Are ankle mobility issues limiting your ability to train effective, or worse, predisposing you to injuries? Here are 10 exercises to help you improve your ankle mobility quickly and effectively.

These drills will address potential joint restrictions, soft tissue tone and tightness, and of course teach you how to incorporate movement to solidify your new found ankle mobility. Stop letting ankle mobility restrictions hinder your movement, address them intelligently with these tools for short term function and long term solutions.

Problems In Your Big Lifts? Don’t Overlook Ankle Mobility

Squatting and hip hinging are great movements for creating strength, power, and improving injury resiliency.  Any type of squat, deadlift, or lunging variation are typically found in most training programs ranging from the Olympic athlete to the average Joe. When performed with proper technique, they can bring added benefit to most people’s exercise routines. What do these staple movements also have in common? The need for clean and crisp ankle mobility and stability.

squat deadlift

Those movements work at developing strength and power through the hamstrings, quadriceps, adductors, and gluteal muscle groups.  

One area of the lower body kinetic chain that often times goes unnoticed is the ankle. Even though the aforementioned movements are either hip or knee dominant movements, the ankle can be the linchpin of dysfunction which can create positive adaptations or create havoc farther up the kinetic chain.

As stated by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle in the Joint by Joint Approach, the ankle, specifically, the talocrural joint, needs to be a mobile joint in the sagittal plane. If it is not mobile, then other adjacent areas such as the midfoot or knee can and will compensate to adjust for that lack of mobility.  

joint by joint approach

For squatting variations, ideally, 40 degrees of dorsiflexion is needed for adequate ankle mobility.

A quick and simple way to test for this is to perform the Knee to Wall Test. Check it out below:

Here’s how to perform this simple test in a little more detail.

Place your foot on a tape strip that is 4 inches away from the wall.  With your foot in a neutral position, attempt to touch your knee to the wall without going into valgus or varus collapse. Do not let your heel come off the ground.

If you can perform this without letting the knee move medially/laterally OR letting your heel come off the ground, you have the pre-requisite ankle mobility to be performing lower body training.

The Origins of Ankle Mobility Restrictions

Now, the majority of people do not have adequate ankle mobility.  There can be a few reasons for that including bony limitations, decreased joint mobility at the talocrural joint or tibiofibular joint. It could also be caused by increased soft tissue tone in soleus, flexor hallicus longus, flexor digitorum or posterior tibialis muscle groups. 

But to organize the different presentations and origins of mobility restrictions, lets review these one by one in greater depth starting with bony limitations.

Bony Limitations

There can be osteophyte, aka “Bone Spurs”, that have formed in joint spaces or near the joints of the foot and ankle that can create limitations to ankle dorsiflexion mobility.  The only way to determine for sure if there is bone limiting mobility is through radiographic imaging aka x-ray.

If you do have some type of bony limitation in ankle dorsiflexion, stop trying to foam roll or lacrosse ball your way out of it.  The only way to change ankle mobility due to a bony limitation is through surgery.

Joint Mobility Limitations

The two common areas that we see for joint mobility limitations are at the talocrural joint aka the ankle and the tibiofibular joint.  The tibiofibular joint is where the tibia meets the fibula.  Now, most people know that if a joint, for example the ankle, doesn’t move, then that can cause issues.  But what about if a joint that isn’t the “ankle”, doesn’t move for example the tibiofibular joint.  

Well, there are other adjacent joints to the talocrural joint that need to be able to move as well and one of the those is the tibiofibular joint.  Albeit a small amount of motion, if motion is limited here, this can create a sensation of “pinching” or increased pressure at the front of the ankle when performing the knee to wall test.  

There needs to be slight internal rotation of the tibia during dorsiflexion to allow for the talus to clear the distal end of the tibia.  If the tibia can’t internally rotate, slightly, then the talus can jam into the distal end of the tibia creating a limitation in joint mobility.

If you feel a “pinching” or pressure at the front of the ankle when performing  the knee to wall test, then that is indicative of a joint mobility limitation.

Here are a few ways to improve joint mobility at the ankle:

Banded Ankle Mobilization

Key Points:

  • Place band at ankle joint line, at the level between medial and lateral malleoli
  • Place a considerable amount of tension through the band.
  • Bring knee anteriorly without letting heel rise off ground
  • Perform for 8-10 reps w/ 2-3 sec hold.
Self-Ankle Mobilization

Key Points:

  • Place web of hand at level of ankle between medial and lateral malleoli.
  • Push from front to back, or anterior to posterior as you bring your tibia anteriorly.
  • Perform for 8-10 reps w/ 2-3 sec hold.
Self Tibial Internal Rotation (IR) Mobilization

Key Points:

  • Place hands around superior aspect of tibia.
  • Compress with moderate force.
  • Internally rotate tibia as you translate tibia anteriorly.
  • Do not go into valgus collapse.  Do not perform if knee pain present with thi.
  • Perform for 8-10 reps.

Then re-test your ankle mobility using the knee to wall test.  If there has been an improvement as compared to the pre-test, then you hit the right spot.  Continue working on those mobilizations until you can reach the wall.

Increased Soft Tissue Tone

During the knee to wall test, if you feel a “tightness” or stretching in the back of your calf/achilles and cannot touch the wall from the 4 inch mark, then that is most likely due to increased soft tissue tone in the posterior aspect of the lower leg. There are various muscles that can limit ankle dorsiflexion such as the Flexor Hallucis Longus, Flexor Digitorum Longus, Soleus and Tibialis Posterior as shown below.

anatomy of lower leg
I did not mention Gastrocnemius because that only limits dorsiflexion when the knee is extended.  The four muscles mentioned above limit dorsiflexion when the knee is flexed which is important during training.

To improve ankle mobility when limited by soft tissue tone, try performing Hands-On Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) Techniques by Dr. John Rusin:

You can also perform SMR with a lacrosse ball or baseball. Check out the execution below:

When performing SMR with a lacrosse ball or baseball, use the ball and roll around to find particularly tender spots.  Then, hold on that particular spot and move the ankle through dorsiflexion and plantarflexion. Perform this directly on the back of the lower leg as well as medially and laterally.

Now, retest the knee to wall test. If your ankle dorsiflexion mobility has normalized, we want to perform a dynamic warm-up that will incorporate some ankle mobility drills.  Those include:

Knee to Wall Ankle Mobilization
Plate Ankle Mobilizations

Incorporating a motor control exercise to maintain that “new” mobility is important as well.  This next movement I saw Dr. Ryan DeBell from The Movement Fix performing.

Here is another video as well on how to perform it:

Follow Up Passive Modalities with Active Movement

This will help to re-train the nervous system to be able to control and stabilize in this “new” mobility.

Now, what happens if either your knee to wall test improved, but it’s not to 4 inches OR it did not improve?

Well, long term, if it doesn’t improve to the 4 inch mark on the knee to wall test, then seek out a qualified manual therapist (PT, sports chiropractor, massage therapist, athletic trainer, etc.) to perform some manual therapy.

Short term, this does not mean you can’t train and have a training effect.  We just need to modify some movements so that we aren’t pushing a square peg into a round hole and placing yourself at risk for injury.

Training The Squat Pattern

With most squat variations, the person performing it needs an adequate amount of dorsiflexion for proper tracking of the knee, hips, and neutral alignment of the lumbar spine.

Here are some various movements that someone with a decreased amount of dorsiflexion can perform AS LONG AS their technique throughout the entire kinetic chain looks good.

Box Squats

Key Points:

  • Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Sit back towards the box.
  • Extend hips at top of movement.
Goblet Box Squats

Key Points:

  • Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Sit back towards bench/box.
  • Sit onto box but do not lose neutral spine posture.

Goblet Squat to Box

Key Points:

  • Make sure to maintain a neutral spine.
  • Push hips back towards the box.
  • A vertical or close to vertical shin will minimize the effect of limited ankle mobility.

Olympic Lifting Shoes For Ankle Mobility Restrictions?

Many people ask about incorporating olympic lifting shoes when performing squats if they have limited ankle dorsiflexion.  What the shoe does is it places the ankle in slight plantarflexion.  By doing this, it allows for more range of motion because the ankle is starting in plantarflexion.  

As someone descends into the squat, they go from a bit of plantarflexion into dorsiflexion and in turn allow for more dorsiflexion range of motion because of them starting in plantarflexion vs. just in dorsiflexion.

They can be a tool to allow someone to receive a training effect when they may be limited in ankle dorsiflexion.  Long term, addressing the cause of the limited range of motion rather than using an implement to work around it would be a better solution.

Another way to receive a training effect is by placing weight plates or a small board under your heels while squatting.  This is done for the same reason someone may wear olympic weightlifting shoes.

Goblet Squat with Weight Plates

Key Points:

  • Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Squat down between the hips.
  • Drive the knees out.
  • Extend hips when standing up to the top.

Training The Deadlift Movement Pattern

The deadlift is another great lower body movement. Depending on who you speak to, some will say that ankle dorsiflexion is not a limiting factor when it comes to performing the deadlift. I will agree that the deadlift does not require as much dorsiflexion motion as a squat. But, in order for someone to get down to the bar and into their setup, the tibia needs to be able to translate anteriorly (dorsiflexion).  Once the person is in position, then they can finish their set-up and pull with a vertical shin.

If someone can’t get into their set-up position and pull from the floor safely and with good form, then modifications will need to be made.

Some of those modifications can include choosing a different type of deadlift variation.  Variations such as:

Trap Bar Deadlift

Key Points:

  • Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Sit back and keep a vertical shin.
  • Drive heels through the floor.
  • Extend hips at the top.
Sumo Deadlift

Key Points:

  • Push hips back as you go down to bar.
  • Maintain a vertical shin and a neutral spine.
  • Drive feet through the ground.
  • Extend hips at top.
Rack Pulls

Key Points:

  • Approach the bar and have bar against shins.
  • Sit back and maintain a neutral spine.
  • Keep bar close to your body.
  • Extend hips at the top.

If you cannot maintain proper form with a deadlift and have limited ankle dorsiflexion, trying some of these variations can still help you maintain a training effect.

There you have it!  If you have limited ankle mobility due to any of the various reasons mentioned above and still want to maintain a training effect, give these tips a try!

About The Author

andrew millett

Andrew Millett is a practicing physical therapist in the field of orthopedic and sports medicine physical therapy.  He helps to bridge the gap between physical therapy and strength and conditioning.  By evaluating and treating his clients using multiple lenses, such as the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), the main goal for all of his clients are for them to move and feel better and to keep their body functioning at high levels.
Learn more from Andrew on his website