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Why You Should Care About Ankle Mobility—Plus 7 Exercises to Try

It can help you perform better in your workouts (and everyday life).

By Jennifer HeimlichApril 3, 2024


Good mobility can be impressive. It might let you touch your toes, or reach your arms all the way behind your back, like in yoga’s Cow Face Pose. But sometimes, the most important mobility to work on is less flashy, more functional. 

Case in point: ankle mobility exercises. “Our feet are our foundation,” says Peloton instructor Marcel Maurer. If our range of motion is restricted right at that point where we hold ourselves up from the ground, it can affect both our day-to-day movements like walking and climbing stairs, as well as what we can get out of our workouts. So, even though no one is likely to be wowed by how far you can flex your feet, the payoff of regularly practicing ankle mobility exercises can be pretty major.      

What Is Ankle Mobility?

Put simply, ankle mobility is how much range of motion we can access and control at the ankle joint. “It’s both stability and flexibility,” says Mark Murphy, physical therapist and lead injury prevention and recovery specialist for the Center for Sports Performance and Research at Mass General Brigham.

There are four main movements that happen at the ankle: The two big ones are pointing and flexing the feet (called plantar flexion and dorsiflexion), but the feet can also rotate slightly inward and outward from the ankle joint (called inversion and eversion). However, most of the time when someone is working on ankle mobility, it’s an issue of limited dorsiflexion, or not being able to flex the foot deeply enough.  

What Restricts Ankle Mobility?

Murphy says stiff ankles are usually caused by soft tissue tightness around the joint. Maybe your calf muscles or Achilles tendons are overly tight. Old injuries or overuse can also come into play. “It gets relatively stiff as a protective mechanism,” he explains. 

Our anatomy higher up the body can also affect our ankle mobility. For instance, Murphy says, a person whose pelvis tilts excessively forward or backward might not be able to access their full range of motion in the ankles because their alignment is off, forcing their ankles to compensate. Getting assessed by an expert like a physical therapist is the best way to tell whether it’s something further up the chain or right near your ankle that’s causing the issue.  

Reasons Why Ankle Mobility Is Important

Having good ankle mobility allows you to move more efficiently—with a smaller risk of hurting yourself. “Plantar flexion is really important to get full range of motion when I push off for running, walking, jumping, things like that,” Murphy says. “Dorsiflexion is also very important because that's where I allow my knee over my toe to go up and down stairs, to get on and off a chair.”

Marcel adds that good ankle mobility can improve our balance and stability in activities like running and cycling. “It also offers you a greater range of motion for your strength workouts,” he adds. Think of a squat or lunge: If there’s restriction at the ankle, the whole movement will be cut short, reducing the benefits you could get out of the exercise. Or, in a yoga pose like Downward-Facing Dog, tight ankles could alter the positioning of your body, affecting where you feel the stretch. 

We also need our ankles to be mobile enough to keep the rest of our body healthy. “If they are stiff, the full movement is not working right,” says Marcel. “It could happen that your knees, pelvis, and lower back have to move in uncomfortable positions to compensate for the wrong position of your ankle.” That’s why performing ankle mobility exercises regularly could have positive ripple effects throughout your body.  

How to Check Your Current Ankle Mobility

Not sure whether your ankle mobility is up to snuff? While the best way to check is to have it thoroughly tested by a physical therapist, there are some at-home assessments you can try on yourself. Murphy suggests the weight-bearing lunge test. Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Get into a kneeling lunge position next to a wall with your front toes placed about five inches away (you can use the width of your hand as a basic guide).

  2. Lean forward to lunge toward the wall. Try to touch the wall with your knee while keeping your front heel on the floor. 

  3. Adjust your stance closer or further away from the wall so your knee hits the wall at the very end of its range of motion. 

If you can keep your toes at least five inches away from the wall while your knee touches it, that’s considered a normal range of motion. But if you struggle to get there, it’s a sign that you might want to add more ankle mobility exercises to your routine.  

7 Ankle Mobility Exercises For Improved Movement

There’s no right or wrong time to work on your ankle mobility, says Marcel. That said, he recommends checking in with your ankles before every sweat session. “If you have the feeling they need a little bit of love, spend some time before your workout and prepare your ankles,” he says. “Your ankles and the rest of your body will be super thankful.

Murphy adds that incorporating ankle mobility exercises into a warmup is also an easy way to make sure you actually do them consistently. Rather than dedicating 40 minutes to ankle mobility one day a week, the best way to open up that range of motion is to spend just a few minutes on ankle mobility exercises regularly, he explains. 

But where should you start? These seven ankle mobility exercises recommended by Marcel and Murphy can help to unlock tight ankles and prep those joints for any challenges you put them through during your workout. 

1. Ankle Plantar Flexion 

  1. Sit down on the floor. Bend one leg at the knee while the other leg is straight out in front of you on the floor. Loop a resistance band around the ball of your flexed foot on the floor, and hold it with your hands. 

  2. Start to point your toes slowly forward and then return to a flexed position, releasing the tension. 

  3. Repeat on each foot three times for a total of 40 seconds.

2. Ankle Circles 

  1. Sit down on the floor. Bend one leg at the knee with the other leg straight out in front of you on the floor. Put a rolled-up towel under the front ankle. 

  2. Turn your front foot slowly in circles, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise directions. Be careful to move only your foot and not your leg. 

  3. Repeat on each foot three times for a total of 40 seconds.

3. Toe-Heel Walks 

  1. Walk for 30 seconds while standing on your toes.

  2. Then, walk for 30 seconds while standing on your heels. 

  3. Repeat three times.

4. Supported Isometric Squat

  1. Holding onto a squat rack or pole, stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out.

  2. Bend at your knees to squat down as low as you can until you feel a restriction in the ankle.

  3. Hang out in that position for about 30 seconds.

  4. Press your feet into the ground to come back up to standing. 

  5. Repeat two to three times.

5. Straight-Knee Calf Stretch

  1. Stand facing a wall, about a foot or two away.

  2. Place the leg you want to stretch about a foot behind your other leg.

  3. With your hands on the wall, lean forward from the hips, bending only the front knee until the back calf muscle feels a stretch. Keep that back heel on the floor and the back knee straight the entire time.

  4. Hold for about 30 seconds, switch legs, then repeat. 

6. Bent-Knee Soleus Stretch 

  1. Stand facing a wall, about a foot or two away.

  2. Place the leg you want to stretch about a foot behind your other leg.

  3. With your hands on the wall, bend both knees until the lower muscle of the back calf—the soleus—feels a stretch. Continue to keep that back heel on the floor the entire time.

  4. Hold for about 30 seconds, switch legs, then repeat. 

7. Eccentric-Focused Calf Raises

  1. Standing on the edge of a step or another elevated platform, lift your heels to rise up onto the metatarsals (the ball of your foot) of both feet.

  2. Lift one foot off of the step.

  3. Slowly lower on the other leg for about three to five seconds, until that heel is dipping below the edge of the step.  

  4. Start with one or two sets of 10 reps on each leg, working up to three sets of 15 reps. (Though Murphy says that this progression should be done with the guidance of a coach or physical therapist to make sure it’s the right level of challenge for you.) 

When can you expect to see results from doing these ankle mobility exercises? How long it takes to improve your ankle mobility varies widely, depending on what’s causing the restriction in the first place and how severe it is, says Murphy. For instance, if it’s an alignment issue, the right form cue could help you instantly find a bigger range of motion. Or, if the problem is due to muscle tightness, you could start to see improvement in just a few weeks if you practice these ankle mobility exercises several times a week. 

How to Increase Ankle Strength

Ankle mobility exercises aren’t just about improving your flexibility, but also increasing the ankle strength within that range of motion you’re working to open up. “Everybody's focused on stretching, but eventually you have to then use that mobility in a functional task,” says Murphy. In particular, he suggests focusing on eccentric strength training, or putting the muscle under force as it’s elongating, like when you’re coming down from a calf raise. That way you’re building strength in the full range of motion. 

Really, flexibility and stability are two parts of an equation that work together to create a mobile ankle joint that’s going to help you perform the activities you love, says Murphy.


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