How to improve your Ankle Dorsiflexion

What is Ankle Dorsiflexion?

It is the movement where the ankle (talocrural joint) is bent in a backwards direction.

.. and 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)

Why?

… Because restricted ankle mobility will lead to undesirable compensations throughout your entire posture!

What limits your ankle dorsiflexion?

1. Tight calf muscles:


Image from EpainAssist.

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Achilles tendon

2. Tight ankle joints:


Image from SCOI

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

 

3. Neural tension:

Did you know nerves can get tight too?

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

… This can actually limit your ankle mobility as well!

How do you measure your ankle dorsiflexion?

Knee to Wall test:

Instructions:

  • Face a wall.
  • Perform a lunge.
    • Whilst keeping your knee in contact with the wall, aim to get the front of your foot furthest 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 your toe approximately >8cm from the wall with your knee still in contact with the wall.


Where do you feel the restriction?

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 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.


 

How to improve ankle dorsiflexion


Image courtesy of usamedeniz at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Note: All exercises are designed to be performed with nil pain! If you have any doubt, please feel free to catch me on the facebook page.

Note 2: With any exercise where your foot is on the ground, try to make sure that your foot does NOT roll inwards (pronate). This movement is usually a compensation of limited dorsiflexion!


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.
    • 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.
  • Duration: 1-3 minute

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 minute

3. Stretches:

a) Gastrocnemius

Instructions:

  • Stand on the edge of a step.
  • Lower both of your heels.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in your calf muscle.
  • Hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

b) Soleus

Instructions:

  • Assume the lunge position.
  • Sink your body weight on top of your back leg.
  • Think about getting your shin bone as close to the floor as possible.
    • Do not lift your heel!
  • Aim to feel a stretch in the back of your calf.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.

4. Joint mobilisation

a) Traction

Instructions:

  • Note: To perform this exercise, you will need the assistance. So – go grab a good 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) Dorsiflexion with band

Instructions:

  • Attach a 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.
  • Assume the lunge position with your ankle on a bench. (see above)
  • Lunge forward.
  • Make sure there is a firm amount of tension on the band.
  • Repeat 30 times.

 

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 not allow you to go into those ranges. (… it’s a protective mechanism!)

a) Seated Dorsiflexion holds

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

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.

Common questions:

// 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 1/week.

 

// How long will it take to fix?

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

Why?

… Everyone is different!

If you work at it, you will see small improvements every week.


… Any other questions? 

Feel free to post a comment below.

I’ll get back to you!

 

About

I am a physiotherapist who has personally experienced the pain as a result of bad posture. I would like to offer you some of the solutions that I and my patients have greatly benefited from.

View all posts by

32 thoughts on “How to improve your Ankle Dorsiflexion

  1. Hi Mark,
    Good advice above.
    I am in the early stages of an achilles rupture. I am still wearing the Vacoped boot, full weight bearing in the locked position, as advised by the hospital.
    As I am a very keen cyclist/time trialist I have been doing some aerobic indoor cycling. No pain.
    I am accepting of good pain for recovery, but I have some concern regarding how much muscle loss I have had? and, outlook for cycling/racing?
    Many thanks

    1. Hey George,

      If it is just a tear, you will eventually be able to return to your usual cycling once you regain full function of your lower limb.

      It’s a steady rehab process that will require a lot of work, but I see no reason why you wouldn’t be able to race again.

      However- if it is a complete rupture, this is a different story!

      Mark

        1. George, that sucks!

          Do this test:

          If you have a complete rupture of the achilles tendon and if your foot does not move at all when you do the above test, then you might need to get it fixed!

          Mark

  2. Hi Mark,, many thanks for your efforts.
    2 years ago i had a bad ankle sprain while playing football and my leg was immobilized in a plastic cast (below knee) for 21 days,,, after removing cast i tried all types of physical therapy,,, but till now and after 2 years ,i have many issues such as,,
    Limited dorsiflexsion and when i stand or walk i feel like a stone under my heel. I still feel my foot contracted as it was in cast.
    When i do knee to wall test i feel pinching pain inside front of ankle,,
    I also have a mass loss in calf muscle… 2 cm loss in circumference.
    I tried many therapies but unfortunately i didn’t have any improvement.
    Can you advise please??

  3. Hi, I fully ruptured my Achilles Tendon in March last year (2017), whilst playing in a badminton match, and I was treated conservatively. I didn’t receive much (at least it wasn’t good) physio in the early months, so I’m still struggling with it now, nearly 16 months later. For the last few months I’ve been doing daily calf stretches (straight leg lunge, bent leg lunge, and bent-knee Soleus, 30 seconds x 3 each) and calf raises off a step ( I can manage three sets of 15 – just – whereas my good leg can do almost endless ones), and I do some mobilisation exercises using a resistance band looped around my foot. I also do proprioception and balance work on a Bosu Ball at the gym, and I swim a lot. Despite all of this, my calf muscle is still atrophied, I still have some tightness in my calf and the tendon, and there’s still some weakness in my ankle… but my biggest problem is dorsiflexion (current knee-to-wall on my injured leg is 8cm and on my good leg is 13cm). It feels like there’s a ‘clamp’ around the front of my ankle stopping me from reaching full dorsiflexion and I feel it when I’m going up and down stairs too. I’m guessing that it might be scar tissue causing it, but don’t know for sure. What can you recommend for easing this tightness and generally getting back to ‘normal’ which, for me, is doing plenty of walking and sports (although no more badminton, as I’ve now quit after 20+ years playing competitively). Thanks very much, Jo (I’m 42, by the way, no idea if that makes any difference!)

    1. Hey Jo,

      Common issue after a Achilles tendon rupture.

      The main thing I find with most people is that the achilles tendon itself is likely thickened… and as a result, gets very tight! (thus limiting your dorsiflexion.)

      You want to continue your calf stretches but try to bias the stretch towards the achilles tendon as opposed to the calf muscle itself.

      You can do this by performing the exercises with the band as mentioned in the post. (you can do it without the band). Try to plunged over that ankle as much as you can.

      If you can’t seem to get the achilles tendon to stretch, you can hold onto a weight to get more force going through that joint.

      A tight achilles tendon will tend to cause the block feeling at the front of the ankle when going into ankle dorsiflexion.

      If you still can’t get it, you might need some firm manual therapy directly to the tendon.

      Mark

  4. Hi Mark, I was wondering since dorsiflexion is the ankle is bent in a backwards direction. Then why walking on the heels is consider dorsiflexion but not plantarflexion? As when walking on the heels, your ankle is bent in a forward direction

      1. Hi Mark,

        Sorry to make you confusing. Can I know walking on the heels is dorsiflexion or plantarflexion? And why is that?

        1. Hey Nelson,

          Heel walking where you have toes up in the air would be dorsiflexion.

          Walking on your tippy toes would be plantarflexion.

          Mark

  5. Hi Mark
    I have APT associated with hyperlordosis. Now I figured that I also lack full ankle dorsiflexion.
    So can I do these exercises?
    It is just that it shouldn’t worsen my APT.
    I don’t know the science thats why asking.

  6. Hey Mark,
    I have got APT associated with hyperlordosis.
    Now I figured out that that I also lack full ankle dorsiflexion.
    1)So should I do these exercises???
    It is just that it shouldn’t worsen my APT. I do not know the science thats why asking it???
    2) will doing these exercises lead to knee hyperextension??
    I hope so not.Waiting for your reply. Then only I shall start the above mentioned exercises.

    1. Hey Ronnie,

      You can have APT and lack of ankle dorsiflexion. You can do exercises for both issues.

      They should not specifically lead to knee hyperextension.

      Mark

  7. Hi
    I had a motorcycle accident in November just gone. I have been doing all of these excersises, stretches etc, for joint, calf and tendons, using balls, rollers, bands help from others and a tool for breaking up internal scar tissue. etc all to help with getting the dorsiflexion back to normal.
    I cannot pass anything more than 5 degrees, with my toes against the wall my knee cannot touch the wall without the heel lifting.
    I had a stress fracture in my ankle, medial deltoid repair and a fractured patella. Along with several puncture wounds.

    Over the last 3 months I have seen no improvement. Any suggestions?
    Thanks

  8. Hi Mark,
    Ive been trying to work on my ankle dorsiflexion for about a year now with no luck, glad I stumbled on this article. I cannot squat straight down without raising my heels or I will fall backwards. I cannot overhead squat for the same reason. I would really like to be able to do these lifts properly but my extremely limited ankle dorsiflexion will not allow it. If I havent seen much of an improvement after stretching / foam rolling in 1 year am I doomed? Is my problem structural?
    Thank you

    1. Hey Brad,

      There really shouldn’t be too much structural issue if you haven’t had any major injuries to the area.

      It is also very doubtful you were born with tight ankles (… I could be wrong though!)

      If you have been working on your ankles for this long and still no improvement, I would try to increase the duration and intensity of your stretches in as many different angles as possible.

      Mark

  9. Hi Mark,

    Love this article, but in the beginning you said the restriction is either in front of your ankle or along the calves and Achilles. What should I do if I feel a restriction mostly along the shin muscle?

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Sounds like the restriction may be in the area of the tibialis anterior/extensor digitorum.

      If this is the case, try rolling and stretching it and re-assess ankle mobility.

      Click here for a video of a stretch you can do.

      Mark

  10. I didn’t realise i had such problem until today when i came across this site.
    i knew i had minor posture problem butnot this.
    i wanted to know if lacking dorsification can cause my feet to bend little left when i walk?! is it toally different problem altogether.
    and i can’t deadlift with proper form which i just realised today.. can this cause it?

  11. I’m curious on how simply replacing sitting on a chair vs squatting on a chair (often, but not always) and letting my weight do the work to load and stretch deeper into ankle dorsiflexion can do. Would you recommend this?

  12. Very impressive article, exactly what I’ve been looking for. I have a question for you, could limited ankle mobility cause my feet to turn outwards? It’s not a hip problem or anything. My femur and my tibia are both perfectly straight in near perfect alignment, it’s literally just my feet that like to turn outward. If I drop into a full squat on my toes, everything is perfectly straight, but if my heals are on the ground, I have to turn my feet outward. You think increasing my ankle flexibility could correct my posture? My email [removed] if you’d like to reach me directly. I’d really appreciate it.

    1. Hi Montana,

      could limited ankle mobility cause my feet to turn outwards?

      Yes! Due to limited ankle dorsiflexion, when you walk, the ankle will compensate for the lack of ankle mobility by external rotating and pronating (toe out gait).

      The exercises mentioned on this post will be perfect for you to improve your squat.

      Mark

  13. Hello. Ive got high arch feet and lacking dorsiflexion. Its a joint restriction and I get pain when stretching. Do high arches always mean bad dorsiflexion? I’m unable to squat and deadlift.

    1. Hi Mathias,

      High arches doesn’t always mean limited dorsiflexion.

      On top of working through your joint, consider releasing/stretching the plantarfascia (under foot) and calf complex.

      Mark

  14. Hi Mark,
    I do also have bow legs, they literally look like ( ) in fornt of a mirror. I have heard that vitD lackness results in that but it can’t be possible. I had enough sunbathing and my nutrition was good in my childhood. So I guess it can only be postural and I find some websites pointing that, however I don’t find them as reliable as your blog. Thank you for all of this by the way. My question is, do these moves would help fixing that problem too?

    1. Hi Ekrem,

      If you have high arches and lack of ankle dorsiflexion, it may have caused (or have been caused by) the bow legs. These exercise will help in this case.

      Do you play a sport?

      Mark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.