If you’re athletic, your ankle joints are the most prone to injury, especially if you play a sport that involves jumping, changes in direction or uneven surfaces. Though you’re less likely to have a blowout in the weight room, maintaining optimal ankle health can benefit your strength training, allowing a greater range of motion in your lower legs, reduced stresses on your knee joints and improved squatting and deadlifting mechanics.
A program that includes stability and mobility elements is ideal for ankle training. And although these six exercises aren’t typical, rest assured they will work wonders, improving your athletic potential and keeping you out of elastic bandages in the long term.
Improves: Overall ankle mobility
It might not seem like it, but this exercise is as much about your ankles as it is your knees: Your ankle is the grounded pivot point around which the shin and knee travel, so proper 360-degree mobility is essential for injury prevention and optimal range of motion.
How-To: Stand with your feet together and place your hands on your knees. Bend your knees slightly, then guide them in a circular pattern, keeping your heels on the ground. Gradually increase the size of the circles as your knees and ankles loosen up. Perform two or three sets of 10 to 15 reps in both directions as a warm-up before a lower-body workout.
Foam Rolling Shins/Calves
Improves: Eversion mobility
When your tibialis posterior and peroneus muscles are tight they can cause your ankles to pronate (evert), which in turn causes your knees to track improperly, putting you at risk for injury. Using a foam roller on the side of the shin and calf region releases these muscles and promotes a greater range of motion at the ankle joint.
How-To: Get into a side plank supported on your elbow with your hips and legs stacked. Position the roller underneath your bottom shin and calf and lift your hips to align with your shoulders and feet. Roll slowly up and down along the outside of the calf, holding at points of tenderness. Do two minutes per leg for preworkout mobility.
Note: To correct supination (inversion), focus on rolling and releasing the gastrocnemius, soleus and tibialis anterior.
Wall Knee Touch
Improves: Dorsiflexion mobility
Most people have tight calves, which prevents them from properly flexing the foot. This simple move will give you immediate insight into your flexibility — and how much you need to improve.
How-To: Take a narrow, staggered stance in front of a wall with your forward foot flat on the floor. Slide that foot forward so your toes nudge the wall, and then stand tall. Without lifting your heel, bend your forward knee until it contacts the wall; hold briefly then return to the start. If you’re super flexible try placing your toes on a small plate or moving your foot back a couple inches so your knee has farther to travel. Do two sets of 12 to 15 touches per leg as a preworkout drill.
Improves: Dorsiflexion/plantarflexion mobility and strength
Walking on the heels may feel silly, but it’s one of the best ways to fire up the dorsiflexors, such as the tibialis anterior — an important player in squatting and sprinting mechanics. And walking on the toes can help stretch the muscles on the front of the legs and ankles — which can become tight from activities such as distance running — while also strengthening the arches and undersides of the feet.
How-To: Walk on your heels for 20 to 40 yards, then turn around and walk on your toes the same distance. Take short strides and try not to bend your knees. Repeat this sequence for three to five minutes during your warm-up. Also, try changing the position of your feet as you walk — toes straight, toes in and toes out — to hit the muscles in the shins all the way around.
Improves: Overall ankle stability
Having a firm stance is important when weight training, helping you to channel the power and force from the floor through your body and into the bar. This move teaches you to properly drive your feet into the ground while challenging your balance and stability in a functional way.
How-To: Hold a light kettlebell at your side in one hand and stand on either foot, knee slightly bent. Maintain an erect posture as you transfer the kettlebell slowly back and forth from one hand to the other in front of your body. Do three or four sets of 20 passes per leg anywhere in your workout.
Cable Toe Pull
Improves: Dorsiflexion strength and plantarflexion mobility
Unlike heel/toe walks, which are more of an isometric drill, this move is a dynamic combo of flexing and pointing your toes, moving the joint through a greater range of motion for increased strength and mobility.
How-To: Set a cable pulley to the lowest position and attach an ankle cuff. Lie faceup with your legs together and your feet near the pulley. Slip the toes of one foot into the cuff, allowing it to pull your toes down slightly. Lift your toes up as far as you can while keeping your leg straight on the floor. Pause for one or two seconds, then release and get a good stretch through the front of your leg as the cuff pulls your toes down again. Do three sets of 15 to 20 reps per leg before your workout.
See Also Building Bulletproof Knees
Four Ankle Functions
The ankle is a busy place, comprising several articulations and many different muscle origins and insertions. It has a much greater range of motion than a hinge joint such as your elbow, moving up, down, side-to-side and in rotation, and is therefore more prone to tweaking and twisting. There are four basic actions of the ankle.
Plantarflexion: The ability to point your feet or rise up onto your tiptoes
Dorsiflexion: The ability to flex your feet or lift your toes up off the floor
Inversion: Turning of the sole of the foot inward toward the midline of the body (supination)
Eversion: Turning of the sole of the foot outward (pronation)
The weakest of these actions is typically inversion, and “rolling your ankle” is the most common injury, comprising approximately 70 to 85 percent of all acute trauma instances in this joint.