By: Quentin Cornelius, Fitness Program Manager at Earth Treks on April 21, 2020
Strength and Stability Exercises for Bulletproof Ankles
When one thinks of areas of your body to strengthen and stabilize, many focus on shoulders, hips, etc, but strong ankles are an incredibly important foundation for many of the movements we make with our bodies. Lack of strength or stability in the ankles can lead to instability or overcompensation in the knees or hips, which can lead to bad running technique and climbing technique. Think about it, weak ankles make standing on small holds difficult, which makes controlling your body position harder to control.
So let’s strengthen those ankles! We’ve got three warmups and three exercises that help improve ankle strength and ensure that your ankles are strong and stable for activity and use down the road.
Warmup 1: Foot Roll
This warmup promotes myofascial release in the foot by using a round object like lacrosse ball, a foam roller, or even a household object like a can of soup.
If you have a lacrosse ball, start by putting your foot directly on the lacrosse ball and do some small clockwise circles. Put a good bit of pressure downwards on your foot, but don’t drive your foot too hard into it. Make sure to avoid burning sensations or sharp pain and do this for about 30 seconds per side.
If you’re using a foam roller or can of soup, roll out your foot in between the front knuckles of your foot and the heel. Roll back and forth for about 30 seconds on each side, until your ankles and feet are feeling a little warmed up.
Warmup 2: Deep Lunge
Begin by getting into a deep lunge position with your knee positioned directly above your ankle. Move your knee toward the front of your foot until you feel the stretch in your Achilles tendon and base of your calf. You should be able to feel the stretch, but don’t drive too hard into your foot or to the end of your flexibility range, because that can cause pain. Rock back and forth in this position for about thirty seconds--make sure that you keep your heel and the ball of your foot on the ground, feeling the stretch every time you rock forward.
Repeat this on your opposite leg for about 30 seconds.
Warmup 3: Calf Raises
The last warm up before the exercises is calf raises. Start these by bringing your feet together, then slowly lift up onto your toes and then come slowly back down off of your toes and resting with your feet flat on the ground. Make sure that these motions are nice and controlled all the way up and back down. Don’t let your heels fall hard back onto the floor--you want to keep your muscles engaged while lowering.
If you need some additional support or balance you can lean on a chair or a couch or move into a staggered position with one foot in front of the other.
Do this warm up for about 30 seconds, and if your feet are staggered switch them after 15 seconds.
Three Essential Exercises
Our exercises will be focusing on three aspects of ankle mobility and stability. The first one focuses on plantar flexion, which is the ability for you to raise your heel in the air. The second exercise focuses on creating a nice healthy arch in your foot to ensure that you can squeeze the smaller foot and ankle muscles to maintain a healthy arch position. The final exercise focuses on inversion and eversion, which is the mobility in your foot turning inwards and outwards.
Exercise 1: Modified Calf Raises
This exercise is a modified version of the calf raises in the third warmup. Bring your feet together, flat on the ground. Next, do a calf raise, but when lowering the heel don’t let the heel come all the way to the ground. Maintain tension in your foot and hold the heel off the ground before moving into another calf raise.
If this feels very easy you can do this same movement but standing on just one leg.
If doing this exercise on one leg, do 10 to 15 reps before switching legs, and if standing on both legs do 20 to 25 reps. For both variations, do two sets.
Exercise 2: Towel Toe Curls
The next exercise focuses on building stability and strength through the arch of the foot. To start you will need to find a small to medium sized towel, like a dish towel. Spread the towel out on the ground in front of where you are sitting. Next, place your heel firmly on the ground in front of you, with the ball of your foot on the towel and your heel off the towel. Now try to pick up the towel with your toes by extending your toes and pulling them back in.
Repeat this extending and pulling exercise for about 30 seconds, or until the other end of the towel reaches your toes. You want to create a nice healthy arch with your foot as you pull your toes and towel in--make sure your heel remains on the ground.
Once you’ve done this with one foot, spread the towel back out and repeat with the other foot. It’s normal for the exercise to be easier with one foot than the other.
If you find that you want a little bit more of a challenge with this exercise put a weighted object on the end of the towel to add more resistance as you pull.
Pro tip: use a water bottle as the weighted object and play around with the amount of water you add to the bottle. The more you add, the heavier the bottle (and the greater challenge).
Exercise 3: Towel Inversions and Eversions
The last exercise covered here will improve strength and stability pivoting your foot inward and outward, inversions and eversions. Use the same towel as the previous exercise but orient it parallel to your seat.
Start with your heel planted on the ground and your toes on one end of the towel. Trying to keep all the movement in the ankle of your foot, raise the outside, pinky toe side of your foot so that your heel is on the ground and only the big toe side of your foot is on the towel. Starting with the big toe, rotate through the ball of your foot, moving the towel along with it. Make sure that your knee remains still, you can place your hands on your knee to stabilize it if you need to.
Repeat the smooth movement from your big toe to your pinky toe until you have reached the end of the towel, or for about 30 seconds.
When you’ve finished with this, repeat with the other foot. And if you want to, you can repeat the exercise pivoting your foot the opposite direction, from pinky toe to big toe.