Wearing heels, sitting all day, and poor posture can all lead to stiff ankles. Reverse the damage and regain mobility in those joints with these seven ankle stretches.
Joint mobility is extremely important for daily functional activities, and we oftentimes forget about the ankle joint.
The ankle is a hinge joint, meaning that it moves in two directions: plantarflexion – pointing the toes down, and dorsiflexion – flexing the toes up towards the shin. For most people with stiff ankles, the problem is dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion allows the shin bone to move forward relative to the position of the foot, decreasing the angle between the foot and the shin. The ability to dorsiflex the ankle is important for correct body positioning and the application of force on the joint.
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These everyday factors can lead to stiff ankles:
- Flexibility of the calf muscles – Tightness in the calves can lead to loss of flexibility in the ankle. (1)
- Wearing high heels – Moving around in heels for an extended period puts your feet in plantar flexion, which causes a loss in the ability to dorsiflex the ankle over time. (2)
- Constant Sitting – If you find yourself sitting at a desk all day, your ankles can easily become stiff from disuse.
- Poor posture – Sitting at a desk for a long period of time can result in an anterior pelvic tilt, a large arch in the lower back with the belly protruding forward. (3) Since this anterior pelvic tilt pulls the body’s mass forward, the ankle is forced to plantarflex to try to balance everything back out.
- Prior injury or surgery – If you are recovering from a past injury of the ankle, knees, or hips, scar tissue or adhesions in the joint may be present, limiting the flexibility of the joint.
Risks of tight ankles:
If you have difficulty flexing your feet, you run the risk of experiencing multiple issues, including:
- Knee pain and injury – If you can’t properly dorsiflex your ankles, the knees take the brunt of the work. Also, if your ankles are extra tight, chances are that you won’t be able to bend your knees without lifting your heels off the ground. This causes you to place a shearing stress on the front of the knee that can lead to injury. (4)
- Weak glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles – If you can’t keep your heels grounded while doing squats, or even bending down to pick something up off the floor, then your quads are going to have to do all the work. This means that the muscles on the back of your body – like your glutes, hamstrings, and back – are not being put to use and they therefore become weak, even when you think you’re giving them a proper workout. (5)
- Hip and lower back pain – Without the ability to properly dorsiflex the ankles, you’re at risk of pain and injury even beyond the knees. (6) If you go into a squat with the heels lifted, the knees are forced forward. Your body then overcompensates at the hips with a posterior pelvic tilt, which causes the lumbar spine to round and become weak.
If your ankles are feeling tight, try these seven effective ankle stretches to improve your mobility. All you need is a yoga mat, a strap, and a wall.
7 Stretches For Ankle Flexibility
Toe Point | 20 reps per side
This stretch helps to warm up the ankle joint and increase dorsiflexion.
- Begin seated on your mat. Straighten your right leg out in front of you and bend your left knee, placing your left foot on the floor.
- Point your right toes until you feel a nice stretch through the front of the right ankle.
- Then, flex your right toes back towards your shin as far as you can. Repeat for 15-20 repetitions and then switch legs.
Ankle Circles | 20 reps per side
This stretch warms up the ankle joint.
- Begin seated in the same position, with your right leg out in front of you and your left leg bent with your foot flat on the mat.
- Circle your right foot in a clockwise motion for 10 reps.
- Then, circle your toes in a counterclockwise motion for 10 reps. You should feel the ankle loosening up as your circle.
- Repeat on the left ankle.
Wall Calf Stretch | 20 sec per side
This stretch relieves tension in the calf muscles and increases dorsiflexion in the ankle.
- Stand up and face a wall. Stagger your feet so that your right foot is closer to the wall than your left foot. Place your hands on the wall in front of you.
- Pick up the ball of your right foot and place it against the wall, keeping your right heel on the ground. Keep a micro-bend in your right knee.
- Start to lean into the wall with your hips until you feel a stretch through your right calf muscle.
- Hold for 20 seconds, then slowly release and switch sides.
Ankle Stretch with Strap | 20 sec per side
This stretch uses a yoga strap to significantly increase the ability to dorsiflex the ankle. (7)
- Start by testing your ankle flexibility: Stand in front of the wall with your right foot a few inches from the wall, and your left foot behind your right. Place your hands on the wall. Keep both heels down and bend into your right knee. If your right knee can touch the wall easily, then step back from the wall a little further and do the test again. When you get to a place where your knee can just barely touch the wall, then take note of that distance.
- Next, take a yoga strap and make it into a loop large enough to step both feet into. Stand on the spot that you took note of earlier and step inside of your strap so that it is looped around your feet. The front part of the strap should rest along the front of your right ankle and the back should rest on the back of your left ankle.
- Then, bend into the right knee to tap the knee to the wall. The strap should press into the front of the right ankle, helping you to deepen the stretch. Play with stepping back another inch. Then remove the strap and test your flexibility. Note if you can now tap your knee to the wall from further away. Then, switch legs.
Yogi Squat | 30 sec
This traditional yoga pose increases the flexibility and strength of the ankles while also stretching the calves, quads, and hips.
- Start standing with your feet slightly wider than your hips. The closer your feet are together, the deeper the stretch will be in your ankles.
- Point your toes out at a 45-degree angle and bring your palms together in front of your heart. Bend your knees and sit your hips down until they are lower than your knees and you are in a low squat position.
- Keep your palms together and use your elbows to gently press your thighs open while simultaneously squeezing the thighs inward. Draw your navel up and in towards your spine so that you feel a little lift. Make sure that your heels stay down. If your heels begin to lift, widen your stance.
Toe Squat | 1 min
This stretch increases dorsiflexion and stretches fascia on the bottom of the feet.
- Begin in a tabletop position on your hands and knees. Bring your legs all the way together, then tuck your toes under.
- Keeping your toes tucked, slowly walk your hands towards your thighs and sit your hips back on your heels.
- Walk your hands up onto your thighs to lift your chest up and hold for one minute. You should feel the plantar fascia releasing as the feet stay in dorsiflexion.
Tip: This pose can feel intense if you have tight feet and ankles. While it should feel slightly uncomfortable as you go into this deep stretch, it should never feel painful. If it becomes painful, come out of the stretch.
Kneeling Ankle Stretch | 1 min
This stretch improves plantarflexion and relieves tension along the front of the ankles.
- Start in a kneeling position with your legs all the way together and your toes untucked. Sit your hips back on your heels.
- Place your hands behind you with your fingertips pointing forward. Bend your elbows and start to lean back into your palms.
- Continue to lean back into your palms until your knees lift up an inch and you feel the stretch through the front of your shins and ankles. Hold for one minute. If you feel any pain in your knees, come out of the stretch.