpful.

How to Test Ankle Mobility

A formal orthopedic evaluation will allow a specialist to perform specific special tests to determine ankle mobility and potential causes of ankle mobility issues.

If improving ankle mobility is a goal of yours, here are 3 easy ankle mobility tests you can try at home yourself.

1. Knee to Wall Test

ankle mobility test: knee to wall test
ankle mobility test: knee to wall test
  • Standing in front of a wall, position your foot ~5 inches from the wall.
  • You can either do this test in standing or in a half kneeling position.
  • Allow yourself to lean forward into a lunge, aiming to have your knee touch the wall.

Results:

If you can lunge forward and have your knee touch the wall without pain or the heel lifting, then you have normal ankle mobility!

If you can’t achieve the above motion, then you have limited ankle mobility.

If the heel is lifting or you can’t touch the wall, and you are feeling tightness in the back of the ankle or heel, this usually means it’s a soft tissue limitation.

If you feel tightness or pinching in the front of the ankle, then the problem is likely limited ankle mobility in the joint itself.

2. Squat Depth Test

squat depth test for ankle mobility
squat depth test for ankle mobility

Performing a basic squat is a great way to determine dorsiflexion range of motion and any potential ankle mobility restrictions.

  • Position your feet about hip width apart.
  • As you sit your hips back towards your heels, allow your knees and ankles to flex into the squat.
  • As your squat depth continues to increase, try not to let your heels lift.
  • When you reach the point of your heels lifting or you are losing neutral spinal alignment, stop the squat.

Results:

Functionally speaking, you will have an easier time squatting to bend down and pick something up from the floor if you can get your thighs parallel to the floor. This will also place less strain on the back.

During this test, the results are similar to the knee to wall test results.

If as you squat, the heel is lifting and you are feeling tightness in the back of the ankle or heel, this usually means it’s a soft tissue limitation.

If you feel tightness or pinching in the front of the ankle, then the problem is likely limited ankle mobility in the joint itself.

3. Single Leg Calf Raise Test

ankle mobility test: single leg calf raise test
ankle mobility test: single leg calf raise test

The ability to perform a single leg calf raise correctly will tell a lot about the strength of the calf muscles, and subsequently the ankles.

  • You can stand in front of a sturdy surface for this test to rest your arms for balance support.
  • Begin standing on both legs at the same time and perform a double leg calf raise to determine how high you can lift the heels together (you should be able to lift one heel at a time to this same height).
  • Now, standing on one leg at a time, keeping the knee straight, perform a single leg heel lift into a calf raise.

Results:

If you are not able to perform 1 single leg calf raise to the same heel height as with both legs, or if your knee is bending while you try to lift your heel, this indicates calf weakness.

If you can do 1 single leg calf raise correctly, then keep going to see how many you can do correctly. Once you start noticing any of the above deviations, take note as to how many you did.

There are certain norms in place for how many you should be able to do based on age and gender. The inability to do the expected repetitions for your age group and gender category would also indicate muscle weakness.

Ankle Mobility Exercises

ankle mobility exercises


There are a ton of ankle mobility exercises you can do to improve both ankle range of motion and strength.

We’ll break down the following ankle mobility drills into beginner, intermediate, and advanced categories.

Beginner Ankle Mobility Exercises

1. Ankle Circles

  • You can perform this in a seated position on one or both legs at a time.
  • Circle the ankles in a clockwise direction 20x, then reverse and perform 20 repetitions in a counterclockwise position
  • You can repeat this for 2-3 sets.

2. Ankle Alphabet

  • You can perform this in a seated position. It’s usually easier practicing on one foot at a time.
  • Starting from the top of the alphabet, use the foot and ankle to actually write out the letters of the alphabet.
  • Go through one round A-Z, then switch to the other leg.

Here’s a video demo showing just how easy these ankle mobility stretches are.

3. Double Leg Heel Raise

double leg heel raise
double leg heel raise

This ankle mobility exercise is an easy way to introduce basic strengthening to the calf muscles, which will help improve ankle mobility.

  • Begin standing in front of a sturdy surface for balance support.
  • Slowly raise both heels off the floor, then return to your starting position.
  • Make sure the knees remains straight and you move in a controlled manner.
  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets.

Tip: For an extra balance challenge, you can try not to hold onto anything, which should challenge your ankle stability even more.

Intermediate Ankle Mobility Exercises

1. Standing Calf Stretch

standing calf stretch
standing calf stretch

Static stretching is an easy way to improve ankle mobility. A standing calf stretch is great to both stretch the calf muscles and improve ankle dorsiflexion mobility.

  • Stand in front of a firm surface, such as a wall or your countertop, and place your hands there for balance support. 
  • Stand with one leg forward and the other leg back in a small lunge. 
  • Gastrocnemius stretch: Keep the front knee slightly bent and the back leg straight. You should feel a stretch in the back of the calf. Make sure to keep the heel down.
  • Hold for at least 30 seconds or up to 1 minute.

A nice compliment to static stretching of calf muscles is calf foam rolling. Check out this video that demonstrates how to massage the calves with a foam roller.

2. Single Leg Balance

single leg balance
single leg balance

Practicing balancing on one leg at a time is a good ankle mobility drill to improve both ankle stability and ankle mobility.

  • Stand in front of a firm surface, such as a wall or your countertop, and place your hands there for balance support as needed. 
  • Standing on one leg at a time, remove your hands from the surface, and practice balancing for 30 seconds at a time.
  • Rest and repeat on the opposite side. 
  • Practice 2-3 sets per leg.

Try to keep the foot and ankle as stable as possible during this.

3. Mini Squat

mini squat
mini squat

If you have limited ankle dorsiflexion, a mini squat is a good way to introduce a squatting motion. This will help to increase ankle mobility without forcing dorsiflexion range of motion that you may not have quite yet.

  • Position yourself with the feet about hip width apart.
  • As you begin to bend the knees, sit the hips back towards the heels as if you are going to sit in a chair.
  • As you do this, you should keep the back neutral, but hinge slightly at the hips.
  • Bend the knees to about a 45 degree angle, then return to your starting position.
  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets.

Advanced Ankle Mobility Exercises

1. Deep Squat

advance ankle mobility exercise: deep squat
advance ankle mobility exercise: deep squat

When a mini squat becomes too easy, then you can advance to a deep squat.

  • Position yourself with the feet a little larger than hip width apart.
  • As you begin to bend the knees, sit the hips back towards the heels as if you are going to sit in a chair.
  • As you do this, you should keep the back neutral, but hinge slightly at the hips.
  • Bend the knees up to a 90 degree angle, then return to your starting position.
  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets.

Tip: If you are finding that a mini squat has become too easy, but your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion isn’t quite ready for a deeper squat, you can have the heels slightly lifted and resting on a supportive surface to make up for the limited ankle dorsiflexion mobility.

If at the gym, a weight plate under each heel is a good option. At home, you could use a small book of equal size for each heel.

As your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion improves, then you can take these lifts away.

2. Forward Walking Lunges

exercise to improve ankle mobility: forward walking lunge

A forward walking lunge is a good dynamic ankle mobility drill to help improve ankle mobility and stability.

  • In a large area of space, take a big step forward with one foot and bend your knees and hips into a lunge. 
  • Push off with the back foot and move the back leg forward into the next lunge.
  • Continue alternating legs as your walking lunges continue.
  • Practice 10 lunges per leg, then turn around and repeat going the opposite direction.

This video demonstration will give a good visual for the right mechanics to maintain during your lunges.

3. Single Leg Calf Raise

exercise to improve ankle mobility: single leg calf raise
exercise to improve ankle mobility: single leg calf raise

You can now turn this movement, which we originally used in assessing ankle mobility, into an exercise!

  • Stand in front of a sturdy surface for balance support, such as a wall or your countertop.
  • Standing on one leg, lift your heel into a single leg calf raise.
  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets on both legs.

How Long Does it Take to Improve Ankle Mobility?

how long does it take to improve ankle mobility?


If you keep up with a consistent home program, which may include some of the ankle mobility drills listed above, at least 4-5 days out of the week, then you should begin noticing improvements in your ankle mobility. This will include progress in ankle range of motion, strength and stability.

You should see progress within the first couple of weeks training your ankle mobility. This will continue to improve gradually over continued time and practice.

The most important thing to remember is consistency!

FAQ:

Who can help me improve ankle mobility?

A number of professionals can assist with improving ankle mobility. This may include an orthopedic specialist, physical therapist, podiatrist, chiropractor, or personal trainer.

Can an ankle brace help ankle mobility?

Not really.

An ankle brace is fine as a temporary aid if you recent injured the ankle or have chronic ankle pain that needs a little extra support every now and then. Ultimately though, you want to train your own soft tissues to be able to support the ankle as independently as possible.

Is walking good for weak ankles?

Sure!

Walking is a nice, low impact form of exercise that will allow you to functionally use your ankle mobility, which can be a nice compliment to your ankle mobility exercises.

Wondering What's Next?

Discover 11 Easy, At-Home “Stretch Exercises” for Stronger, Pain-Free Joints (click below)

FeelGoodLife.com

Share:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other Articles

Top Strategies to Fix Ankle Impingement

Ankle impingement syndrome occurs when ankle motion becomes limited and painful. This can occur either in the front (anterior) portion of the ankle joint or