How To Improve Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility with Movement 101

Drs. Jeff Langmaid and Jason Deitch

Founder DCs, The Smart Chiropractor

Maintaining Your Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility Matters

Dorsiflexion plays a vital role in how our feet, ankles, and legs behave and interact with the environment around us.

Dorsiflexion allows the knee and tibia to move seamlessly over the foot and ankle in closed and open chain movements.

Three Young Athletes Perform a Static Forward Lunge to Help Improve Their Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility Following a Group Session of Ankle Dorsiflexion Stretches
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Movement Patterns

While the direct impact may seem more applicable for injury prevention in an athletic population, the functional component of dorsiflexion in day-to-day movement patterns is arguably more important.

Functionally, dorsiflexion is required for everyday movements like walking, jogging, crouching down, and efficiently rising from a seated position.

Know This

Inefficient ankle dorsiflexion may have a ‘bottom-up’ effect through the kinematic chain leading to poor biomechanics through the hips, trunk, and entire torso.

Consider the gait cycle as we walk.

For a brief moment, both of our feet are in contact with the ground in what is called the ‘stance’ phase.

In the front foot during this phase, the tibia should continue to move forward over the talus into dorsiflexion.

Know This

If the ankle does not have adequate dorsiflexion, the body attempts to achieve it and compensate in various ways.

For example, the knees may cave inward, or the hips may be hypermobile.

These circumstances, and any dysfunction of the biomechanical chain, can result in discomfort and dysfunction, making assessment and improvement of ankle dorsiflexion a crucial part of injury prevention.

An Anatomical Overview of Ankle Dorsiflexion

The first step to improving your ankle dorsiflexion is understanding the basic anatomy of your ankle.

The Anatomy and Physiology of the Ankle

The ankle is a very humble part of your body.

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Still, it is one of the most complex joints.

Its unique design of the ankle gives it the ability to absorb and transfer forces during almost any activity.

This complexity makes is why it’s important for patients and clinicians alike to have a basic understanding of the structure of the bones, muscles, and ligaments before diving into its improvement.

The Bones of the Ankle

The ankle joint is comprised of three bones, two of which come from your lower leg (the tibia and fibula) and one from your foot (the talus).

A Non-Anatomical Close up of the Tibia and Fibula Bones Involved in Performing Ankle Dorsiflexion Movements
The Tibia and Fibula

The tibia establishes the part of your ankle that faces inward, and the fibula creates the part of your ankle that faces outward.

A Non-Anatomical Close-up of the Talus Bone (Ankle)
The Talus

The talus sits perfectly right between these two bones, like a wedge.

The Muscles of the Ankle

The majority of the muscles of the ankle originate from the lower leg, which is divided into compartments: the front (or anterior), the back (or posterior), and the side (or lateral).

The compartments contain the muscles responsible for moving your foot and ankle into different ranges of motion through tendons connecting them to different bones.

The Ligaments of the Ankle

When you think of muscles and tendons, you should think of flexibility and strength, but you should also think of stability when you think of ligaments.

Know This

Ligaments of any joint are crucial for maintaining stability.

The ankle joint alone contains at least seven different ligaments that provide this.

Knowing the purpose of these ligaments can help you understand the healthy limitations of your ankle joint before you seek to improve it.

The Ankle’s Different Ranges of Motion

There are four primary ranges of motion in the ankle controlled by muscles that extend from the leg into the foot: inversion, eversion, plantar flexion, and dorsiflexion.

The names of each of these ranges of motion may sound intimidating, but we’ve broken them down below.

Inversion

This motion is controlled by muscles in the leg’s back (or posterior) compartment.

Inversion occurs as the foot and ankle move inward and up and is the most common way an ankle is injured or sprained.

Eversion

The muscles responsible for this movement are in the side (or lateral) compartment.

Eversion is the opposite of inversion, involving the motion of the foot and ankle moving outward.

Plantar Flexion

This motion is controlled by two large muscles in your calf that reside in the back (or posterior) compartment called the gastrocnemius and soleus.

A Close Up of A Ballarina's Feet as She Stands on Her Tip Toes to Demonstrate the Concept of Plantar Flexion
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Plantar Flexion

These muscles begin in your lower leg and come together to form an impressive tendon, known as the Achilles tendon, that attaches to your heel.

Know This

Plantar flexion involves bringing your toes away from the rest of your body or pointing your toes and ankle downwards.

Dorsiflexion

This motion is controlled by muscles in the front (or anterior) compartment.

A Young Athletic Woman Pulls Her Foot Back Towards Her While Her Male Companion Holds Her Heel as Part of a Stretch Designed to Improve Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Dorsiflexion

Dorsiflexion requires flexibility in the Achilles tendon.

Know This

Dorsiflexion is then the opposite of plantar flexion and involves bringing your toes toward your body or flexing your toes and ankles upwards.

How to Self-Assess Your Ankle Mobility

Improving your ankle dorsiflexion first involves recognizing the degree to which it needs improvement.

Know This

The best way to evaluate your ankle mobility is to try evidence-backed approaches like the knee-to-wall or weight-bearing lunge tests. (1)

  1. To begin, start in a lunging position facing a wall.

  2. Place the foot of the non-kneeling leg a few inches away from the wall (we recommend no more than five).
  3. Lean on the front leg and drive your knee forward in a straight line over your mid-foot toward the wall.
  4. Make sure your knee is not caving in over your big toe or shifting outward over your little toe.

The goal is to have your knee cap touch the wall without shifting your foot forward.

If it contacts, your dorsiflexion is likely good.

If it doesn’t quite reach or you feel a significant stretch in the back of your calf, you may want to concentrate some effort on improving your ankle dorsiflexion.

How To Improve Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility

Now that you know the importance of ankle dorsiflexion and determine if it is an area where you should focus your efforts, you’re can try these simple stretches to improve your ankle dorsiflexion.

After each session, you can then retest yourself to see your ankle dorsiflexion and mobility has improved.

Ankle Dorsiflexion Stretches

Standing Soleus (Calf) Stretch

This stretch is similar to the test you used to determine if your dorsiflexion is limited.

An Adult Female Runner Performs an Achilles Stetch to Ensure Proper Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility Before Beginning a Long Run
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Calf / Achilles Stretch
Try It: Standing Soleus Stretch
  1. In a lunge position, load your body weight onto the front leg and lean forward in a straight line over the middle of your foot until you feel a stretch in the calf.
  2. Make sure your heel is firmly planted into the ground.

Hold this position for about thirty seconds on each leg and repeat as many times as you’d like until your calf feels loosened up.

An Achilles stretch is a lot like a calf stretch.

  1. Start by standing near a wall or other support, like a chair, with your hands on the wall at eye level.
  2. Place your left leg a step behind your right leg.
  3. Keep your left heel on the floor and bend your right knee until you feel a stretch in your left leg.
  4. Bend your back knee bent slightly to stretch your Achilles tendon.

Hold this position for about thirty seconds on each leg and repeat 2-4 times.

Foam Roller / Massage-Stick Assisted Soleus Release

This is perhaps the simplest to implement because if your dorsiflexion is limited, you may have tight calves.

A Young Asian Female Runner Pauses to Perform an Assisted Soleus Release with Her Massage Stick in an Effort to Ensure Proper Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility Before Her Run
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Assisted Soleus Release
Try It: Assisted Soleus Release
  1. While in a seated position, try placing your Achilles tendon, right above your ankle, onto a foam roller.
  2. In this position, move your ankle through plantar flexion and dorsiflexion, pointing your toes away from you and flexing them back towards you.
  3. Slowly move your foam roller or massage stick up your entire calf while pointing and flexing to make sure you are stretching the whole muscle and tendon.

You should feel a good stretch in your calf and Achilles tendon.

Towel / Band Ankle Stretch

This is another great and easy-to-perform stretch that can go a long way to releasing and relaxing the muscles surrounding the ankle joint.

A Mature Female Chiropractor Assists Her Young African American Peadiatric Patient in Peforming an Ankle Stretch with a Resistance Band as Part of a Care Plan Designed to Improver Her Patient's Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Band Ankle Stretch
Try It: Band Ankle Stretch
  1. Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you.
  2. Wrap a towel around your toes on both feet.
  3. Pull back slightly until you start to feel a stretch at the very bottom of your feet and the back of your lower legs.

Aim to hold this stretch for 30 seconds and repeat it 3 times total.

To do an inward towel stretch:

  1. Sit with your towel or band around your left foot.
  2. Firmly hold each end of the towel with your hands.
  3. Slowly turn your ankle inward, like you are facing the sole of your foot to the right.
  4. Then pull up with the right-hand side of the towel to deepen the stretch.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

To do an outward towel stretch:

  1. Sit with your towel or band around your left foot.
  2. Firmly hold each end of the towel with your hands.
  3. This time, slowly turn your ankle outward, like you’re facing the sole of your foot to the left.
  4. Then pull up with the left-hand side of your towel to deepen the stretch.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Again, try holding these stretches for 30 seconds and repeat them 3 times.

Cross-Leg Ankle Stretch

This stretch is particularly easy to do wherever you may be since no additional equipment or implements are needed.

You should feel this stretch on the front of your ankle and your foot.

A Woman Seated on Top of a Kitchen Counter Pulls Up a Chair and Her Socks as She Prepares to Perform a Few Cross Legged Ankle Stretches as Part of Her Continue Effort to Improve Her Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Crossed Leg Ankle Stretch
Try It: Cross-Leg Ankle Stretch
  1. Sit comfortably with your left leg crossed over your right knee.
  2. Hold your right foot with your hands.

  3. Then use your right hand to bend your left toes and ankle downward, like you’re pointing your toes.

Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Chair Pose

You may want to try some yoga poses to help stretch your ankles.

A Young Woman Performs Chair Pose Position During Her Yoga Workout in an Effort to Incorporate Movements to Help Her Improve Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Chair Pose
Try It: Chair Pose
  1. Stand up tall and inhale as your raise both of your arms overhead, palms inward.

  2. As you exhale, bend both of your knees slightly, working toward getting your thighs parallel with the ground.

  3. Your torso should make a right angle with the tops of your thighs.

>Try holding this pose for 30 seconds to a full minute.

To come out of it, inhale and straighten your knees.

Ankle Mobility Exercises

There are several basic exercises that you can perform to help improve your ankle dorsiflexion and mobility.

Try starting with the five outlined below after you’ve warmed up with the stretches above.

Ankle Circles

These circles help your range of motion, and you can do them sitting or lying down.

A Close Up of the Ankle of a Woman Peforming Ankle Cirlce Exercises as Part of a New Workout Plan That Includes Added Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility Improving Movements
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Ankle Cirlces
Try It: Ankle Circles
  1. Put a rolled towel or foam roller under your ankle.
  2. Turn your ankle slowly in circles, clockwise 10 circles, and counterclockwise 10 circles.
  3. Move just your foot and ankle, not your leg.

>Vary the stretch by tracing out the letters of the alphabet with your big toe.

Single Leg Balance Exercises

This exercise is particularly useful for strengthening the ankles supporting muscles.

Be sure to have a chair or wall nearby for support if you’re performing this exercise for the first time.

A Group of Young Male Runners Balance on One Another as they Perform a Combination Single Leg Balance and Quad Stretch to Help Ensure Proper Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Single Leg Balance
Try It: Single Leg Balance
  1. Stand on a flat surface with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Holding your arms out to your sides, stand on one foot.
  3. Do 1 or 2 repetitions per side.

Do this daily, and try to increase the number of seconds you can keep steady on each leg.

When you’re able to balance on one foot for 60 seconds, try the following variations:

  • Balance with your eyes closed.
  • Balance with your arms at your sides.
  • Balance standing on an unstable surface, such as a pillow, folded towel, or a balance disc.

Standing Heel Lifts

As you perform this exercise, remember that control is important for strengthening your muscles.

Also, be sure to have a chair or the wall nearby for support if you need it.

A Close-up of a Woman's Bright Red Sneakers as She Performs a Heel Lift Exercise to Ensure Proper Ankle Dorsiflection and Mobility Before She Embarks on a Run
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Heel Lifts
Try It: Heel Lifts
  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lift your heels off the floor so that you’re standing on the balls of your feet.
  3. Slowly lower your heels to the floor.
  4. Do 2 or 3 sets of 10 lifts each.

You can add resistance to this exercise by holding free weights while you lift your heels.

Ankle Flexion Exercises

This move uses a resistance band to strengthen your ankle as you point your toes down toward your heel (plantar flexion).

A College-Aged Man Peforms a Seated Ankle Flexion Exercise with a Resistance Band as Part of a New Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility Sequence in His Daily Workout
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Ankle Flexion Exercises
Try It: Plantar Flexion Exercises
  1. Sit on the floor with one leg bent at the knee, with your heel on the floor, and the other leg comfortably on the floor.
  2. Loop the band around the front of your foot, and hold both ends with your hands.
  3. Point your toes slowly forward and then back, releasing the tension.

Do 3 sets of 10 flexes on each foot, three days a week.

This exercise uses a stretch band to flex your ankle by pulling your toes toward you (dorsiflexion).

A Group of Young Coeds Performs Ankle Dorsiflexion Exercises on Their Pilates Reformer Machines as Part of a Sequence Designed to Promote Improved Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Ankle Dorsiflexion Exercises
Try It: Dorsiflexion Exercises
  1. Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  2. Secure the band around a chair leg or a table leg, and then wrap it around one foot.
  3. Slowly point your toes up toward you and then return to the starting position.

Do 3 sets of 10 flexes on each foot, three days a week.

Lunges

Lunges help strengthen your ankles and improve your balance.

There are many types of lunges, and it’s best to begin with a static lunge (doing lunges in place).

A Young Mother Takes Time Out of Here Day to Exercise and Begins by Performing a Couple of Sets of Static Lunges After Having Performed a Series of Stretches to Ensure Proper Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Lunges
Try It: Static Lunges
  1. Start with one foot in front of the other, with your toes facing forward.
  2. Keep your back straight.
  3. Bend your back knee down so that it almost touches the floor.
  4. Then push yourself up again.

Repeat 10 times, and do 2 sets.

Try varying the static lunge and your leading leg.

To do so, take three steps between lunges, and alternate your forward leg.

Chiropractic Care for Ankle Sprains and Ankle Injuries

If you’ve tried the above ankle dorsiflexion stretches or ankle mobility exercises, in any variation, to improve your ankle mobility without any luck, it may be time to see a chiropractor to help.

Recent research highlights the effectiveness of chiropractic in improving ankle mobility and treating and preventing ankle conditions like sprains (2).

In fact, in one study, researchers observed improvements in ankle range of motion, pain, and function following manipulation in patients diagnosed with chronic low-grade ankle inversion sprains (3).

On other studies, the effectiveness of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM) and prescriptive stretching proved significant with regard to improving ankle dorsiflexion (4)(5).

A Male Sports Chiropractor Assists His Female Patient with Some Ankle Dorsiflexion Stretches to Help Improve Her Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility: Chiropractic Care

The use of such modalities are even supported by a recent systematic review which found that static stretching, manual therapies, and mobilization may help improve ankle dorsiflexion following an ankle sprain (6).

And, as you may have guessed, many conservative care providers like chiropractors are well-trained in these treatments and can assist in providing long-term improvements in your ankle dorsiflexion.

What’s more, chiropractors focus on non-pharmacological, all-natural, movement-based care – in other words, treating the cause of your discomfort rather than masking the symptoms.

So, if you’re looking for real, long-lasting relief from pain and to improve how well your body moves and feels, start with your local chiropractor.

The research doesn’t lie.

Your body will thank you in a multitude of ways.

A Word About The Smart Chiropractor Program for DCs

Are you a chiropractor or chiropractic para professional?

Thanks for reading!

We hope the article above has given you some great notes to share with your patients regarding the importance of maintaining their ankle dorsiflexion and mobility.

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To learn more about how the marketing campaigns we deliver each month can help you connect with more of your patients in the office, on your social channels, and through email, check out our website at TheSmartChiropractor.com.

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