Total-body fitness has become synonymous with gaining strength, improving balance, and boosting mobility, but ankles are often left out of the equation. It’s no secret that mirror muscles, like the abdominals, get the majority of the attention. However, it’s also important to train for function. That’s where ankle mobility comes into play.
Why Ankle Mobility Matters
In addition to improving your strength, mobilizing your ankles can help lessen your risk of injury. “A lack of range in the ankle joint will start to create a lot of decompressing on the other joints that are above it, like your knee, hip, and lumbar spine,” says Aaptiv Trainer Michael Septh. “It can even run all the way into the back of your neck, creating posture issues.”
Meg Julian, a trainer at AMP Fitness in Boston, agrees. “Ankle mobility is super important because your ankle is the first joint that actually connects to the ground,” she says. “If you’re doing a closed-chain exercise—an exercise against an immovable object, such as the ground—it’s the first joint that could potentially cause some problems if it’s not mobile enough.” Her advice: Avoid the ripple effect of pain. “While it’d be beneficial to work on your core, quads, back, and all those other muscle groups as well, if your ankles are off you’re just going to be working on symptoms rather than fixing the problem.”
Signs of Tight Ankles
Julian’s advice: Start with a simple test. “Stand with your big toe about four inches away from a wall while barefoot,” she says. “You should be able to keep your heel down but get your knee to touch the wall. If your mobility extends further, great, but anything less than four inches of mobility and you’re going to cause some kind of compensation.”
She recommends spending a few minutes each day practicing. “The best thing you can do is put a mark four inches away from the wall in your bathroom,” Julian instructs. “Twice a day, when brushing your teeth, place your toe four inches away, plant your heel, and work on stretching as your work your knee to the wall, pushing for 30 seconds before relaxing and repeating.”
Your pelvic tilt of the anterior tilt is another great tool to look at when determining if tight ankles are affecting you. “If somebody has that infamous ‘butt wink’ (the tuck when a pelvis rotates and slips under the body at the bottom of a squat), it’s best to start by working your way down the ladder,” Septh says. “A lot of the time, it’s not directly because something is wrong with the hip, but rather another joint that’s affecting it.” Another sign that your ankles could be tight: your knees or calves hurt. “If joints that are above and below are creating discomfort and pain, it’s usually because of a lack of mobility and range in the joint that it’s originating from,” he adds.
Movements for Mobility
Practice the following progressions to maximize on ankle mobility.
Half Kneeling Sequence
This movement allows you to work one leg at a time. If you’re starting on your left ankle, rest your back right knee on the ground—or on a pad—and position your left foot out in front of you. “Make sure [that] your heel is directly underneath your knee,” Septh says. “The reason you want to do this is to isolate the tissue in the joint of the ankle as best as possible. You want to work all three major angles that the ankle allows you to move in.”
“If you’re working your left foot first, press your knee forward at a 45-degree angle towards the left, keeping your back knee and hip stable. Go for ten to 15 reps, pushing forward as far as your range of motion will allow you and then back to the original position. Find a little more of a threshold every time you push, keeping the heel of your left foot anchored into the floor.”
Then, work your way straight down the midline. “Push straight, again looking for the same 12-15 reps, finding that end range,” Septh says. Next, work the external angle. “Now that you’ve worked internally, you have to work over your fifth toe—the big toe in this sequence. You want to push in a 45-degree angle towards the right, internally across the hip, and see where that range is before going through the same process of pushing a little further with each rep.”
Half Kneeling Sequence With Superbands
Progress from the half kneeling sequence by integrating superbands into your routine. Wrap the superband around the base of your ankle, anchoring the other end to a stable object, such as a pole or bench. Your superband should be of medium resistance—enough for you to feel the pulling motion without being so tight that you can’t find the proper range on your own. “The idea is that the added resistance forces a deeper pull, helping your ankle reach a range [that] you wouldn’t normally find on your own,” Septh says.
Instead of continually pushing reps in and out, squeeze in some isometric work. “Start at the end range you found pressing out on your own, and push a bit further,” he says. “Sit into it, holding the position for 45-60 seconds. This gives the tissue and ankle joint time to acclimate before getting out of the stretch.”
Hang Your Heels
Hang your heels off a step to target your calves. Hold for 30 seconds, repeating two to three times per foot.
Roll Your Ankles
“Arches can sometimes tighten and make ankles stiff,” Julian says. “Grab a lacrosse ball to roll your arches. It essentially works as a foam roller for your feet.” Having good foot support throughout the day can also help. Instead of slipping on flat shoes like flip-flops, go for sneakers with a more-pronounced arch.