Since joints receive their nutrition and health through movement, maintaining mobility and full range of motion is necessary for every joint. However, one joint is of paramount importance when considering mobility – the ankle joint. The ankle joint is responsible for transferring the forces from the ground to the rest of the body; and vice versa. Essentially, the ankle is what not only connects us to the world, but it’s how we physically interact with the world most of the time. If the ankle joint is unable to adequately attenuate the forces between the body and the ground then it will be forced to compensate and injuries will likely occur.
Now you may be asking yourself, what constitutes an ankle dorsiflexion limitation? It’s simply any motion less than 10 degrees. You can assess this simply by trying to pull your foot towards your shin with your knee straight. Perform this in front of a mirror or take a picture. Then compare it to the other side.
One of the most common ankle limitations is dorsiflexion (bringing the top of your foot to your shin). This limitation is not only very common, but it also leads to maladaptive foot pathomechanics and many kinetic chain faults. When this happens a barrage of injuries can occur such as: plantar fasciitis, ankle impingement, metatarsalgia, achilles tendinosis, knee pain, hip pain, back pain, and even shoulder pain. This broad impact of ankle limitations is due to its biomechanical role in movement.
For example, during the simple task of walking, limited ankle dorsiflexion prevents full terminal knee extension, which prevents full hip extension, which prevents optimal glue firing, which prevents opposite side trunk/shoulder rotation, which can cause dysfunctional neck and shoulder mechanics.
And that’s just walking… Add this limitation to challenging movements such as a squat, yoga pose, or athletic movements, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The good news is that improving ankle dorsiflexion is easy. It just takes consistency and persistence. Below are 7 easy ankle exercises that will help to improve range of motion, decrease the risk of injury, and improve performance. The exercises will be listed from least invasive to most invasive. I advise starting at #1 and progressing slowly through the list as needed. If you have any pain, stop immediately and contact a physical therapist.
1. 90-90 Neurodynamic Mobility
Sometimes it’s not the joint or even the muscles. Sometimes it’s just that the nerves aren’t sliding around properly. If this is the case, it’s an easy fix. And even if it’s not the case, this is still a great dynamic warm-up.
2. Static Stretch With Contraction
Your body responds to initial stretching by reflexively contracting the muscles around the joint to protect it. After this, there is an elastic component that takes up the initial force. For this reason, it takes at least 2 minutes of a consistent stretch to truly make a change in the tissues.
However, once this change is made, it doesn’t mean your body will use it. This is why you need to contract the muscles on both sides of the joints to teach your brain and nervous system how to use the new range.
Follow this protocol to truly improve your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion.
3. Eccentric Heel Drops
While this has been a common exercise for Achilles tendinopathies, I have clinically found it very useful for increasing range of motion.
It not only improves range of motion, but it also improves the strength in that motion as well. This is a very important concept for injury prevention.
4. Seated Active Ankle Dorsiflexion
After improving the range and the strength on the back side of the lower leg/ankle, it is necessary increase the strength on the front side (anterior tibialis). This front side strength is responsible for maintaining and using the new ankle mobility.
Another benefit of this exercise is that it can easily be performed throughout the day in the seated position.
5. Foot Wave Dissociation
To ensure that you don’t compensate and give yourself claw toes, you should perform this dissociation exercise to strengthen the anterior tibialis. It will also help to improve motor control of the ankle.
6. Banded Ankle Joint Mobility
If the above exercises haven’t improved your mobility and/or you are an athlete looking to improve your squat mechanics, then you should give this exercise a try. It biases the forces towards the joint as opposed to the muscles.
7. Pistol Squat Ankle Mobilization
This is an aggressive ankle joint mobilization. It puts a great deal of force through the ankle joint to improve the range of motion. For those looking to improve their mobility in advanced movements, such as a pistol squat, this could be a great exercise.