Exercises for ankle mobility and the debate of stretching vs mobility continue to be a question I get a lot so I’m covering that today.
Having adequate ankle dorsiflexion is CRUCIAL for sports.
No matter work sport you play.
Having better ankle dorsiflexion will help you:
- squat better with a more upright torso (more on that later)
- improve your running and sprinting mechanics
- reduce knee & hip injuries
In this blog post I’ll discuss:
- What ankle dorsiflexion is (and why it’s important)
- The risk of poor ankle dorsiflexion
- The best exercises for ankle mobility
- Important note about the steps you need to take to improve your mobility
We believe that mobility is the first step in improving your performance. Mobility, technique and then strength. That’s why we offer a 15 minute daily mobility workout within our program. Learn more about our mobility classes here.
What Is Ankle Dorsiflexion (And Why It’s Important)
One of the first things I hear is “I can’t get that low” or ” I thought squatting was bad for your knees” let’s talk about that.
Think of a toddler.
The way a toddler squats playing on the ground with it’s toys and can just sit in the bottom of the squat is how we are SUPPOSED to be able to
Now, I can’t do that and to be fair most people can’t unless and here is why:
- we sit.
- our ankles are tight.
- hip flexors are locked up.
- we don’t train full range of motion.
I have been coaching since 2008 and over the years I have learned a ton and one of the first things I look for in a client now is:
And thoracic spine mobility but that’s for a different talk. Read about that here.
Better ankle mobility has sooo many benefits to it.
So let’s talk about what ankle dorsiflexion is:
What Is Ankledorsiflexion?
Ankle dorsiflexion is one of the two movements that your ankle joint allows you to do.
- ankle dorsiflexion (pull your toes towards your shin)
- plantar flexion (point your toes)
The photo above is me doing a test of ankle mobility.
- get on one knee
- make a fist from your big toe to the wall
- then you goal is to make your knee travel forward and touch the wall (without your heel coming up) 5cm is what we want.
Watch this video for a further breakdown of the ankle mobility test:
Why Is Ankle Mobility Important?
Better ankle mobility leads to optimal performance.
Want to squat better?
Improve your positioning.
By improving your dorsiflexion your knee will be able to “go over your toes” more which will allow you to maintain a more upright torso.
This is the most optimal expression of full range of motion in the ankle, hips and t spine.
It’s a beautiful position.
It’s also puts his back at the least chance of injury.
Because what happens when you have a lack of ankle mobility (or any restriction) is your body has to compensate somewhere.
The Risk Of Poor Ankle Dorsiflexion
In short form you are putting your knee, hip and back at risk.
This is we teach in this order:
- Technique (improve positioning with the mobility we have created)
- Then strengthen the movement patterns
But if you don’t take your mobility serious then you are putting yourself at a risk of injury.
Here is why…
…as you descend in the squat (eccentric phase of the lift) you want to be thinking about:
- bracing your stomach and ribs cage down
- creating torque from the floor and feeling your big toe drive into the ground
- pulling the barbell down and contracting your lats
But most people don’t do that.
Most people descend at whatever happens, happens.
And if you have poor ankle dorsiflexion as you squat your ankle join “will hit a wall” and the joint won’t allow you to have your knees
…what happens is your knee crashes in (knee values) to compensate for the lack of range of motion.
This is what leads to knee injuries.
EVERYTHING starts at the feet.
That’s why shortly I’m going to show you the best exercises to improve your ankle mobility.
The Best Exercises For Ankle Mobility
Improving your mobility whether it’s your ankles, hips, shoulders, t spine, etc is all about:
TESTING & RESTING
Test the movement pattern you are wanting to improve.
Perform the mobility exercises and then retest.
This lets you know what is actually working and what is the most effective for you and your body
…I have spent YEARS testing the most effective techniques and I’ll share with you a general overview.
If you are someone who really wants to improve their mobility and take all of the guesswork out I would encourage you to join our daily mobility classes. Where I guide you through a virtual class each day (15 minutes a day) check out how it works here.
Step 1 – Test & Rest
See the notes above.
Take a photo, take a video, take a mental note of how you feel.
Perform the mobility work and then test and retest your range of motion to see if there was any change.
Important Note To Improve Your Ankle Mobility
I’m going to lay out a step by step guide of a list of different exercises that will help improve your ankle mobility and dorsiflexion.
- smashing your calves
- banded distractions
- joint mobility
But what I have found to be the MOST effective IS active stretching and strengthening your END range of motion (you will see that at the end)
I tell you this because some of you may need to follow every single step because you are really restricted.
Some of you may just did not train “PAILS & RAILS” aka strengthen your end range of motion.
Let’s get into it.
Exercises For Ankle Mobility #1 Calf Smash
When you foam roll you aren’t actually breaking up muscle tissue.
However you are communicating to your body (central nervous system) to reduce some muscle tone in this area.
If you can reduce some tone “tension” you can get that muscle to relax a little bit more which will make these exercises for ankle mobility more
Spend a minute or two rolling around your like this.
Exercises For Ankle Mobility #2 Stretch Your Calf
Now that you have reduced some “muscle tone” you want to lengthen and stretch the muscle.
This is a great calf stretch that just feels great and like I mentioned previously often times just freeing up some range of motion in your calves is
one of the fastest way to improve your ankle mobility.
Spend 1 – 2 minutes on each side here.
If you are struggling with:
- the joint itself that’s a bit different (we will get into that next)
- activating and knowing how to use the muscles is something different as well (we are getting there)
Exercises For Ankle Mobility #3 Free Up Your Ankle Joint
Just a reminder after each of these exercises I would encourage you to test the initial movement pattern.
This way you know which ankle mobility exercise is working best for you.
Because the chances of you following each one of the steps is unlikely.
If that is you…
…then high five and you would love our mobility classes with that level of discipline.
Steps one and two we worked on freeing up some stiffness in your calves (muscular) this exercise we are working on getting your ankle joint to
We use the band to “pull” back on the joint to allow you to get the full expression of your ankle moving properly.
Much like a physical therapist would.
This is just a work around and we still find it to be very effective.
Exercises To Improve Ankle Mobility #4 Ankle Dorsiflexion Pails & Rails
This is stuff is game changing.
The first three exercises were all what I like to think of feel good when you are doing them.
You may have even said something to yourself before like:
“When I stretch if feels good but I never actually improve”Me years ago and maybe you too
You know what I’m saying?
I would stretch, do yoga, do stretch routines with companies like gowod, romwod, pliability, etc and would always feel amazing after but I wouldn’t
see the long term benefits that I was hoping for.
Side note: It’s what inspired me to create my mobility classes with this style (the most effective form of mobility from my experience).
Through tons of trial and error trying to improve my ankle and shoulder mobility I discovered functional range conditioning.
Pails and rails.
I’ll save that a deep dive for another day.
Essentially it’s strengthening your end range of motion.
If we just stretch the muscles (like I did for years) but we never strengthen the end range of motion your body doesn’t know how to use that range.
I have found so much success with this training method.
Check out the video above for an example on how to implement probably the best exercise for ankle mobility when your pressed for time.
If you click on the photo above where I’m advertising my mobility classes you will learn all about how we help people just like you improve:
- ankle mobility
- reduce pain
- improve muscle activation
We guide you through a virtual 15 minute mobility workout everyday.
Be sure to check it out if you want to take things to the next level.
Or hop on my email list below and I’ll send you my best fitness tips each week (just fill out the form below).
We talked about how improving your ankle mobility will optimize your positioning which will ultimately lead to you getting:
- reduce knee and hip injuries
I showed you a test that you can do to measure your ankle mobility and also the best exercises for ankle mobility.
Be sure to apply the "test and retest" method so you know which form of mobility is most effective for your body.
Follow our 5 step process to improve your ankle dorsiflexion and start moving better!
Leave a comment down below with your biggest take away. We love hearing from our athletes.
Each day within our K2 Mobility program we have virtual mobility classes where we guide you through a mobility workout to optimize range of motion and strength in your end range of motion.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I improve my ankle mobility?
Follow our 5 step process.
- Release your calves to reduce some muscle tone
- stretch your calves
- try banded distraction of the ankle joint
- strengthen your end range of motion with isometrics at end range and active stretching techniques
- always test and retest to see what works best for you
I can't get deep enough in my squats. Is it my hips or my ankles?
Probably a little bit of both. Both that's why it's important to always test and retest when doing mobility work. Perform a squat (take a photo/film yourself) then perform mobility work in either your hips or your ankles then re test the movement pattern and see if you improved.
I will say that in MOST cases it's probably your ankle mobility and lack of dorsiflexion. Improved dorsiflexion will allow your knee to travel over your toes more. Couple that with driving your hips out and you will have a really nice upright torso squat position. Be sure to try the exercises for ankle mobility we listed above and our 5 step process.
Cause of poor ankle mobility?
Could be a few things of course but when I talk about mobility I always point out our daily patterns in life. Is your life/exercise asking you to "activate" or use this range of motion? If you don't use that position you probably will have a hard time using it when you need it because all of the musculature is just getting tighter and will restrict your range of motion.
- Tight musculature and restricted range of motion (calves in most cases)
- Build up scar tissue if you have have had an injury in the past from ankle sprain
- Not using the range of motion (this is why I loved active stretching --> trains you to strengthen and use your end range of motion)