Rehabilitation & Recovery

6 Best Ankle Exercises For Dorsiflexion Mobility

exercises for dorsiflexion

Poor ankle mobility that results in limited dorsiflexion of the ankle joint is very common.  

However, it can easily be addressed with specific exercises for dorsiflexion.  

Dorsiflexion is the action of bringing your toes up and towards your shin bone.  

The movement plays an important role during activities such as running, jumping, and squatting.

different ranges of motion

However, many people struggle with limited dorsiflexion, which can lead to injuries such as an ankle sprain.  

Having proper ankle mobility is crucial for overall lower body function and injury prevention.  


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Fortunately, there are several exercises you can do to improve your dorsiflexion and when performed often, they can help to increase your range of motion and improve your overall ankle flexibility.

What Is Dorsiflexion Of The Ankle?

Ankle dorsiflexion refers to the flexion of the foot towards the shin.  

It’s a movement that occurs at the ankle joint and when you suffer from limited ankle dorsiflexion this can lead to ankle mobility issues.

The level of ankle dorsiflexion tends to vary from person to person, and a common indicator of poor ankle dorsiflexion is that you may compensate for lack of mobility to your ankles by turning your feet outwards when walking and squatting down.  

The normal range of motion for ankle dorsiflexion is approximately 10-20 degrees.

However, different ranges of motion may be required for different activities.  

For example, a full range of motion may be required for deep squats whereas the degrees of dorsiflexion are likely to be much less during walking.  

Why Is Ankle Mobility Important?

Having proper ankle mobility is crucial for overall lower body function and injury prevention.  

Limited ankle mobility can lead to complications in other joints, which may lead to pain and discomfort.

Lack of ankle mobility can also affect balance and stability.  

balance and stability

This can make it harder to maintain proper form during exercise and other weight bearing activities including walking and jumping.  

When your ankle mobility is good, this allows for proper weight distribution helping to prevent falls and subsequent injuries.  

Maintaining good ankle mobility helps to ensure the health of the joint and its surrounding structures.

A lack of mobility can lead to joint stiffness, which may increase the risk of degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis over time.

Anatomy Involved In Dorsiflexion

The muscles responsible for dorsiflexion are in the anterior compartment of the lower leg.

These muscles include the anterior tibialis, extensor hallucis longus, extensor digitorum longus, and peroneus tertius. 

ankle anatomy

Anterior Tibialis

The anterior tibialis is the primary muscle involved in ankle dorsiflexion.

It’s responsible for lifting the foot and controlling the speed of foot descent during walking or running.

Shin Bone

The shin bone, also known as the tibia, is the long bone in the lower leg that connects the knee to the ankle.

It forms the ankle joint with the talus bone, which is located at the top of the foot.

Hinge Joint

The hinge joint allows dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, which is the opposite movement of dorsiflexion.

Achilles Tendon

The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body.

It connects the calf muscles, which are responsible for plantar flexion, to the heel bone.

The achilles tendon also helps to stabilize the ankle joint during dorsiflexion.


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Big Toe

The big toe plays a crucial role in dorsiflexion and is responsible for initiating the movement during walking or running.

Ball Of The Foot

The ball of the foot, located at the bottom of the foot, also plays a role in dorsiflexion by providing stability during the movement.

Plantar Fascia

The plantar fascia is a thick band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot.

It helps support the arch of the foot and provides stability during dorsiflexion.

In conclusion, dorsiflexion involves several muscles, bones, and connective tissues.

Understanding the anatomy involved in dorsiflexion can help you perform exercises more effectively and prevent injuries.

What Causes Limited Ankle Dorsiflexion?

Here are some common factors that can contribute to limited ankle dorsiflexion and a reduced ankle range of motion:

Muscular Tightness

Stiff or tight calves can restrict ankle dorsiflexion.

These muscles connect to the achilles tendon and can limit the range of motion if they are not adequately stretched or have become shortened due to lack of flexibility or prolonged periods of inactivity.

achilles tendon stretch

If you spend much of your day sitting, such as when working at a desk, this can lead to a shortening of the calf muscles which may lead to poor ankle mobility.  

It’s a good idea to ensure you take regular breaks away from your desk.  

Ankle Joint Stiffness

The ankle joint itself may become stiff due to factors such as previous ankle injuries, repetitive strain, or conditions such as osteoarthritis and shin splints.

Stiffness can result in the build-up of scar tissue and joint inflammation.  

This in turn can reduce the joint’s ability to move freely.

Ligament or Soft Tissue Restrictions

An ankle injury, such as a sprain, can lead to damage or scarring of the ligaments surrounding the ankle joint.

This can result in tightened or shortened ligaments that restrict ankle dorsiflexion. 

ankle injury

Additionally, tightness or restrictions in other soft tissues, such as the tendons or fascia, can also contribute to limited ankle mobility.

Even calf injuries and knee injuries can restrict movement to the ankles.  

Structural or Anatomical Factors

Some people may have anatomical variations or structural factors that affect ankle dorsiflexion mobility.

This could include bone spurs, abnormal bone alignment, or congenital conditions that affect the shape or structure of the ankle joint.

Poor Movement Patterns

Repetitive movements or activities that consistently require the ankle to be in a flexed or pointed position, such as when wearing high heels or participating in certain sports, can lead to adaptive changes in the ankle joint over time.

high heels reducing dorsiflexion

These changes could lead to limited dorsiflexion.

Exercises for Dorsiflexion

Improving dorsiflexion is essential to be able to properly perform exercises including squats, lunges, and deadlifts. 

exercises to improve dorsiflexion for lunges

The following exercises may help to increase ankle dorsiflexion allowing you to build strong ankles and leading to a good range of motion to the joints.

Deep Squat

When performing a static deep squat, you’ll need good mobility to the hips and a greater amount of ankle dorsiflexion.  

If you perform this exercise regularly, you can expect to increase the range of motion to your ankles leading to improved dorsiflexion over time.  

deep squat exercise
  1. From a standing position, place your feet so they are shoulder width apart with your toes pointing out slightly. 
  2. Hold your arms straight out in front of you so they are parallel to the ground. 
  3. Keep your head and chest up and heels flat on the ground throughout the exercise. 
  4. Bend at the knees and push your glutes back so you lower into the squat position.  
  5. Aim to keep your back straight and don’t allow your knees to cave in.  
  6. Get as low as can whilst ensuring your heels remain fixed to the floor. 
  7. Hold this position for as long as possible, ideally between 30 and 60 seconds.  
  8. When complete, push through your heels to ascend back to a standing position.  

Ankle circles

Ankle circles are a great way of warming up the ankles and when performed often can help to increase your mobility to the joints and may help to relieve stiffness.  

ankle circles
  1. Start by sitting on the ground with your legs outstretched.
  2. Place a small foam roller or a rolled-up towel under the ankle of the foot to be worked. 
  3. Position your hands on the ground for stability. 
  4. Rotate your foot at the ankle joint continuously for between 20 to 30 seconds. 
  5. Once complete, do the same again but moving in the opposite direction. 
  6. Next, repeat on the opposite foot.  

Bodyweight Calf Raise 

The calf raise, sometimes referred to as heel lifts, can contribute to improving ankle dorsiflexion.  

When you strengthen your calf muscles, this can increase stability and support to the ankles.  

Bodyweight Calf Raise
  1. Begin by standing on the edge of a step or other similar raised platform.  Your heels should be hanging off of the back. 
  2. Keep your feet hip width apart with toes pointing forwards. 
  3. Raise up on to your toes to contract your calf muscles.  
  4. Then slowly and with control, lower yourself back down but allow your heels to descend past the front of your feet. This activates dorsiflexion.
  5. Go as low as is comfortable for a full range of motion. 
  6. Continue this movement for 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.  

​Wall Lean Stretch

A wall lean stretch, also known as a wall ankle dorsiflexion stretch, is an exercise that targets the calf muscles and helps improve ankle mobility and dorsiflexion.

During the wall lean stretch, the front leg’s ankle dorsiflexes, allowing the knee to move forward over the toes whilst keeping the heel grounded. 

wall ankle stretch
  1. Find a wall or a sturdy vertical surface and stand facing towards it.
  2. Take a step forward with one foot, positioning it about a foot away from the wall.
  3. Keep your toes pointing forward and your heel firmly on the ground.
  4. Place both hands on the wall at shoulder height, shoulder-width apart, for support.
  5. Slowly lean your body forward, bending your front knee whilst keeping the back leg straight.
  6. Continue leaning forward until you feel a gentle stretch to the calf of the back leg.
  7. Hold this position for around 20-30 seconds.  
  8. Return to the starting position and repeat the stretch with the other leg.

Half Kneeling Dorsiflexion Stretch

The half kneeling dorsiflexion exercise is a mobility exercise that focuses on improving ankle dorsiflexion range of motion.

It involves placing one knee on the ground in a kneeling position while actively moving the front foot into dorsiflexion.

Half Kneeling Dorsiflexion Stretch
  1. Start by kneeling on an exercise mat (or other soft surface), placing one knee on the ground and keeping the other foot flat on the ground in front of you.  Your toes should be pointing forwards and knee directly above the ankle. 
  2. Keep your torso upright and brace your core for stability. 
  3. From here, slowly begin to lean forwards by shifting your weight on to your front foot. 
  4. Keep your knee in a straight line and continue moving forward until it passes over your toes.  
  5. Make sure you keep your foot flat on the ground throughout.  
  6. You should feel a stretch to your calf muscles.  
  7. Hold for a few seconds before returning to the start.  
  8. Repeat this for between 5 and 10 reps aiming to increase the range of motion each time. 
  9. Once complete, perform the same number of reps on the other side.  

Downward Dog March

The downward dog is typically a static yoga pose that helps to stretch out many muscles across the body.  

However, by incorporating the marching element helps to activate dorsiflexion of the ankle joints helping to increase mobility and flexibility.  

As your ankle dorsiflexion improves, you can position your hands closer to your feet which will increase the stretch.  

Downward Dog March
  1. Start in a push up position with feet resting on your toes and wrists under your shoulders. 
  2. Raise your hips pushing back your glutes until you are forming an upside V shape.  Make sure to keep your back straight.  
  3. Your heels do not need to be flat on the ground for this exercise. 
  4. Bend the knee of one leg so that it lowers towards the ground. 
  5. Then bring it back up and repeat with the other.  
  6. Keep doing this as a continuous motion as though marching.

Can You Improve Ankle Dorsiflexion?

Yes, you can improve ankle dorsiflexion through various exercises and techniques.  

In order to determine your current level of flexibility, it’s a good idea to perform an ankle mobility test.  

How To Do An Ankle Mobility Test:

  1. Start off by adopting a half kneeling position directly in front of a wall leaving a gap of around 5 inches between your toes and the wall.  
  2. Slowly lean forwards with the aim of touching the wall with your knee without your heel coming away from the floor.  
  3. If there is a gap of approximately 2 inches or more then you’d benefit from some ankle mobility work.  

Here are a few methods that may help to enhance your ankle dorsiflexion:

Ankle Mobility Exercises

Perform exercises that specifically target ankle mobility and flexibility.

The exercises suggested above can help to increase the range of motion and flexibility in the ankle joint.

Calf Stretches

Stretching the calf muscles, particularly the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, can help improve ankle dorsiflexion.

Examples of calf stretches include standing calf stretches against a wall, step stretches, and downward dog stretches.

Self-Myofascial Release (Foam Rolling)

Using a foam roller or massage ball on the calves and lower leg muscles can help release tension which in turn may lead to better ankle mobility.

Roll the foam roller or massage ball along the length of the calf muscles to target any tight or tender areas.

calf & ankle self myofascial release

Ankle Mobility Drills

Undertake specific drills and exercises that challenge ankle mobility, such as lunges with a focus on proper dorsiflexion, deep squats, and exercises that involve balance and stability, like single-leg balance exercises.

single leg platform step up with dumbbell

Gradual Progression

When working on improving ankle dorsiflexion, it’s important to start with gentle movements and gradually increase the intensity and range of motion.

Never force your ankles as this could result in injury.  

When the above exercises are performed on a regular basis, you’ll notice your range of motion beginning to increase which will allow for natural progression and continuous improvement to ankle mobility.  

Consistency and Persistence

Regularly incorporating ankle mobility exercises into your routine and practicing them often is important to seeing improvements.

Be patient and persistent, as increasing ankle dorsiflexion may take time depending on your starting point and individual circumstances.

Conclusion

By focusing on specific exercises for dorsiflexion you can make a significant impact on improving your ankle mobility and flexibility. 

Targeting the muscles and tendons involved in ankle dorsiflexion, such as the calf muscles and ankle joint, these exercises will help to increase your range of motion and alleviate any tightness to your ankles.  

Remember, if you have any underlying ankle conditions or concerns, it is advisable to seek guidance from a healthcare professional or physical therapist who can provide personalized recommendations based on your specific needs.

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