Build stability and strength in your ankles with these expert-approved moves.
Ankles are often an overlooked piece of the puzzle when it comes to training, but they are one of the most common injury zones for athletes. The classic injury is a sprained ankle. That's when the ligaments that connect one bone to another (in this case, the ones that connect the tibia and fibula to the calcaneus and talus bones) are torn. Depending on their severity, these injuries can take a while to recover and usually reduce the stability of the joint even after the injury has healed. Foot and ankle strengthening exercises can help you prevent these injuries before they happen.
By strengthening the joint with ankle exercises, you can develop bulletproof ankles that not only have ideal stability, but also improved mobility. Healthy ankles also have benefits beyond your feet. For example, ankles have a major impact on your standing posture and gait, and weak ankles can create unbalanced stress forces on your knees, hips, and even your lumbar spine. Keeping your ankles healthy also helps these other areas of your body.
Anatomy of the ankle
Anatomically, the ankle refers to the area where the foot meets the lower shin. The protuberances we all refer to as the ankles on each foot (those knobbly bumps on either side of our heels) are called the lateral and medial malleolus — a fancy anatomical term to refer to the lower ends of our shinbones, the tibia and fibula define.
The muscles and connective tissues that surround this joint are essential to ankle stability, and if you want healthy joints, it's important to keep them strong.
The soleus muscle: The soleus is located low in the calf, near the bottom half of the lower legs. It acts as a tremendous stabilizer for the lower leg (since it's an underlying muscle that's basically always working). It's a crucial and often ignored element of lower leg development.
The anterior tibialis muscle: When people talk about ankle mobility and strength, they often think of ways to plantar flex the foot (toes pointing down and away from the leg), but rarely do they think of the ability to dorsiflex (bring the toes up, closer). on the foot). shin). The anterior tibialis is located on the front of the shinbone and is responsible for pulling the toes up. Strengthening this movement is important to encourage full range of motion in the ankle, and it is also critical to the health of other joints, particularly the knees. When someone has knee problems and a history of knee pain, they often lack mobility and strength caused by poor dorsiflexion at the ankle.
The Plantar Fascia: Although the plantar fascia is not a muscle, it is just as important to ankle strength and health as the overlying muscles. The fascia is largely responsible for the resting position of the foot, which can be an important indicator of which parts of the body are particularly stressed or are more prone to injury. The ankle is one of the first joints to be affected by footrest misalignment.
The gastrocnemius muscle: General calf strength is useful for getting stronger ankles because both heads of the gastrocnemius (aka the calf muscle) share a common tendon: the Achilles tendon. Their strength and tissue quality affect the overall strength and stability of the ankle.
The top 5 exercises to strengthen the ankle
It is important to consider the mobility, stability and strength of the ankle when training the joint. Each of the following ankle strengthening exercises bring something unique to the table to help create healthy ankles, and together they work on all sides of the joint.
1. heel step
This movement creates a good burn to start your lower body workout. It helps improve ankle mobility by strengthening the anterior tibialis, the main muscle involved in dorsiflexion.
How it goes:
To perform this move, simply walk on your heels while keeping your toes off the ground. Raise your forefoot as high as possible. Walk forward with small, short steps for 30 to 60 seconds. Then perform the same movement, but this time keep your toes pointing both in and up. Finally, do the same walk again, but keep your toes pointing out and up. Performing a set of each foot position is a great warm-up.
Nattapong Wongloungud/EyeEm/Getty Images
2. Seated calf raises
Seated calf raises differ from standing calf raises in that the knee is already bent to begin with; This takes the gastrocnemius muscles out of the picture to bring focus to the soleus. These muscles are designed for long endurance work (they're always working to help us walk and stand). Because of this, the soleus muscles respond well to high-rep sets. The ankles also benefit, as stronger soleus muscles make the joint more durable and stable.
If you don't have a seated calf raise, this movement can be performed seated with a pair of heavy dumbbells or other weights placed securely on the knees. Ideally, you should rest the balls of your feet on a block or step to allow your heels to sink further down, but it's okay if you also do this movement with your feet flat on the floor.
How it goes:
Sit down and place the weights on your knees. Your knees should be bent 90 degrees and your toes should be turned out about 15 degrees. Drift your heels toward the floor until you feel a stretch in your calves. Then drive the balls of your feet down and raise your heels as high as possible. This is a repeat. Focus on doing 3 to 4 sets of 20 to 30 reps.
3. Jump rope
The problem most people encounter when it comes to making ankles more durable? Doing too much too soon. Jumping rope allows you to strengthen ankles with lower impact forces.
How it goes:
Aim to finish a workout with 60 seconds on and 60 seconds off jump rope intervals for a total of 6 to 8 intervals. You also get a great calf workout as a bonus.
Cavan Images/Getty Images
4. Lacrosse Ball Rollers
Treating the tissue quality of the sole of the foot can work wonders to improve ankle mobility and relieve chronic pain in and around the feet. This movement focuses on the plantar fascia on the bottom of the foot.
How it goes:
Sit in a sturdy chair and place a lacrosse ball under your bare foot. You can apply a little more pressure underfoot by leaning on the thigh or knee of the working leg. Press on the ball of your foot with your foot and roll it back and forth from heel to toe. Try to cover as much area across the bottom of the foot as possible, which may require you to roll the ball in different directions, not just forward and backward. Focus on rolling 3 minutes per foot. Perform this movement before your workout begins or after it's over.
Ben Haslam/Getty Images
5. Dumbbell squats with heels elevated
The heel lifted dumbbell squat isn't by itself a solution to ankle immobility, but it's a great way to access ankle range of motion while the knee is fully bent, and it's significant. Most people with ankle immobility never have the opportunity to experience a full, deep squat due to the demands they would place on their center of gravity. As a result, they cannot bear a load through deep dorsiflexion or knee flexion areas of the ankle. Raising the heels places the ankles in a flexed position to begin the lift while the body is upright, giving the ankles more room to dorsiflex as the butt moves down. In short, everyone gets a deeper squat by putting their feet on an inclined board. Using a tight stance also amplifies the benefits for ankle mobility. Also, the quads get hit hard.
How it goes:
Grab two dumbbells, one in each hand, and stand up straight on an incline board. Point your toes slightly further out than your heels. Remember, since your heels are already raised higher than your toes, you don't need to lift them off the board when you squat. Maintain pressure over the entire foot. Hold the dumbbells by your sides like briefcases and try to stay as vertical as possible as you descend to the full depth. To maintain your vertical alignment, imagine placing the weights next to your ankles. Focus on sets of 10 to 15 reps.
(te: the image above does not show a squat with heels elevated.)