All you Powerlifters and especially you Weightlifters out there will know all too well the benefits of having a strong, mobile ankle joint. In fact, it’s crucial for us if we want to have a good Squatting technique and vital in lifts such as the Clean & Jerk and the Snatch, where the ankle can end up in some very compromising positions.
But what can we do to improve our ankle strength and ultimately improve our ability to carry out these movements as efficiently and safely as possible? In this article, I will demonstrate a few great exercises and drills you can do at home to test and improve your ankle health.
So without further ado, let’s get into the article!
Testing Your Ankle Mobility (The Dorsiflexion Wall Test)
The first thing I recommend anyone do is to assess where their ankles are in terms of mobility. This is a very simple drill to carry out and all you will need is a wall and a ruler or tape measure.
Stand in front of the wall with one foot in front of the other, your leading foot’s toes should be touching the wall. Now bring your knee towards the wall until they meet, without lifting the heel of your leading foot. Repeat for the other foot.
This should be doable for the vast majority, but no worries if your knee can’t quite reach the wall, it just means your ankle is particularly stiff, and that’s exactly what this article is going to fix!
Next, we will take our measuring implement and lay it on the floor against the wall.
Now, incrementally slide your foot away from the wall (go about half an inch or a centimeter at a time) and try and bring your knee towards the wall again. Keep going, bringing your foot further and further away, until you run out of mobility and your knee can no longer touch the wall.
Take a look at where your foot is in relation to the measurement and make a note of this (remember to include the skirting or baseboard width if you have one). Repeat for the other foot and make a note of the measurement.
You may find that you get a different result for each ankle, this is normal. I have a restriction in my right ankle due to an injury when I was a teenager, which causes the dorsiflexion on my right ankle to be less than my left.
Anywhere between 3-5 inches (8-13cm) is good, if you achieved a measurement of 5 inches (13cm) or greater then, congratulations, you have excellent mobility! For those interested, I managed almost 5 inches (13cm) on my left ankle, whereas my right ankle only made it to 4 inches (10cm).
No matter what measurement you managed, the below exercises will be great to improve, or even just maintain, that ankle strength.
Incidentally, the Dorsiflexion Wall Test is a great mobility exercise in itself. Just get to a distance that is comfortable yet challenging and repeat bringing your knee forward and back, 8-12 repetitions on each ankle should be sufficient, you’ll also get a nice stretch in the calf muscle, which will also further help increase that mobility!
Basic Mobility Exercises
increasing your ankle health is pretty easy, and for most, you won’t need any additional equipment to see improvements.
The first exercise I would start with is to simply sit down on the floor with legs extended out in front of you. You can do this with the backs of your heels on the floor but if you have something to prop your legs up (a rolled-up towel works well), place this under the back of your legs to stop your heel getting caught up in the floor. Now just point your feet forward and hold for about 5 seconds, then release. You can do both feet at the same time or if you want to concentrate on one foot at a time, that’s perfectly fine too. 8-12 repetitions are ideal.
Now balance this movement out by curling your feet towards your body. Again, hold for about 5 seconds and release, repeating 8-12 times on each ankle.
Next up, point your feet inwards. if you’re doing both feet at the same time, try to get your big toes to touch, hold for 5 seconds, and release. Do this for, you guessed it, 8-12 repetitions.
Now do the opposing movement, point your toes out laterally away from each other and then relax. I’m sure you get the idea by now, hold for 5 seconds and release for 8-12 repetitions.
Finally, finish this off by rotating your ankles clockwise and counter-clockwise for 8-12 repetitions and your ankles should feel suitably strong and mobile!
You can do these drills in any order you wish, as many times as you feel you need. I recommend going through these exercises once a day but even once a week will help.
If you’re comfortable with the above exercises you can start adding some load by utilizing your bodyweight.
Stand up tall and bend your knees forward while maintaining an upright back, basically we’re doing a half squat with our feet just inside shoulder width and our toes pointed directly forward.
Allow your ankles to bend as you sink down, eventually, you will feel your heels about to lift as you run out of ankle mobility, hang about in this position for a few seconds then stand up tall again. Repeat for the usual 8-12 repetitions.
If you’re like me and your ankle mobility isn’t as good in one ankle compared to the other, you may want to look at doing this exercise unilaterally, that is, one side at a time. This will prevent imbalances hindering the effectiveness of this drill on one side.
Lastly, one that anyone who has spent time in a gym will likely recognize, calf raises, possibly one of the most neglected exercises in the lifting community! Again, do this unilaterally if you can for better results.
Unlike the traditional calf raise, where we would typically be on a step and lower our heels below the level of the step, we’re just going to focus on the upper portion of the movement. So standing on the floor, just raise yourself onto your toes and stretch as tall as you can, lower your heels back to the floor and relax, easy right? Do the usual amount of repetitions and you’ll be good to go.
Of course, we can also combine the last two exercises and just do a traditional calf raise, placing the balls of our feet on the edge of a step or similar and allowing our heels to sink down before raising them again. Just be sure to go slow and controlled and pause at the end of your mobility, absolutely no bouncing!
Exercises With Equipment
So, you’ve tried the above drills but you need a bit more of a challenge? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
We’re basically going to repeat the exact same group of exercises as before but add in some resistance to make them more challenging.
The exercises on their own are great for improving our mobility but if we want to go that extra step further and build strength on top of that, resistance is the way to go. It’s a bit like building muscle anywhere else on our body. Funny that.
OK, so for the first set of seated exercises, we’ll need a band. Amazon is a great source if you don’t already have one.
Starting with the toe pointing exercise, wrap the band around the ball of your foot and grasp the other end in your hand. Pull your hand back until you start to feel a bit of resistance and just go through the same repetitions as before, the added resistance will make this a bit more challenging.
For the opposite movement, we just need an object to tie the band to, an upright on a squat rack works well for example. Now just position yourself to get the optimum resistance in the band and pull your foot towards you, hold, relax, and repeat.
For the inward-pointing exercise, you can continue to use the upright (or whatever it is you had the band tied to) or you can also cross your legs and wrap the band around your other foot, holding the end with your hand. The same applies for pointing your foot out laterally, just don’t cross your legs. As usual, 5 second holds, 8-12 reps and you’ll be all set.
The Calf Raises are another easy one to add resistance to. If you frequent a gym, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of machines to choose from where you can continue to add weight as you progress. The same rules apply though, slow and controlled reps, no bouncing!
At home, you can use bands. I like to hook a band to something above me (again, a squat rack works well here) and hook the other end of the band under my heel. Now just go through your repetitions as you normally would, easy!
All you have to do now is work your way up in band strength to really improve your ankle strength (and your calves!)
On the face of it, ankle strengthening exercises don’t need to be complicated or hard, yet they get overlooked by so many, both inside and outside the sports of Powerlifting and Weightlifting.
To go through the entire range of exercises in this article would likely take about 10-15 minutes so there is really no excuse not to! Especially if you’re serious about improving your performance and longevity in the gym.
So why not test yourself? Start with the Dorsiflexion Test and make a note of your results, go through the exercises and do the test again, I would bet that you’ll see a noticeable increase in your ankle’s mobility, even after just that one session!
For added benefit, you should also consider complimenting these ankle strengthening exercises with foot strengthening exercises too!
If the descriptions and visuals in this blog weren’t quite enough for you, Ask Doctor Jo has an excellent youtube video showing some of these exercises in detail.