6 Ankle Mobility Exercises Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of ankle mobility exercises and discover the moves recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Jul 2, 2024
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We don’t have to tell you that it’s good to be flexible — you already know how nice it feels when your body can move through its full range of motion without stiffness or pain. But how often do you think about how flexible your ankles are? If ankle mobility exercises haven’t been on your radar, they should be.

“The more flexible your ankles, the more you’ll be able to do since you’ll have greater range of motion,” says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. You’ll find it easier to do a lot of activities and, even more importantly, you’ll be less likely to get injured as you do them. The best way to increase your mobility is to do ankle mobility exercises at home, advises Dr. Payton. 

Read on to learn how improving your ankle mobility can improve your everyday function and reduce foot, ankle, and leg pain, especially with these ankle mobility exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Payton is a Hinge Health physical therapist with 8 years of experience and specializes in ergonomics and workplace injuries.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

What Is Ankle Mobility?

Ankle mobility refers to the flexibility of your ankle joint. “Your ankle joint is where your two big shin bones meet the smaller bones in your foot,” explains Dr. Payton. “When your ankle is mobile, it ensures that the joint can move through its range of motion as you go about daily activities.” This includes everything from pushing off to get out of a chair, to walking around, to getting up on your toes to reach a high shelf or squatting down to get something off the floor. 

“I’ll see patients who tell me they have trouble squatting, and they don’t realize that it’s due to ankle stiffness,” says Dr. Payton. “When your ankles lack mobility, it makes it harder for your knees to bend down deeply into a squat.” This tightness can affect your entire lower body. In fact, a 2023 study found that restricted ankle mobility causes you to instinctively alter the way you move, which can set you up for all sorts of aches or injuries.

The good news is there’s plenty you can do on your own to improve ankle stability, with some simple stretching exercises like the ones below, says Dr. Payton. This will ensure your ankles have the range of motion they need to help you do everything you love.

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6 Ankle Mobility Exercises

The exercises below work to stretch your calf, ankle, and foot muscles. Research shows that these types of moves increase range of motion of all the muscles and tendons that support your ankle joint. They also help improve balance

Try to work these moves into your daily routine. You can do these ankle mobility stretches as a quick office break, as a warm-up or cool down before or after activities, or as part of a resistance training workout.

“This move stretches out the two major calf muscles — the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles — both of which contribute to ankle stiffness,” says Dr. Payton.

How to do it:

  • On a yoga mat, straighten one leg out in front of you and bend your other knee to place your foot flat on the floor. 

  • Wrap a towel around your foot and hold the ends of the towel with your hand.  

  • Pull the towel to stretch the top of your foot back toward your chest. Hold the stretch.

“This move is similar to the floor calf stretch, but focuses on the muscles in the lower half of the calf, which also contribute to ankle tightness,” says Dr. Payton.

How to do it:

  • Start by standing with your hands on a wall with one foot near the wall and your other foot a full step back. 

  • Move your hips and knees toward the wall, allowing your back knee to bend while you try to keep your back heel on the floor. 

  • Focus on bending your back knee toward the wall as you hold this position.

This move differs from the floor calf stretch because when you stand, your calves are naturally in a different position. This allows you to stretch your ankles in a different way.

How to do it:

  • Start by standing, facing a wall, with the palms of your hands flat on the wall. 

  • Take a good step back with your targeted leg. 

  • Press your back heel down toward the floor, move your hips and front knee toward the wall. Your back leg should remain mostly straight during the stretch.

“This is a great move if your calves are pretty mobile, but you still feel stiffness around your ankle,” says Dr. Payton.

How to do it:

  • Start in a standing position. 

  • Place your foot on a chair in front of you while your other foot is flat on the floor. 

  • Slowly bend your raised knee forward, over your foot, while keeping your heel flat on the chair. 

  • Place your hands on the back of the chair for balance as you hold this position.

This exercise moves your foot in a downward motion away from your body, which is great for ankle mobility, says Dr. Payton.

How to do it:

  • On a yoga mat, start on your hands and knees with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips, with your toes curled under. 

  • Move your hips toward your heels as you walk your hands back toward your knees.

  • Notice the pressure on your toes and ankles as you move your weight back. 

  • Walk your hands forward to return to the starting position.

6. Seated Plantar Fascia Stretch

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When you do this exercise, you’ll stretch your plantar fascia, the band of tissue that connects your heel bone to the base of your toes. “Tightness in this area can contribute to ankle stiffness,” explains Dr. Payton.

How to do it:

  • Start by sitting in a chair with one ankle resting on your opposite thigh. Your other foot should be resting flat on the floor. 

  • Use your hand to pull your toes and the top of your foot toward your shin. 

  • Focus on creating length along the bottom of your foot as you hold this stretch. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment. 

Why Should You Do Ankle Mobility Exercises?

Ankle mobility is important for everyone, regardless of your activity level, says Dr. Payton. Here’s why:

  • Improved ability to do everyday activities. “Whether you need to walk uphill, run, hike, or even squat down, ankle mobility exercises make it easier for you to do everything that you want to do,” says Dr. Payton.

  • More relief to muscles. When your ankle muscles are tight, they don’t work as efficiently, points out Dr. Payton, which can put more strain on supporting muscles. When you stretch your ankles, you reset them to their normal length so that they have more power and strength the next time you use them.

  • Lower risk of ankle sprains. Tight ankle muscles can impact your range of motion and balance. This can make it more likely that you’ll sprain those ligaments, especially if you go past your movement sweet spot. A 2020 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that people with tight ankles who incorporated ankle stretches into their training program were able to land on their feet more easily, thus reducing risk of injury.

  • Enhanced blood flow. “When you stretch, you increase the flow of nutrients and oxygen to your ankle joints to keep them healthy and limber,” says Dr. Payton.

PT Tip: Start Small

“You don't have to do all of these exercises at once to notice improvements,” says Dr. Payton. Just adding just one or two of them to your daily stretching routine or while doing something else (for instance, brushing your teeth or lying in bed in the morning) can help you stay more consistent and make these exercises more manageable. Remember: Something is always better than nothing. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Haifa Saleh Almansoof, Shibili Nuhmani, & Muaidi, Q. I. (2023). Role of ankle dorsiflexion in sports performance and injury risk: A narrative review. Electronic Journal of General Medicine, 20(5), em521–em521. doi:10.29333/ejgm/13412

  2. Jeon, I., Kwon, O., Yi, C.-H., Cynn, H.-S., & Hwang, U. (2015). Ankle-Dorsiflexion Range of Motion After Ankle Self-Stretching Using a Strap. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(12), 1226–1232. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-51.1.01

  3. Howe, Louis. P., Bampouras, Theodoros. M., North, J. S., & Waldron, M. (2022). Improved Ankle Mobility After a 4-Week Training Program Affects Landing Mechanics. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 36(7): 1875-1883. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000003717

  4. Draper, T. R. (2024, May 2). Non-Achilles ankle tendinopathy. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/non-achilles-ankle-tendinopathy