How to improve Ankle Dorsiflexion

Ankle Dorsiflexion is the movement where the ankle (Talocrural joint) is bent in a backwards direction.

ankle dorsiflexion

Why is it so important?

Having full ankle dorsiflexion is ESSENTIAL in your posture and movement.

This is especially true for when you are moving! (walking, running, squatting and jumping)

Restricted ankle mobility can lead to undesirable compensations throughout your entire posture! (… especially excessive foot pronation and the development of a big toe bunion.)

The content presented on this blog post is not medical advice and should not be treated as such. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. For more information: Medical disclaimer.


What limits your ankle dorsiflexion?

1. Tight calf muscles:

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Plantaris
  • Achilles tendon
  • Flexor Digitorum Longus
  • Flexor Hallucis Longus
  • Tibialis Posterior

2. Tight ankle joints:

Limited ankle mobility in your joints can restrict the total amount of dorsiflexion available.

3. High Foot arch

Presence of a high foot arch may be involved with impaired ankle dorsiflexion.

4. Joint capsule issues/Scar tissue:

Past injuries to the ankle (eg. sprain ankles) tend to block full ankle mobility.

5. Neural tension:

Did you know nerves can get tight too?

(Well… not the actual nerve itself,  but the connective tissue that surrounds it)

In this case – Ankle dorsiflexion is usually limited when the knee is completely straight.

6. Genetics

If you are born with limited ankle dorsiflexion, then there may be a limit as to how much you can reclaim.

 

How do you test for ankle dorsiflexion?

Knee to Wall test:

knee to wall test for ankle dorsiflexion

Instructions:

  • Face a wall.
  • Whilst keeping your knee in contact with the wall, aim to get the front of your toes as far away from the wall.
    • (Don’t cheat! Make sure the back of your heel does not lift off!)
    • Maintain your foot arch.
  • Measure the distance between the tip of your big toe and the wall.

What should I aim for?

My recommendation: Aim to get the tip of the big toe approximately a “Fist-width” or more from the wall.


Where do you feel the restriction?

ankle mobility

The area where you feel the stiffness/restriction in your ankle should be the area you focus most of your attention on.

a) FRONT of ankle:

Your ankle dorsiflexion is limited by a Joint-related restriction.

b) BACK of ankle:

Your ankle dorsiflexion is limited by a Tendon restriction.

c) BACK of calf:

Your ankle dorsiflexion is limited by Neural tension and/or Muscular restriction.

Note: (More often than not, you will likely need to address all of these areas.)


How to improve ankle dorsiflexion

Note: All exercises are designed to be performed with nil pain!


1. Warm up

a) Ankle circles

Instructions:

  • Draw a large circle with your ankle.
  • Aim to firmly push the outer edges of this circle as much as possible.
    • Focus especially on the movement when you are bringing your foot up towards you. (Ankle Dorsiflexion)
    • You might hear some clicking. As long as it isn’t painful, keep going!
  • Repeat 20 times in each direction.

 

2. Releases

a) Calf

Instructions:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you.
  • Place one leg over the other.
  • Place the calf of the bottom leg on a foam roller.
  • Apply a downward pressure.
  • Roll your leg up/down the entire calf.
  • Pause on areas of tightness.
  • Duration: 1-3 minutes.

b) Achilles tendon

Instructions:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you.
  • Place the back of your Achilles tendon on a ball.
  • Apply a downward pressure.
    • You can apply additional pressure by placing your other leg on top.
  • Rock your foot from side to side.
  • Duration: 1-3 minutes.

c) Muscles under feet

Instructions:

  • Place your foot on a massage ball.
  • Apply pressure on the ball.
  • Roll your foot up/down.
  • Do this for 1-3 minutes.

3. Stretches

a) Gastrocnemius

gastrocnemius stretch

Instructions:

  • Stand on the edge of a step.
  • Lower both of your heels.
  • Do not allow for your foot arch to collapse.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in your calf muscle.
  • Hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

b) Soleus

soleus stretch

Instructions:

  • Assume the lunge position with back leg bent. (see above)
  • Sink your body weight onto your back leg.
  • Think about getting your shin bone as close to the floor as possible.
    • Do not lift your heel!
  • Do not allow for your foot arch to collapse.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in the back of your calf.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

c) Toe flexors

toe stretch

Instructions:

  • Sit down on a chair.
  • Place your ankle onto the other knee.
  • Hold the big toe with your fingers.
  • Pull it backwards.
  • Aim to feel a stretch underneath your foot.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.
  • Continue the same stretch with the other toes.

4. Joint mobilization

a) Traction

Instructions:

  • (To perform this exercise, you will need assistance. So – go grab a friend!)
  • Lie on the floor.
  • Instruct your friendly helper to firmly grasp your ankle below the bony bits on the side. (see above)
  • Relax your leg as your assistant pulls your foot away from you.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

b) Create space in joint

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting, place your ankle on top of your other knee.
  • Place one hand on top of the ankle and the other on the forefoot.
  • Whilst anchoring the ankle joint down, pull the fore foot towards you.
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the outside/front of the ankle.
  • Explore the stretches by pulling the foot downwards at different angles.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.

c) Dorsiflexion with band

Instructions:

  • Attach a resistance band to something behind you. (Make sure it doesn’t move!)
  • Lace the band around your ankle.
    • Make sure the band is below the bumps on side of the ankle.
  • Move away from the anchor point as to increase tension in the band.
  • Assume the lunge position with your ankle on a bench. (see above)
  • Lunge forward.
  • Do not allow for your foot arch to collapse.
  • Repeat 30 times.

d) Progression

Perform the above exercise whilst holding a weight on top of your knee.

5. Strengthening exercises

You might be wondering:

“What has strengthening got to do with increasing ankle dorsiflexion? Isn’t it just about stretching and stuff?”

… It has a lot to do with it!

If you do not have the muscular control over the full range of motion of your ankle joint,  the body will limit itself from going into those ranges. (… it’s a protective mechanism!)


a) Seated Dorsiflexion holds

exercises to strengthen ankles

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting, slightly slide your foot underneath you whilst keeping your foot flat.
  • Lift the front part of your foot off the floor.
  • Aim to feel the activation of the muscles in the front of your shin.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 20 times.

b) Eccentric drop

Instructions:

  • Whilst standing, lift the front part of your feet off the floor.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • With control, slowly lower your foot.
  • Repeat 30 times.

6. Nerve flossing

Note: Nerve tension is not a common cause of limited ankle dorsiflexion.

Instructions:

  • Place your foot on a bench.
  • Keep your leg completely straight.
  • Lean forwards at the hips.
  • Point and bend your ankle.
  • Aim to feel a deep stretch anywhere along the back of your leg.
  • Repeat 20 times.

Things to avoid:

a) Shoes with an elevated heel

Shoes with a raised heel will place the foot in a degree of plantarflexion.

This can cause the muscles that limit ankle dorsiflexion to become tight.

b) Tippy-Toe walking

Walking on your toes will tighten up the muscles.

 

Common questions:

a) How often should I perform these exercises?

As many times as you can.

I recommend you adopt the “More the merrier!” strategy!

There is no reason why you could not do these exercises every day.

At a bare minimum, I recommend doing them at least 2/week.

b) How long will it take to fix?

This is a very common, but very difficult question to answer.

Why?

 Everyone is different!

If you are consistent, you will see improvements every week.


What to do next…

1. Any questions?… (Leave me a comment down below.)

2. Come join me on the Facebook page. Let’s keep in touch!

3. Start doing the exercises!

122 thoughts on “How to improve Ankle Dorsiflexion”

  1. Hi Mark!

    On my left side, I have a bunion, and my dorsiflexion ability, quad strength/size, and glute activation are much less. Then, on my right side, I get issues with my hip and SI joint. To me, it seems like my right leg is doing more work because the left side isn’t functioning well. When I run, it is difficult to land quietly on my left foot, whereas the ride side works effortlessly.

    Improving my dorsiflexion through the techniques you’ve written about here have helped me run smoother. And, I can actually feel my left glute working. Similarly, when I concentrate on maintaining dorsiflexion while doing leg extensions at the gym, I can feel my quads activate a lot more (particularly my vastus lateralis).

    Is there something about dorsiflexion that is necessary for correct muscle activation patterns elsewhere?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Chris,

      Ankle dorsiflexion is one of the most important components whilst running. Without adequate dorsiflexion, the body will usually end up compensating somewhere along the movement chain. (and even lead to the things you have mentioned).

      Unlocking your dorsiflexion may give the opportunity for the other parts of your body to function properly.

      Another thing I would quickly check is to see if you have a rotated pelvis. If you lack ankle dorsiflexion on one side, it could be related to rotation of the pelvis.

      See post: Rotated Pelvis.

      Mark

      Reply
  2. Hi Mark,

    My name is Anessa and I severely sprained my ankle a little over a year ago. I have very little if not any dorsiflexion in my left ankle. I have gone to physical therapy and even a chiropractor to try to fix my loss of dorsiflexion. Nothing seems to work. I have been doing all of the therapy moves at home daily. It still seems to barely improve. Do you have any advice? Do you think I need to see a doctor? If so, who should I see?

    Reply
    • Hi Anessa,

      The main culprit is a tight calf complex. Try to spend more time in a prolonged stretched position.

      If you feel that the calf is not tight, the next area that limits dorsiflexion is that anterior talocrural joint. I have some exercise for that on the blog post using the band.

      Did your therapists mobilize this said joint?

      Mark

      Reply
  3. Hi,

    Do you recommend doing stretches 3a & 3b + exercises 5a & 5b if I have a light insertional achilles tendinopathy?

    I can hike 13km 600 D+ (just to give you an idea of how light my insertional achilles tendinopathy is.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hey Steeve,

      In the early stages of an insertional tendon issue, you will want to avoid stretching at end range as this will likely aggravate your symptoms.

      However – as you transition away from the acute inflammatory stages and are able to progressively stretch towards end range without getting any increase in symptoms, this is completely fine to do so.

      The end goal would be to progressively strengthen the achilles tendon as it is in a lengthened state. Once you can do this, add plyometric training.

      Mark

      Reply
    • I will do the strenghting exercise 5a & 5b everyday and I’ll do the stretches every other day. I did the stretching yesterday and I feel fine today. Thank you!

      Reply
  4. Hello,my upper tibia had a fracture,doctor put cast on it ankle also
    Motionless for 40 Days.now my ankle is stiff and have only 20 percent movement,also my ball of foot have severe pain how to fix this problem.

    Reply
    • Hey Tushuar,

      If your doctor has cleared you to start exercises, the best thing to do now is to start to do some exercises to get your ankle moving again.

      You might need to start with the gentle exercises first and progress as appropriate.

      (For anything post-surgical, I would strongly recommend guidance under a health care provider as to prevent any long term complications)

      Mark

      Reply
  5. Hi there :),
    I just came across this article and I am so grateful that you wrote it! I’ve been dealing with horrible dorsiflexion for 3 years- after many Neurologist visits and PT, they still have no idea what could’ve caused it. (The best they could come up with is that “it’s all in my head”….yikes) Even with stretching/etc, my feet have shown little improvement. You mentioned some new stretches I haven’t tried yet- so thank you for giving me hope! As cheesy as it may sound, I’m at my wits end- thank you!!

    Reply
  6. Hello! My daughter is a burn survivor from a house fire and we have been battling ankle contractures for about about 5 years now. She is 6 years old. On the right ankle, we were unable to get her ankle back to 90 degrees with months of stretching, wearing AFOs, and treatment with serial casting. She had gotten to the point that she regressed back to crawling at 3 years old. She had a failed tendon lengthening and then finally, had a second tendon lengthening with a pin in the ankle while it healed and a skin graft on the back of the ankle. That surgery was about 2 years ago and that ankle is still doing well and remains at 90 degrees without much flexibility either way. Now, for the past year, we have been struggling with the left ankle, which is her “good” ankle with much less burn scaring. However, she does have foot drop in it and had a fasciotomy on that calf soon after her burns. I really don’t want her to have to get the same surgery she had on the right ankle, but I can barely get the ankle to 90 degrees anymore. She cannot tolerate her AFO on it for more that 15 mins without begging for it to be removed due to pain. She has been walking up on the ball of her foot for several months now. Do you have any advice for us? Thanks

    Reply
    • Hello Summer,

      Do you know if it is the ankle joints or the soft tissue (muscles, skin, tendon) that is the main limiting factor for her ankle dorsiflexion?

      Both would require different strategies. If the main issue is the calf, have you tried botox injections with follow up casting? This might help avoid surgery.

      With ongoing tippy-toe walking, this will unfortunately encourage the calf to get even tighter and further limit ankle mobility. It may also cause bony spurs to develop which can make it difficult to achieve normal ankle motion. This will usually result in the big toe deviating to the side. (hallux valgus)

      Mark

      Reply

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