Ankle Mobility Exercises to Improve Dorsiflexion
Limitations in ankle dorsiflexion can cause quite a few functional and athletic limitations, leading to the desire to perform ankle mobility exercises. These types of mobility drills have become popular over the last several years and are often important components of corrective exercise and movement prep programming. Considering our postural adaptations and terrible shoe wear habits (especially if high heels), it’s no wonder that so many people have ankle mobility issues.
Several studies have been published that shown that limited dorsiflexion impacts the squat, single leg squat, step down activities, and even landing from a jump. These are all building blocks to functional movement patterns, so the importance of designing exercises to enhance dorsiflexion can not be ignored. While I will openly admit that I believe that the hip has a large influence on ankle position and mobility, it is still important to perform ankle mobility exercises. I will discuss the hip component in a future post.
There are many great ideas on the internet on how to improve dorsiflexion with ankle mobility exercise, but I wanted to accumulate some of my favorite in one place. Below, I will share my system for assessing ankle mobility and then addressing limitations. I use a combined approach including self-myofascial exercises, stretching, and ankle mobility drills.
How to Assess Your Ankle Mobility
Before we discuss strategies to improve ankle mobility, it’s worth discussing how to assess ankle mobility. I am a big fan of standardizing a test that can provide reliable results. One test that is popular in the FMS and SFMA world is the half-kneeling dorsiflexion test.
In this test, you kneel on the ground and assume a position similar to stretching your hip flexors, with your knee on the floor. Your lead foot that you are testing should be lined up 5″ from the wall. This is important and the key to standardizing the test.
From this position you lean in, keeping your heel on the ground. From this position you can measure the actual tibial angle in relationship to the ground or measure the distance of the knee cap from the wall when the heel starts to come up. An alternate method would be to vary the distance your foot is from the wall and measure from the great toe to the wall. I personally prefer to standardize the distance to 5″. If they can touch the wall from 5″, they have pretty good mobility. I should note that my photo below has my client wearing minimus shoes, but barefoot is ideal.
This is a great position to assess your progress, and as you’ll see, I’ll recommend some specific drills you can perform from this position to you can immediately assess and reassess.
Ankle Mobility Exercises to Improve Dorsiflexion
As I mentioned previously, I like to use a 3-step process to maximize my gains when trying to enhance ankle dorsiflexion:
- Self-myofascial release for the calf and plantar fasica
- Stretching of the calf
- Ankle mobility drills
I prefer this order to loosen the soft tissue and maximize pliability before working on specific joint mobility. Also, I should note that I try to go barefoot during my ankle mobility exercises.
Self Myofascial Drills for Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility
One of the more simple self myofascial release techniques for ankle mobility is foam rolling the calf. This has benefits as you can turn your body side to side and get the medial and lateral aspect of your calf along the full length. I will instruct someone to roll up and down the entire length of the muscle and tendon for up to 30 seconds. If they hit a really tender spot or trigger point, I will also have them pause at the spot for ~8-10 seconds.
What is good about the foam roller is that you can also add active ankle movements during the rolling, such as actively dorsiflexing the foot or performing ankle circles. This gives a nice release as well. Don’t forget to roll the bottom of your foot with a ball, as well, to lengthen the posterior chain tissue even further. There is a direct connect between the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon.
Some people do not feel that the foam roller gives them enough of a release as it is hard to place a lot of bodyweight through the foam roller in this position. That is why I often use one of the massage sticks to work the area in addition. You can use a massage stick in a similar fashion to roll the length of the area and pause at tender spots. I often add mobility in the half kneeling position as well, which gives this technique an added bonus.
Stretches for Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility
Once you are done rolling, I like to stretch the muscle. If moderate to severe restrictions exist, I will hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, but often just do a few reps of 10 seconds for most people. The classic wall lean stretch is shown below. This is a decent basic exercises, however, I have found that you need to be pretty tight to get a decent stretch in this position.
I usually prefer placing your foot up on a wall or step instead, as seen in the second part of my video below. The added benefit here is that you can control the intensity of the stretch by how close you are to the wall and how much you lean your body in. I also like that it extends my toes, which gives a stretch of the plantar fascia as well. For both of these stretches, be sure to not turn your foot outward. You should be neutral to point your toe in slightly (no more than an hour on a clock).
Simple Ankle Mobility Exercises
I like to break down my ankle mobility exercises into basic and advanced, depending on the extent of your motion restriction. There are several basic drills that you can incorporate into your movement prep or corrective exercise strategies.
The first drill involves simple standing with your toes on a slight incline and moving into dorsiflexion by breaking your knees. Eric Cressey shows us this quick and easy drill that you can quickly perform:
Tony Gentilcore shows another simple ankle mobility drill, which is essentially just a dynamic warmup version of the ankle mobility test we described above:
Kevin Neeld shows a great progression of this exercise that incorporates both the toes up on the wall, essentially making it more of a mobility challenge and stretch. If you look closely, you’ll see that he is also mobilizing in three planes, straight neutral, inward, and outward:
Advanced Ankle Mobility Exercises
Jeff Cubos shares a video of the half kneeling mobilization with a dowel. The dowel is an important part of the ankle mobility drill. You begin by half kneeling, then placing a dowel on the outside of your foot at the height of your fifth toe. Now, when you lean into dorsiflexion, make sure your knee goes outside of the dowel. You can add the dowel to many of the variations of drills we are discussing:
Chris Johnson shared a nice video using a Voodoo Floss band to assist with the myofascial release and position the tibia into internal rotation:
For those that have a “pinch” in the front of the ankle of tight joint restrictions of the ankle in general, Erson Religioso shows us some Mulligan mobilizations with movement (MWM) using a band. In this video, he has his patient put the band under his opposite knee, however you could easily tie this around something behind you. In this position you step out to create tension on the band, which will move your tibia posteriorly as you move forward into dorsiflexion:
As you progress along with your mobility, you may find that variations of these drills may be more effective for you. You can combine many of these approaches into one drill, such as Matt Siniscalchi shows us here, combining the MWM with the dowel in the half kneeling position:
As you can see, there are many different variations of drills you can perform based on what is specifically tight or limited. You may have to play around a little but to find what works best for each person, however these are a bunch of great examples of ankle mobility exercises you can choose to perform when trying to improve your dorsiflexion.