Ankle mobility is key for most movements in Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and competitive fitness (not to mention proper joint integrity for all individuals). Limited ranges of motion in the ankles are common among even the best of athletes. For some, limitations are structural (surgery, bone formations, etc) while others can address immobility through diligent and consistent stretching and mobility training.
In this article, we have designed an ankle mobility protocol to help lifters (1) address ankle mobility issues, (2) learn ankle mobility stretches and warm ups to include in a routine, and (3) provide a daily ankle mobility routine to help you get started.
Please note, that diagnosis of ankle mobility limitations can be tricky, as it may involve medical imaging if bone, ligament, or tendon issues are suspected. If you have had prolonged irritation and immobility of the ankle, please seek out a qualified medical practitioner. Note, that all of these exercises should be done without shoes, as shoes have a tendency to mask mobility issues in the first place (especially weightlifting shoes).
6 Ankle Mobility Stretches and Warm Ups
Below are six (6) stretches and warm up exercises you can do to help improve ankle mobility. Note, that the below stretches and warm ups do not address structural issues, and therefore are not the only way to address negative ankle ranges of motion. If you suspect structural issues (bone, ligament, tendon), be sure to seek out a qualified medical profession for imaging.
Knee to Wall Ankle Mobilization
The knee to wall ankle mobilization drill is not only a good “test” to see if ankle mobility is an issue in movements, but it is also a good exercise to offer quantitative feedback as to your progress and individual asymmetries. Start by taking a knee, with the front foot (toes) about 2 inches away from the wall. With the front heel planted, try to shift your knee towards the wall, having it come past the toes. If you cannot do this, either for (1) pain, or (2) tension in the back of the ankle/calf, you have a definitive answer that your ankle mobility is a limiting factor. You can use soft tissue, manual massage, and mobility training to increase movement. In the event you can however, pass the knee over the toes toward the wall (even touching it), this suggest ankle mobility may not be your limiting factor, and hence you should look elsewhere (such as the hips) to solve you movement problems.
Plantar Fascia Rollout
Taking a lacrosse ball or another hard object to the sole of the foot can help to improve ankle mobility and foot discomfort, often seen in physically active individuals. By rolling, scraping, or applying pressure to the bottom of the foot you can target fascia on the bottom of the feet that may be contributing to immobility of the toes, foot, and ankle. I personally recommend using the edge of a step (stairs), as you can scrape your foot on the edge of the stair with ample amounts of pressure in even amounts across the foot.
Big Toe Stretch
The big toes (as well as all the toes) can be stretched to increase flexibility of the bottom of the feet, which if immobile can negatively affect ankle mobility. This can be done when seated, standing, or even in the bottom of the squat. I recommend performing this after rolling out the plantar fascia and/or after exercise. To do so, simply bend the big toes back (and other toes) until you feel the stretch on the bottoms of the feet. I prefer doing this with the heel on the ground (either in a standing or squatted position, or combined with the knee to wall stretch below), as I generally feel more of a stretch on the bottom of the foot and across the back of the ankle.
Standing Calf Stretch
Something as simple as the standing calf stretch can work wonders for athletes with ankle mobility and knee pain. Tight calves can limit the amount of hamstring flexibility which can impact ankle, knee, and hip movement. Some of those issues can then show themselves at the ankle, restricting normal function and movement that can then place strain and tension on the knee and/or hip. Stand with the knee straight and drop the heel towards the floor (by standing on a ledge, a stair, weight plate, etc), allowing the calves to be stretched (you can also do this with a mild knee bend as well).
Barefoot Squat / Squat Sitting
While performing ankle mobility is key, athletes must also learn how to feel connected and find proper balance to the floor while in squatting and lunging movements. Barefoot squats, squat sits, lunges, etc are all good options to help lifters address ankle instability (which can then turn into the body limiting range of motion for protection of the joint). By increasing mobility and movement with stretches, soft tissue manipulation, and mobility exercises, lifters can then address neurological balance and coordination issues that can also attribute to lack of control at the ankle joint (which, if the body cannot control a joint, it most likely will restrict movement at and around the joint). Additionally, by increasing stability at the ankle, you can minimize micro-trauma under loaded and repetitive movements which can lead to increased inflammation and scar tissue build up, both of which can also impede joint mobility.
Calf Foam Roll
Active release of the calves (and hamstrings) can help to increase blood flow to the muscles and restore movement in some cases, especially in athletes who train aggressively (running, double unders, box jumps, etc). Like most of these exercises on this list, foam rolling is only one small piece of the solution.
Sample Ankle Mobility / Warm Up
Below is a sample ankle mobility warm up that can be done prior to lifting or running. I personally have used this on a regular basis to address limited ankle mobility for weightlifting and general fitness (bad ankles due to years of football and motorcycle accident).
- Foam Roll (Calves, Tibialis Anterior, Quads, and Hamstrings): 4-5 minutes total
- Plantar Fascia Rollout: 1-2 minutes per foot
- Big Toe Stretch combined with the Knee to Wall Ankle Mobilization Drill (with lacrosse ball or edge or wall): Hold this position for 30 seconds, then do 8-10 light repetitions going in and out of a deeper stretch, then switch. To do this simply take a lacrosse ball and place it under your big toe while performing the knee to wall ankle drill from above. I personally recommend doing this in a doorway. To do this, place yourself at the right side of the door, with your left leg forward. Take your left big toe and place it on the edge of the door frame (at the base), so that it is getting stretched while the other toes are in the doorway. With the left heel is planted, simply take your left knee out towards the second or third toe (so that it can go through the doorway, just to the side of the door frame).
- Barefoot Squats / Squat Sit / Cossack Squat: 2-3 minutes. Before I throw on my lifting shoes, I will perform a barefoot bodyweight squat sit, rocking side to side and taking notes in any ankle/knee/hip tightness. I typically sit there for about a minute, then will shift side to side, pressing the knees out to open up the hips. I will then move into a barefoot Cossack squat which can help to add some directional mobility as well.
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