Foot and ankle mobility is a bit like clean drinking water: We take it for granted and don’t truly appreciate its value until we lose access to it.
While seeking to improve ankle mobility or stability isn’t sexy in and of itself, at least not in the same way having a big clean & jerk or snatch might be, functional ankles and feet go a long way in helping you achieve better positions during your squat, clean, snatch, etc. And improving it can certainly push your lifting prowess to a whole new level.
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9 Exercises to Improve Foot and Ankle Mobility
Have tight calves?
Sometimes tight calves are part of the reason your ankles also feel immobile. Two great exercises to loosen up the calves, especially after a day with a lot of running or jumping, are:
1. Calf and Achilles Barbell Mash
Sit down and place your calf on top of a barbell loaded with plates, so the barbell can roll.
Place one calf on the barbell just behind your knee. Place downward pressure into the barbell, so you give yourself a deep massage. Shop around for some sticky-feeling spots by moving laterally ever so slightly and maintaining downward pressure into the barbell.
Slowly roll the barbell underneath you so the barbell is positioned slightly lower on the calf. Repeat. Keep going down your calf until you’re all the way down at your Achilles tendon.
- Take 2 minutes to massage each leg.
2. Dowel Sit
Another option is to achieve the same as above is a dowel, or barbell. sit. However, if you have knee pain, then stick with the barbell mash.
Place a dowel, or light barbell, behind your knee and then sit down on your shins so that your knees are in full flexion. Use your hands to control how much of your bodyweight and pressure you apply into the dowel. Then, just like the barbell mash, slowly move the dowel down your calves and eventually into your Achilles, each time shopping around for those sticky spots.
- Take 2 minutes to work the dowel all the way down from the top of your calves to your ankles.
But what about inflexible ankles?
If you have experienced a sprained ankle or an Achilles rupture, for example, chances are your ankle mobility isn’t going to win you any awards any time soon.
As someone who had my Achilles surgically repaired a decade ago, I still have to stretch my ankles and Achilles really well before feeling comfortable with jumping movements, or movements that require a lot of ankle flexibility, such as pistols.
Two exercises I include in my warm-up are:
3. Weighted Ankle Stretch
Get into a lunge position and then drive your weight forward into your front knee. Place a weighted plate (I use 25 pounds) on top of your front knee. Keep your foot flat and push your knee forward so your ankle, Achilles, and calf feel a deep stretch. Then pulse back and forth, attempting to push the range of motion a little bit each time.
- Spend one minute stretching each ankle.
4. Banded Ankle Flexion and Extension
Anchor a band and place your foot in the other end of the band, so that the band increases in tension as you pull your toes toward your body into dorsiflexion. Hold for two seconds. Release. Repeat.
Then switch the position of your foot so that the band is across the top of your foot and increases in tension when you push your toes away from you into plantar flexion. Hold for two seconds. Release. Repeat.
Finally, do the same laterally, so your ankle moves inward and outward.
For each of the above, try to gain as much range of motion as possible.
- Complete 10 reps of plantar flexion, dorsiflexion, as well as laterally on both feet.
Have unstable feeling ankles?
5. Ankle CARS (controlled articular rotations)
Sit down and put one leg on top of your other knee so it rests comfortably. Then begin rotating your ankle in big circles, trying to get into each corner as much as you can. The idea here is to gain more usable range of motion on your own without using your hand. This will help strengthen, and increase stability, in your ankles in each direction.
- Complete 10 slow rotations (10 seconds per rotation) in each direction on each foot.
6. Single-Leg Box Stand
Stand on the edge a low box on one leg so that the outside of your foot is hanging off the box. Balance there for one minute. You will feel all the small muscles in your foot working overtime to stabilize and prevent you from falling off the box. Then switch it up. Move to the other side of the box, so the inside of your foot is hanging off the box. Stabilize and balance. Switch feet and repeat.
- Spend one minute in each position on each foot.
What about the big toe?
The big toe plays a bigger role in your daily life than you probably think. You need it to arch your foot, to absorb shock, and for propelling yourself forward.
This means if you injure or lose mobility in your toe, your walking will change and become less stable, and if this becomes a chronic thing you can wind up with all sorts of problems elsewhere in your body.
As for mobility, you should be able to achieve approximately 65 degrees of big toe extension unassisted. This effectively means you should be able to isolate your big toe and pull it toward your body into a 65 degree angle from your foot, without using your hands. And when you do use your hands, or you use a wall to pull your toe into extension, you should be able to achieve a 90 degree angle from your foot.
Two exercises to increase big toe flexibility and control:
7. Toe Lifts
Sit in a chair or a bench with your feet flat on the ground, shoulder width apart. Isolate your big toe and raise it off the ground as high as you can, but make sure your other toes and your entire foot remains flat on the ground. Hold for two seconds.
Now keep the big toe on the ground and lift your other four toes off the ground as high as you can. Hold for two seconds.
- Go back and forth 20 times. Then switch feet.
8. Classic Toe Stretch
Find a wall. Keep your foot on the ground, but place your toes on the wall, so as to pull them into extension. Gently press into the wall to get into a deeper stretch. Hold for five seconds and relax.
- Repeat 10 times on each foot.
What about the arches?
The bottom of your foot is another forgotten area of the body, although it shouldn’t be. It takes a beating everyday simply from supporting your body any time you’re standing up, so it, too, deserves from love.
One great exercise I like is a lacrosse ball massage.
9. Lacrosse Ball Massage
Place the bottom of your foot on a lacrosse ball and knead it around, releasing any tight areas.
- Spend two minutes per foot massaging your arch.