How to improve Ankle Dorsiflexion

ankle dorsiflexion

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

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 Hallicus Longus
  • Tibialis Posterior

2. Tight ankle joints:

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

3. Joint capsule issues/Scar tissue:

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

4. 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.

5. 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

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.


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 Dorsflexion)
    • 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 mobilisation

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
  7. Hi Mark,
    My 4.5 year old son, with a lot of front calf leg pain when walking and out toeing and toewalking/running, saw a podiatrist today who did xrays and said he has Kohler disease which might take 2-3 years and will be fine. And also limited ankle dorsiflexion. He has short calf muscles, tight Achilles’ tendon, and stiff ankle. He recommended similar calf lengthening exercise as you which is great as I started doing them with him recently. But he also said we have to get him to wear all day even in house ankle height shoes with arch support inserts to prevent him from toe walking. And I can no longer let him barefoot he said. I been having him barefoot all the time even outside and encourage walking in sand and dirt and only wears flat loose sandals if we go anywhere. What’s your feeling on the shoe vs barefooting in this situation? im not a fan of supported shoes I feel it will make him weak in other areas. But don’t know about this situation with Kohlers. He also goes to chiro often for uneven pelvis that causes one leg to be shorter. Chiro has helped left foot to turn in a lot but right foot still isn’t turning in all the way. Also had a small fracture when 2 on ankle and had boot for 6 weeks. And toe walked as baby before that.

    Reply
    • Hi Brianna,

      Walking on the toes will encourage the calf and achilles tendon to become even tighter. This will limit the ankle dorsiflexion available in the ankle joint which will usually lead to duck feet posture.

      Performing the stretches mentioned on this blog post will be a good place to start.

      I would also suggest that you look to see if he has an anterior pelvic tilt as this may be encouraging fore foot loading.

      My personal opinion with children is to encourage more barefoot play on uneven surfaces ( as opposed to inserts), however, you will need to talk with your healthcare provider if this is viable with Kohler’s disease. (which I assume they diagnosed with a Xray)

      Mark

      Reply
  8. Hi Mark,

    I’m posting this because I don’t know if my last went through. Last Januray I landed on somebody’s foot when taking 3 point shot. I believed I injured both sides of my ankle since both were in pain and swollen. I didn’t go to the doctor because I didn’t have insurance and thinking it was going to heal despite lots of pain and not being able to put weight on that foot. I did some research, I decided to to buy a boot to immoboilze the ankle because in my head I tore ligaments at the very least and possibly had fractures (not the smartest thing I’ve done).

    I had the boot on for about 4-5 weeks, I had lots of swelling/edema for the first 6 weeks and could barely stand up without the ankle swelling up again after having it elevated (the boot helped a lot with edema). Around 5-6 weeks I took it off, swelling was getting better and but my ankle was very stiff with very limited dorsiflexion, no pain at this point. I noticed my dorsiflexion was gone two days after the injury, so I don’t think the imobilisation had a lot to do with loss of dorsiflexion. I walked with a lime for another 6 weeks or so after taking off my boot after week 6. The limp eventually went away and I started walking more normally and dorsiflexion got a little better (maybe like a 20% improvement/still missing 80% of total dorsiflexion). During this time (around March-April) I remember going to use an elliptical machine and a stationary bike and after the workout, my ankle got swollen again.

    Fast forward, ankle pain is completely gone, ankle doesn’t get swollen when using bikes or elipticals anymore, I can rotate my ankle all around similar to the healthy foot with no pain, but my dorsiflexion still about 60% gone and I have a bunion now and morning I can barely walk on that foot until minutes later that the ankle warms up. I feel a lot stiffness around the medial area of the ankle when bending my knee, and I noticed if cross massage the chilies and the area between the medial ankle and achillie along side a calf stretch I feel improvement in dorsiflexion but the effect goes away within a few hours again.

    Your opinion on what happened and what can be done for this situation is appreciated!

    Reply
    • Hey Lewis,

      Firstly – We can’t rule out a fracture especially if you weren’t able initially place weight on it. If there was one, there is a chance that the fracture site did not heal as optimally as it could have. You would have to get an XRAY to check it out.

      If we assume that there was no fracture (which we can’t without investigations!), and purely a soft tissue injury, it is more likely there was injury to the ligaments and/or tendons

      If lack of ankle dorsiflexion is your main issue, it really depends WHERE in the ankle you feel the restriction. You mentioned the region between the medial ankle and achilles tendon. This area is the where the posterior deltoid ligament fibres (posterior tibiotalar ligament) are. Scar tissue/tightness in this ligament could potentially limit ankle dorsiflexion. This area also has your tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus and flexor digitorum tendons which can get injured with ankle injuries. Tightness in these muscles can also limit dorsflexion.

      Mark

      Reply
  9. Hello Mark – I just came across your website today. My ankles have never flexed very far, even in childhood. I recently got diagnosed with Ankylosing/Axial Spondylitis, which explained my plantar pain and achilles pain. The achilles pain only began after I saw a massage therapist who was able to get my talus bones moving, finally, for the first time in my memory. Before that, when dorsiflexing my foot I felt stopped up at the front of the ankle. Afterwards, I felt amazing space at the front (though probably in reality it was just a small improvement), however very soon my achilles tendons began to be in pain and they also won’t let me flex far. I backed off, assuming I too-much-too-soon had inflamed the tendons/ligaments (as per my diagnosis). I’m not sure how to go forward with increasing my ankle range now. The only evidence that I’ve ever had more range is one photo when I was one year old, squatting. Doing a soleus stretch is almost impossible because I have so little bend at the ankle. I’d love some advice. Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Shira,

      Sounds like the achilles tendon had no control/strength in the new unlocked range of motion.

      As result – it strain and developed some sort of tendinopathy.

      If the achilles tendon is what is now limiting your dorsiflexion, you will need to address the tendon directly with a progressive tendon loading program (ie. loading the fore foot).

      You can start with isometrics, progress to eccentric contractions, partial range concentric/eccentric contractions, full range, loaded/resistance and then finally, speed/power.

      Mark

      Reply
  10. This is the most comprehensive, useful site I’ve found! Thank you!
    My 15 year old son is training as ballet dancer. We are at the point of considering whether or not to go full time. He had a bad ankle sprain last year (from sport not dance) and he ended up with an anterolateral impingement from lack of rehab and inadequate recovery time. We soon realised he has serious issues with dorsiflexion. The most toe-to-wall he has ever achieved was 7.5cm (both feet). He has high arches, a beautiful pointe and amazing turnout. And he has always walked like a duck.
    We are doing the mobilisation exercises after another flare up and he improved from 3cm to 7cm in a week.
    My question is- I know 7-8 cm toe-to-wall is considered restricted dorsiflexion from my reading. If we can’t increase it do you think this will rule him out of ballet.
    Is there anything else you would suggest?

    Reply
    • Hi Jacq,

      I am not well versed in ballet but I’d say 8cm is fairly average.

      Of course as a ballet dancer, I would feel that he might need to work on it to get >10cm at least.

      If he has high arches, working on loosening up midfoot stiffness might actually help!

      Examples of exercises:
      – Ball rolling underneath arch
      – Mid foot mobilizations
      – Kneeling stretch for plantarfascia and flexor hallucis longus

      Mark

      Reply
  11. Mark,

    Wanted to let you know that these exercises have made a HUGE difference in my life. I’ve had worsening plantar fasciitis, achilles tendon soreness / pain, and really tight calves. After a day or two of short runs, I’d have to take at least a couple of days off because my feet and my calves would be screaming. A PT neighbor once noted that it looked like I had mildly flat feet, so I did some Googling and found your site. I’m about four weeks in, and I have noticed a massive improvement across the board. I wish I would have found your site sooner, as my mother recently had bunion surgery, and I wish I could have gotten her doing these exercises to see if they might have helped.

    Very grateful for everything you provide!

    Reply

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