The Importance of Ankle Mobility and Dorsiflexion
Written by Kim McLaughlin
When is the last time you paid attention to the mobility in your ankles?
Do you spend any time in your pre-warm up or post-workout stretching focusing on your dorsiflexion?
A little attention in this area can go a long way. In fact, improved flexion of the foot can help your squatting, sprinting, strength, and your ability to avoid injuries in the knee, hips, and low back areas.
What is Dorsiflexion?
The ankle is a hinge joint that allows the foot to move in the sagittal plane. Within this plane, there are two specific movements; dorsiflexion and plantar flexion. The ability to move the top of the foot closer to the shin is called dorsiflexion.
Why is Dorsiflexion Important?
Dorsiflexion is important because it allows the tibia (the shin bone) to move forward freely. If the tibia is stuck in a vertical position, it can cause the top of our body to lean forward to make up for the lack of mobility in the ankle when squatting . This is particularly apparent in front squats and overhead squats.
If our lack of mobility in the front squat and the overhead squat is there, this will directly affect our ability to get into a good position in the clean and the squat. It’s a downward spiral.
When our tibia is stuck in a vertical position and our chest is forward, this decreases our ability to create force through the hips to drive heavy loads. In essence, we’re unable to reach the maximum potential in our lifts because the direction of force is not being applied efficiently. If you watch the best squatters in the world, they have amazing ankle dorsiflexion and their chest is almost always in a vertical position above the hips. Force applied straight up and down is far greater than that force applied backwards, forwards, and then, eventually, up.
Dorsiflexion is also important for sprinters. The ability to pick the foot off the ground quickly (dorsiflexion) and to apply force when it strikes the ground (plantarflexion) can increase speed and efficiency when running as well .
Studies have been conducted to show that poor ankle mobility has had direct impact on many hip and knee injuries. A person with poor dorsiflexion is more likely to suffer from a torn ACL than someone with great mobility in that area .
Causes of Poor Dorsiflexion
Like anything else, there can be a number of factors contributing to poor dorsiflexion. A couple of the common ones are listed below:
- A lack of flexibility of the muscles in the calf. Perhaps they have shortened over time due to the raised heel in some shoes. (Ladies – this is a good reason to avoid wearing pumps all the time! Check out A Tale of Two Feet for more on this.)
- For many former field athletes, previous injuries to the ankle could be the cause of poor mobility there. Have you rolled your ankle in the past? Sprained it? These injuries can lead to tight joint capsules or scar tissue buildup .
- Any injuries to the legs that have caused even a temporary change in the way we walk can also lead to ankle mobility issues. Limping, favoring one leg over another due to knee injury or hip injury can cause issues in the ankle as well.
Whatever the case, paying a little bit of attention to this area in your warm-up routine or post-workout stretching can only help the situation. Stay tuned for some tests to figure out if you suffer from poor dorsiflexion and some drills to help you figure out what to do about it.
Seven Drills to Improve Dorsiflexion in the Ankle
Above, I talked about the importance of dorsiflexion for squatting, sprinting, building strength and avoiding injury.
So how do you know if this is an area where you are lacking and, if you are lacking or need improvement, what can you do about it?
There are a few simple tests you can do to see if your ankle mobility is where it needs to be.
1. Try air squatting a few times. If you have issues hanging out in the bottom of a squat because it is difficult to balance there with your heels planted on the floor, this could be an indication of poor ankle mobility.
2. Stand with your feet together and try to lift the balls of your feet off the ground without leaning back. If you cannot, it is likely that you have some room to improve your dorsiflexion.
3. Take a knee near a wall. Place the foot of the leg that is not kneeling and place it about five inches away from the wall. Lean into that front leg. Without moving your foot, try to get your knee to touch the wall. If it touches, your dorsiflexion is not too bad. If it doesn’t quite reach, this might be a good area to focus on.
If you passed all of the tests, congratulations, you can focus your mobility efforts elsewhere! If you struggled with one or more of these, here are seven simple drills and stretches that you can do to improve your dorsiflexion:
1. Perform self-myofascial release using a foam roller or kettlebell on this area. Place your Achilles on the top of the foam roller or kettlebell handle and move your foot from side to side. If you would like to apply more pressure to that particular area, place one foot on top of the other to do this. Gradually work your way up the calf moving the foot and the leg from side to side to hit both the lateral and medial parts. Spend between one and two minutes on each leg.
2. Next, sit on the ground with your legs straight and flex your toes back toward your hips. Do this about thirty times.
3. You can also place the ball of your foot on small five-pound plates with your heel touching the ground. Bend your knees forward and hold for about five to ten seconds. Release and repeat this movement about thirty times.
4. Get down on one knee and place a PVC pipe standing vertical near the pinky toe of the outside of your foot that is still on the ground. Flex your ankle so your knee goes to the outside of the PVC pipe and hold there for three to five seconds. Repeat this twenty times on each leg.
5. To make that last drill a little spicier, you can use the same kettlebell that you used for the myofacial release and place it on top of the knee that is up. Sending the knee over the toes or outside of the vertical PVC pipe with the added kettlebell weight will help you increase the dorsiflexion in the ankle thanks to the added pressure of the kettlebell. If holding both the PVC pipe and the kettlebell is a bit challenging switch off and just concentrate on using one thing at a time.
6. Using a monster band, wrap it around a post and step into it so the band is at the crease of the ankle. Facing away from the post, place the ball of your foot on a 25 or 45-pound plate, keeping your heel on the ground. Flex and extend that knee. For added distraction, you can also do the kneeling kettlebell drill (#5) with the monster band around the ankle as well.
7. Starting in a bear crawl position, walk your hands back behind your body so you end in a crab walking position. Once there, walk you way back into the bear crawl. Perform this total movement ten times.
Try out one or all of these drills to help increase the range of motion in your ankle and improve positioning in your squat or your ability to sprint. Let us know which one is your favorite.
 Imbo, William. “Ankle Mobility: Why it’s Important and How to Improve It.” Box Life Magazine 13 June 2014: n. pag. Web.
 ARCHER, L. (2006) Ways to improve the dorsiflexion and plantar flexion action of the foot. Brian Mackenzie’s Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 32/ May), p. 5
 Fong, Chun-Man et al. “Ankle-Dorsiflexion Range of Motion and Landing Biomechanics.” Journal of Athletic Training 46.1 (2011): 5–10. PMC. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.