Ankle Mobility Exercises to Improve Dorsiflexion

ankle mobility exercises to improve dorsiflexionLimitations 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.

Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobilty

 

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:

  1. Self-myofascial release for the calf and plantar fasica
  2. Stretching of the calf
  3. 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.

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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.

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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).

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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:

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Tony Gentilcore shows another simple ankle mobility drill, which is essentially just a dynamic warmup version of the ankle mobility test we described above:

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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:

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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:

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Chris Johnson shared a nice video using a Voodoo Floss band to assist with the myofascial release and position the tibia into internal rotation:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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49 Responses to “Ankle Mobility Exercises to Improve Dorsiflexion”

  1. Great stuff, Mike. First time poster here. Love your site. Great content as well as contributions to the research and EBP. As an ATC I utilize all these techniques. Have you thought about incorporating transverse planar movement, such as single leg stance with open chain hip swings for increased talocrural self mobilization in the tranverse plane. Good mob for the closed chained ankle.

    Best,

    Dr. K

    • Ethan, absolutely, great thoughts! I tried to stick to mobility drills that enhance dorsiflexion specifically here but, yeah, I like it. Thanks for joining us here, hope to see you comment!

  2. One more question, Doc. What’s your personal impression of the self mobs with the voodoo straps, as shown in your one of your above clips. Is this a good way to achieve a multi planar mob? Are we adding in some ischemic compression here? I’ve seen Some PT cross fitters begin to use these straps everywhere on the body.

    Thanks for your reply

    Dr. K

    • They are popular now, for sure. Really trying to add another layer to self corrective exercises and combine with Mulligan-type mobilizations with movement.

      Have you tried them? Like other Mulligan techniques, when you have someone that has an active “pinch” during a movement and then add a band and it goes away, it must be doing something!

      Not sure if perfect for everyone but worth trying.

  3. Thanks, Mike. I watched a few Kelly Starrett videos for gaining terminal knee extension with the Strap. Strangely, I used to use rubber gloves to have a better skin contact when doing MWM. Maybe this is one variable in the outcome. I guess I’ll have to buy some and try them out!

    Thanks again.

  4. Thanks for the great videos. My wife broke her left ankle several years ago and has been bothered with it since. I hope that these exercises will help her out. When I help her stretch, it is very apparent that the right ankle is much more flexible than the left.

  5. Hey Mike,
    Like Ethan I’m a first time poster, but I’ve been following your site for a few years now. Great work all around by the way! Had a question about the banded dorsiflexion mobs: aren’t the bands encouraging a posterior glide of the tibia? Wouldn’t we want to encourage anterior glide of the tibia on the talus during dorsiflexion, as per the convex-concave rule? Or is this one of those tricks that just happens to work? I’m an AT student trying to place this with my understanding of talocrural arthrokinematics, so if i’m missing the point on this one please let me know.
    Thanks!

    • Andrew, you can actually perform the mobilization in either direction but just changing which way you face. I use both based on what I am trying to accomplish and what helps the person feel better when doing the movement.

      You are correct when you just apply the concave/convex rule. But that is for the perfectly normal joint!

      Mulligan will be the first to tell you to do what feels right.

      As to explain why that helps, there could be adaptations to things such as chronic ankle sprains etc that may change the alignement and mobility of the joint.

      One great Mulligan technique for inversion ankle sprains involves mobilizing the fibula posteriorly, which may happen with the band behind you. Essentially, inversion ankle sprains may cause a positional fault of the fib gliding anterior on the tib.

      Just one thing to consider.

      Thanks for finally commenting, hope to see you again!

      • Mike,

        Thanks for all your work on this site! Sorry for being so late to the discussion, but your reply will help others to learn as well.

        I had a question regarding the importance you stress when stretching/mobility for DF improvements in a subtalar neutral position. I understand the whole concept of subtalar neutral is still being defined and only a minuscule portion of the gait cycle is spent going through that position of the joint.

        However, when assessing joint mobility, the DF ROM deficits of patients with a wide variety of foot/ankle/hip/low back pathologies tend to appear WNL when the forefoot is allowed to over pronate. When the foot is maintained in ST neutral they tend to have marked limitation. Often times these patients have poor posterior talocrural mobility as well.

        So my question really is: would you try and have patients/clients maintain a more neutral position at the subtalar joint during mobilty drills and stretching or would you allow the to stretch into what some would call “dysfunctional” over pronation?

        Thanks in advance!

        Tim H.

        • Tim, great question. When I personally evaluate and treat someone, this is definitely something I consider. For the general self-mobility drills, it may be too complicated. Good thoughts!

  6. Mike,

    Thank you for taking the time to write back. I really appreciate it. I had never considered how bands could be used to address fibular glide in self mobs. Makes sense that anterolateral pinching could be reduced by mobilizing the fibula posteriorly this way. Thanks again for sharing this!

  7. Hi Mike,

    Great site. I have been troubled with what I now know as limited dorsiflexion pretty much since birth. I was born with CTEV during the early seventies and was I think maybe the first person to have been operated on in Australia for this condition by a gentlemen called Dr. Whiteway.

    I’m now on my early forties and find that my limited ankle mobility has caused an anterior pelvic tilt and possibly lumbar lordosis.

    In my youth I was a rather fit individual and these problems never seemed to cause bother but the years have gotten away from me. I now have two young children and drum in a band (of which this problem affects my both my foot technique and overall balance) I would like to try and rectify these problems and ask what reasonable chance do I have of improving ankle flexibility and reversing my tilted hip?

    I fear without any effort I’ll send myself to the grave much sooner or at least develop chronic back problems as I age.

    Cheers

  8. Thank you for sharing this Mike! I will try all these… I had Plantar Fasciitis in 2010, but it was completely healed through stem cell treatment. The therapy took 5 weeks and it was great. Doctor Purita was indeed an exceptional sports doctor… He was able to cure my pain and I never had problems with my ankle anymore.. Anyways, I am still in search for the appropriate exercise and I think these can help me… Thanks!

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  14. Hi,
    I’ve been dealing with some achilles tendonitis issues for about 4-5 months now. One of the things that the PT and I think is the issue is my range of motion in my ankles. Last time I went in he measured my right ankle (better ankle) at 12 degrees of flexion and my left ankle at 5 degrees. I have been doing some ankle mobilization exercises to hopefully improve my range. However while doing the 1/2 kneeling with a theraband I tend to get a popping sensation when I get to the wall from about 5 inches out. The popping isn’t really painful but feels odd/tight almost. The popping seems to be coming from the top part of my foot but I can’t really locate the exact location. Should I be worried about this?

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  18. Hey Mike,

    i would really appreciate if your could tell me what’s wrong with my ankle. It has been the most frustrating year of my entire life after tearing(not completely) my ankles anterior something something from landing on it in an inverted position. It has been a year already, and what has been bothering me is that I have a lack of dorsiflexion due to this sort of swelling on the inner side of my ankle. Also, when i perform a calf stretch, there will be a certain point at which i cannot further stretch my calf because there being a pinch and a feeling of an extemely tight muscle under the inner ankle. I’ve been able to train and everything, but my lack of dorsiflexion i fear would lead to another injury… any advice or help?

    Thanks alot.

    Zaref

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