Man does calf raises as an ankle strengthening exercise

5 Exercises to Combat Weak Ankles

You're probably forgetting about these critical joints.

By Eric ArnoldOctober 12, 2023


When it comes to your endurance and athletic performance, you likely focus on your core, arms, and leg strength. But being conditioned goes far beyond targeting these muscle groups. It also has to include ankle-strengthening exercises.

Yes, your ankles.

They’re probably what you think about least on your fitness journey—and they’re not even muscles. Rather, they’re complex joints that hold a number of muscles and tendons in place. But just consider your ankles’ workload. They keep you stable and supported whether you’re standing still, walking, sprinting, running, or cycling. As Peloton instructor Andy Speer puts it, your ankles are “the gatekeepers of force transfer and movement to the rest of your body.”

In other words, it’s a lot harder to press for that personal record (PR) during a HIIT ride—or even maintain your desired overall fitness level—without ankle strength. Plus, it's critical for preventing injuries and pain.

What is Ankle Strengthening, Anyway?

Strengthening your ankles isn’t the same as working on your quad muscles. Remember, your ankles are joints, so they do a different job than muscles—and strengthening them doesn’t typically involve a result you can actually see. (“Hey, nice ankles!” isn’t something you expect to hear from your partner or workout buddy.)

With ankle strengthening, you’re improving your flexibility and range of motion. “Developing and maintaining ankle strength through various ranges of motion is crucial to increasing performance and remaining healthy,” Andy explains. These types of exercises target the muscles and connective tissue that lead in and out of the ankle, he adds. 

That requires repetitive movement. There are basic motions of the ankle joint for any activity: dorsiflexion (moving your foot upward, toward your knee) and plantar flexion (pointing your foot like a gymnast or ballet dancer), Andy says. There’s also inversion and eversion, which make up the back-and-forth tilting of your foot, particularly when you run. As a result, ankle-strengthening exercises typically involve repeating these simple motions—flex up, flex down, turn in, turn out—over and over again.

If that sounds boring, it doesn’t have to be. Ankle strength work can be easily incorporated into other aspects of your life, such as when you’re sitting at your desk or stretching before a run. 

What Are Some Signs of Weak Ankles?

While everyone should take time to focus on building ankle strength, there are some obvious, all-too-familiar signs that your ankles may be particularly weak. Ever walk to the fridge and roll your ankle suddenly? Experience soreness after a climb ride? Feel unstable on uneven terrain? If so, you may want to focus on some ankle-strengthening exercises. Beyond these examples, here are a few other warning signs to look for. 

5 Signs of Weak Ankles

1. Buckling

While you probably only think of your ankle flexing up and down, ankle side strength is an essential aspect of stability. Stand up and try stepping sideways. If you feel yourself buckle a bit, it may be time for some ankle-strengthening exercises.

2. Soreness (or Possible Swelling)

If your ankles are constantly sore, that could be an indication they’re struggling to support your weight. Even if you feel fit, weakness in the muscles leading into your ankle will put pressure on your foot, stressing the ankle joint.

3. Sharp Pain

Regardless of whether it’s a sprain or a strain, it’s hard to miss an ankle injury. Let’s face it: It hurts. But what hurts even more is that healing can take a while. When you return to your workout regimen, be sure to monitor for pain, as that could be a sign that your joint hasn’t fully healed.

4. Instability

Feel a sudden wobble when you walk on an uneven surface, go up and down stairs, or take a hike in the hills? It happens to all of us. However, if your ankles are strong, you’ll feel more stability in these types of situations.

5. Weight Support

If you feel your ankles buckling during weighted exercises, such as squats or lunges, that’s a sign that these joints may struggle to support load-bearing movements. 

The Importance of Ankle Strength in Overall Fitness

“Developing and maintaining ankle strength through various ranges of motion is crucial to increasing performance and remaining healthy,” Andy says. “The critical your tendons—your Achilles tendon being the big daddy of the bunch. The tendons in your ankle and foot are responsible for the elastic return of energy in each step.”

Without that, there isn’t much you can do when it comes to exercise.

Think of it this way: When you’re on the bike, “your ankle is responsible for maintaining [your] position so you can push with your glutes and quads,” Andy says. This provides stability. Consider how your ankles flex when you’re on a rower. If you don’t have the range of motion when you pull in or push away from the catch, you won’t make a full stroke.  

Weak ankles place extra demand on your other muscles and joints to provide the power or stability that you need, which can cause problems later on. Put simply: Having strong ankles helps reduce the risk of injury up the kinetic chain—the system of joints, muscles, and segments working together in your body.

If you do injure an ankle tendon, the most important thing is to be patient and modify your routine so your ankle can heal properly. That doesn’t mean you can’t train—but you’ll have to mindfully work around the injury.

How to Strengthen Your Ankles: The 5 Best Exercises to Try

Remember the bit above, about being able to work on your ankle strength at your desk? To do so, all you need are some resistance bands. Use a band with a light resistance level. Secure one end of the loop around the legs of your desk and place the other end around the ball of your foot. Do basic ankle movements, over and over: Rotate in, rotate out, flex up, flex down. You may have to adjust the position of the band, depending which motion you’re doing. However, while these movements are beneficial, your long-term fitness goals likely require a little more dedicated attention to these joints. 

Here, Andy breaks down five types of ankle-strengthening exercises that he incorporates into his own routine. He recommends trying these out three to four times a week. (Make sure to speak to your doctor or a medical professional before starting a new exercise routine.)

Man does ankle strengthening exercises

1. Isometric Holds

Andy does this sequence before every run, and it’s certainly worth doing before riding or rowing, too. 

  1. Stand on one leg and use a wall or chair for balance as you do each of the following three exercises:

    1. A slight hinge and knee bend, with your heel hovering off the ground

    2. A full hinge, slight knee bend with a flat foot

    3. Stand upright with a straight leg and flat foot

  2. Hold each position for at least 30 seconds. Do these exercises a few times a week. Add 15 seconds each week until you can do each hold for 90 seconds.

2. Tibia Lifts

  1. Stand with your butt against a wall.

  2. Step forward by about one foot. Lean your back and butt against the wall again.

  3. Raise and lower the balls of your feet slowly, keeping the rest of your feet flat on the ground.

  4. Try two sets of 10, and work your way up to two sets of 20 over a few weeks.

3. Calf Raises

  1. Stand with your feet a few inches apart.

  2. Slowly raise yourself up on your tippy toes and back down again. 

  3. Make sure your ankles aren’t rotating in or out. You want to move straight up and down. 

  4. To make this exercise more challenging, add ankle weights. 

  5. Do two sets of 10, and work your way up to two sets of 20 over a few weeks.

4. Walking Sequence

  1. Do each of these following segments twice, walking about 20 feet total for each exercise.

    1. Walk with your heels lifted, then walk on your heels with your toes lifted.

    2. Walk on the inside edges of your feet, then the outside edges.

    3. Roll from your heel and lift up to a calf raise on each step.

5. Pogos

  1. Think of these as jumping rope—without a rope. Do each of the following sets twice.

    1. 12 jumps in place

    2. 12 jumps side to side

    3. 12 jumps front to back

If you already work out three or four times per week, integrate a few of these exercises into your warmup. These movements won’t significantly extend the amount of time you spend working out, but they will yield noticeable long-term benefits in terms of injury prevention and performance improvements.

3 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Ankle Strengthening

1. Do These Exercises Before Your Workout 

Unless time or other factors are at play, Andy emphasizes that it’s important to do your ankle-strengthening exercises before your workout, not after. Just as you’d typically loosen up your hamstrings and quads before a run, you should work on your ankle strength before a workout to maximize the benefits. “Don’t save it for after unless you absolutely have to,” Andy says. “Be consistent and you will develop stronger more resilient ankles and lower legs.”

2. Make Sure to Target Each Plane of Motion

Additionally, make sure to rotate through all of the exercises on a regular basis, Andy says. If you only focus, say, on calf raises at the expense of the other exercises, you’re only working one plane of motion. You need to strengthen every aspect of your ankles’ movements.

3. Work on Stretching and Strengthening

Keep in mind that there’s a thing as too much stretching. “If all you do is stretch, you won’t develop strength and stability.” Find a balance, Andy says, and “don’t neglect the small drills that, over time, will build you into a rock-solid athlete!” With beautiful ankles, inside and out.