Exercises to improve Ankle Dorsiflexion

What is Ankle Dorsiflexion?

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

ankle dorsiflexion

Why do you need Ankle Dorsiflexion?

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

This is especially true for when you are moving! (such as when Walking, Running, Squatting and Jumping)

Restricted ankle mobility can lead to undesirable compensations and injuries such as:

What limits 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 the Talocrural joint can restrict the total amount of dorsiflexion available.

3. High Foot Arch

high arches in feet

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. sprained ankles, fractures, surgeries) tend to block full ankle mobility.

5. Neural tension

There is a nerve called the Sciatic Nerve which runs down the back of the leg.

Tightness in this nerve can limit ankle dorsiflexion when the knee is completely straight.

6. Genetics

The bony structure of your ankle (as determined by your genetics) will dictate the maximum amount of dorsiflexion available in the ankle.

Ankle Dorsiflexion Test

Try out this quick test to see how much range of motion you have in your ankle.


Knee to Wall test:

how to measure 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. (The tibia bone should angle forwards over the foot.)
    • (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 using a tape measure.

What is normal Ankle Dorsiflexion?

My recommendation: Aim to get the tip of the big toe approximately >4 inches from the wall.


WHERE do you feel the restriction?

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

(Note: More often than not – you will likely need to address a combination of these.)


what limits ankle mobility

a) FRONT of ankle:

Your ankle dorsiflexion is limited by a Joint-related restriction. (Anterior Impingement)

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.


Mobility Exercises to improve Ankle Dorsiflexion

1. Warm up

The ankle is going to be performing a lot of exercises. Let’s warm it up!


a) Ankle circles

ankle warm up exercises

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.
    • You might hear some clicking. As long as it isn’t painful, keep going!
  • Repeat 20 times in each direction.

2. Releases

Performing releases on tight muscles are effective in increasing ankle mobility.


a) Calf

calf release

Instructions:

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

b) Achilles tendon

Achilles tendon release

Instructions:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you.
  • Place the back of your Achilles tendon on a ball (or a handle of a dumbbell).
  • 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) Achilles tendon glide

Achilles tendon glide

Instructions:

  • Sit down on a chair.
  • Place your ankle on the other knee.
  • Pull your ankle into dorsiflexion.
  • Firmly grip the top of your Achilles tendon.
  • Slowly glide your fingers towards the heel.
  • Repeat 10 strokes.

3. Ankle Dorsiflexion Stretches

The tight muscles which are limiting the ankle mobility will need to be stretched.


a) Gastrocnemius

gastrocnemius stretch

Instructions:

  • Stand on the edge of a step.
  • Slowly lower the heel of the back leg.
  • Do not let the foot arch to collapse.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in your calf muscle.
  • Hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

For more stretches like this, check out Gastrocnemius Stretches.

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 the foot arch to collapse.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in the back of your calf.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

c) Achilles tendon stretch

achilles tendon stretch

Instructions:

  • Rest the entire back against the wall.
  • Squat all the way down.
  • Bring the heels as close to the wall as possible without letting your heels lift off the floor.
  • Lean your body weight on top of your feet.
  • Hold this position for 1 minute.

4. Joint mobilization

Tight joints in the ankle can limit the amount of ankle dorsiflexion.


a) Traction

(To perform this exercise, you will need assistance.)

ankle joint traction

Instructions:

  • Lie on the floor.
  • Instruct your 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 front of the ankle

This exercise will help stretch any tight ligaments and joints that might blocking the normal movement of the ankle.

anterior ankle stretch

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

This exercise will help glide the Talus bone backwards (posterior translation) which is required in normal ankle dorsiflexion movement.

ankle dorsiflexion with resistance 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.
  • Progression:
    • Perform the above exercise whilst holding a weight on top of your knee.

5. Strengthening exercises

If you do not have the muscular strength/control over the ankle whilst it is in dorsiflexion,  the body will limit itself from going into that range. (… it’s a protective mechanism!)


a) Seated Dorsiflexion holds

ankle dorsiflexion strengthening exercises

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, hold onto something for balance.
  • Lift the front part of both feet off the floor.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • With control, slowly lower your foot.
  • Repeat 30 times.

7. Ankle Dorsiflexion Exercises

Now that you have addressed the tightness and weakness of the ankle, the next step is to practice using the foot in the dorsiflexed position.


a) Forward Lunge with foot lift

forward lunge with ankle dorsiflexion

Instructions:

  • Place a small block under the ball of your foot.
  • Keep the foot pointing forwards at all times.
  • Lunge forwards.
  • Aim to move your knee as far forwards as possible.
  • Do not lift your heels.
  • Perform 30 repetitions.

b) Wall Squats

knee forwards squat

Instructions:

  • Stand with your back and heels against the wall.
  • Keep the knees in line with your toes throughout this exercise.
  • Slowly bend your knees forwards as you slide down the wall.
  • Squat as low as possible without lifting your heels off the floor.
  • Perform 20 repetitions.

c) Toe taps

toe tap

Instructions:

  • Stand up right and hold onto a stationary object for support.
  • For the leg that is on the ground, keep the knee in line with your toes throughout this exercise.
  • Reach and tap your toe as far forwards as possible.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Perform 20 repetitions.

d) Eccentric Heel Drops

eccentric heel drop

Instructions:

  • Stand on a step with your heels off the edge.
    • You can hold onto something for support if required.
  • Keep your knees straight throughout this exercise.
  • Slowly lower your heels until you can feel a deep stretch in the calf muscles.
  • Raise your heels back to the neutral position.
  • Perform 10 repetitions.
  • Progression: If this exercise is too easy, try performing it using one leg at a time or holding onto weights.

8. Stretch the Nerves

If the nerves which are located at the back of the leg become “tight”, it can limit the amount of ankle dorsiflexion. (Especially when the leg is completely straight.)

(For more information, check out this blog post: Sciatic Nerve Stretches.)


Sciatic Nerve Glide

sciatic nerve 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.

9. What causes lack of Ankle Dorsiflexion?

The 2 main causes of poor ankle mobility is due to:


a) Shoes with an elevated heel

what limits ankle dorsiflexion

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) Toe walking

Toe walking is a pattern of walking where one walks on the ball of the feet.

(It is mainly seen in children.)

This may lead to increased tightness in the calf muscles and limited ankle dorsiflexion.

10. Improve walking Pattern

The following factors tend to discourage the ankle dorsiflexion required for a normal walking pattern.


a) Duck Feet Posture

duck feet posture

This is where the feet are out turned.

For more information: Duck Feet Posture.

b) Flat Feet

flat feet

Flat feet is where the arch of the foot has collapsed.

For more information: Flat Feet.

c) Limited Big Toe Extension

Whilst walking, big toe extension in the back leg is required as the toes push off the ground.

If there is stiffness in the big toe, this will impact the way your entire foot/ankle interacts with the floor as you walk and force the entire foot to pivot outwards.

This prevents the ankle from achieving pure dorsiflexion.

Here are some simple exercises to improve your big toe extension:

a) Release

release under the foot

Instructions:

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

b) How to stretch the big toe:

big toe stretch

Instructions:

  • Place the bottom of your big toe onto the wall.
  • Keep the rest of your foot on the floor.
  • Move your foot as close to the wall as possible as you slide your big toe up the wall.
  • Gently lean your weight into the big toe.
  • Aim to feel a stretch underneath the base of the big toe.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.

c) Strengthen

big toe extension

Instructions:

  • Keep your foot on the floor.
  • Lift up your big toe as high as you can.
  • Do not move the other toes as you do this.
  • Aim to feel a contraction of the muscles at the top of your big toe.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 20 times.

11. 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 does it take to fix Ankle Dorsiflexion?

With consistent effort, you should see small improvements every week.

If you have persisted with these exercise for at least 3 months and see no improvements at all, I would advise you to get assessed by a health professional.


Conclusion

Limitations in dorsiflexion can lead to issues associated with the body’s attempt to compensate.

Try out the suggested ankle mobility exercises to improve your ankle dorsiflexion.


What to do next

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

2. Come join me:

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3. Start doing the exercises!


Disclaimer: 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. Use of the content provided on this blog post is at your sole risk. For more informationMedical disclaimer.

132 thoughts on “Exercises to improve Ankle Dorsiflexion”

  1. Hi!

    I have duck foot posture on my right foot. I have tightness in the top right of my foot of my when going into ankle dorsiflexion, and my Flexor Digitorum Longus is tight, as when I sit on my heels (child’s pose, but sitting up), the upper part of my right foot is tight.

    How should I proceed?

    Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Hey Adam,

      Sounds like that upper top part of the right foot is compressed and perhaps tightness in the Flexor Digitorum.

      Pulling your ankle into plantarflexion + inversion can help decompress the outer side of the ankle.

      This can all be due to a result of reduce ankle dorsiflexion.

      Mark

      Reply
        • Hey Adam,

          You can never go wrong with a strong arch, however, you might find that your ankle dorsiflexion may be LESS as you maintain your arch.

          The foot will tend to roll inwards (compensation) to create more ankle movement.

          Mark

          Reply
  2. Hi,

    Just have a question my physio told my that the ankle dorsiflexion is dictate by genetic.

    It is necessary to do these exercises?

    He told my he worked year on it and it only increased a bit to him.

    So i for him i can try but i will win a slight improvement.

    He told my too flexibility is the same some people are some order not a’d we can improve a bit.

    I don’t know listen to who :O

    Reply
    • Hi Flyko,

      Ankle dorsiflexion can certainly be limited by the structure ( shape of bones, joints) as largely dictated by your genetics.

      If you are 100% certain your limited ankle dorsiflexion is due to your structure, there will likely be a limit as to how much you can improve. (but you wont really know until you give the exercises a go)

      Mark

      Reply
  3. Hi, thank for the exercises, they are very well done.

    But i have a question,

    My ankle mobility went i put my knee forward my ankle is like going to the right, he don’t alow my ankle to go forward.

    But if i let it go right i have a good mobility.

    What is the issue in my case that i should focus on ?

    I think it’s A but I’m not sure if you can confirm.

    Thx good day to y

    Reply
    • Hi Arnaud,

      It sounds like you are referring to your left ankle?

      If you are, the ankle/knee can move towards the right if you have limited pure ankle dorsiflexion.

      This is due to the fact that the foot is likely pronating (aka arch collapsing).

      Improving ankle dorsiflexion should help with this.

      Mark

      Reply
      • Hi,

        Yes i was talking about the left foot.

        I used your test i got 5cm which is bad i think ahha.

        Yes i have the feet trying to go flat if I don’t use muscle contraction :/ my father got the same ( i got his bad legs xD) but very hard and he got knee issue :/ modern world modern problem ^^`

        But it very strange that it collapse to right (left foot) like there is a wall when i try to go forward.

        I have exercises for my patella feromo syndrom with my kinésithérapeute (Physio in France). And i do your exercise on rest day for muscle of the legs.

        6 months im on it and i finally see the end of the rehab Jesus^^`

        If i had mobility ankle i shouldn’t have the issue i got now that so sad. Now my goal is to prevent problem and not try to fix them when they come later it’s more smart i think.

        And The flat feed exercises are burning my Peroneals muscle i got very weak, it’s a bricks after the exercises like single leg balance !

        I will update it in 1 month if i got finally the 10cm ^^`.

        Sorry for the long message i got inspiring^^` btw your website is wonderful !!

        Arnaud

        Reply
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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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