The best ways to strengthen the ankles to handle any task. You need strong ankles for sports, martial arts, movement and general fitness!
Strong and mobile calves will increase your agility and leg dexterity. Working out your ankles will also allow you to bounce better and jump higher.
In many fitness endeavours the ankle is very vulnerable to injuries because you are often landing on just one foot or otherwise having a risk of straining it.
Working on ankle mobility will ensure your ankles will be able to withstand any resistance they face. Good ankle mobility will also allow your ankles to perform at the highest level.
Good ankle mobility will add softness to your landings (causing less wear and tear) and make your movements more graceful. This is one of the reasons why working on mobility is important.
If you play lots of sports or do movement training, your ankles can already be in a good shape but most likely there are some weak points that should be looked into.
1. Targeting the Posterior Side (Calves)
Calf muscles are the biggest muscle group affecting your ankle mobility. Lots of power comes from calves and they also protect the joint.
There are two big calf muscles:
- Gastrocnemius which has two heads (inner & outer).
- Soleus which is behind the gastrocnemius and can be seen from the side.
Both of these muscles work very differently and require intelligent training. Even the different parts of gastrocnemius need to be stimulated differently!
You probably have heard that the size of your calves is mostly "genetic". This is often just a big excuse people make to avoid actual calf training.
Most people have never trained their calves properly or effectively enough.
Most people have picked maybe 1 exercise for their calves, tried it for a couple of times and then started using "the bad calf genetics" excuse for the rest of their life.
Exercises for Gastrocnemius Calf Muscle
Standing Calf Raise
You can stay upright or position yourself so you will feel a nice stretch in your calf muscles. Keep your legs straight and focus on pushing yourself up with your calves.
Adjusting the angle and distance of your legs from the wall will target the calf fibers in a slightly different fashion.
You can also do the standing calf raise with one leg. It's also possible to make the bodyweight exercise harder by adding weight. Machines work as well.
You can elevate your legs to get a better stretch at the bottom.
Donkey Calf Raise
Flex your hips until you are in a 90 degree angle. You can make the exercise harder by allowing your training partners to sit on your back.
Donkey calf raises will emphasize the upper portion of the repetition and place that portion under greater stress. This is because the hamstrings will pull the gastrocnemius inwards when your hips are flexed.
By the same token, the lower portion of the repetition is less emphasized which is why doing both the regular calf raises and donkey calf raises is the best option for the best results.
Exercises for Soleus Calf Muscle
Seated Calf Raise
Sit against a wall with your knees flexed to a 90 degree angle. Then do calf raises.
You can make the exercise harder by adding weights on your knees or by doing the seated calf raise with only one leg at the time. Seated calf raise machines are also great.
When your knees are in a 90 degree angle, the gastrocnemius muscle is taken out of the equation and you will solely focus on the soleus muscle.
This is the best way to isolate the soleus muscle. The soleus muscle will also work on normal calf raises, but not as much as it does here.
Low Toe Walk
Go to a half squat and start walking on your toes forward and backwards.
You will activate both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, but the soleus is primarily activated because of the flexed knees.
You can also do the same exercise with straight legs (regular toe walk), but this will primarily target the gastrocnemius (the biggest calf muscle).
2. Targeting the Anterior Side (Tibialis Anterior)
There are numerous of different muscles that dorsiflex the ankle, but the tibialis anterior is the most dominant and the most well known one.
The other muscles on the anterior side of the feet will also get strengthened with the exercises demonstrated below.
Tibialis Anterior Raise
Extend the ankle and then fully flex it. Hold it for 1-2 seconds in the flexed position. You need to focus on feeling the muscles on the front side of the ankle.
The goal here is to learn how to control your ankle and how to flex it properly. The flexed position should feel very nicely in the lower ankle.
Watch the video for correct demonstration.
Fully dorsiflex your ankles and then start walking forward and backwards.
Heel walk is a great way to strengthen the end-range of the dorsiflexion.
You need to focus on flexing your ankles hard all the time, just walking on your heels isn't enough.
Other good ways to strengthen the tibialis anterior include reverse calf raises and using elastic bands or ropes for resistance.
Stretching the Tibialis Anterior
Flexibility is a big component of the ankle mobility which many people tend to lack. There are many ways to stretch the anterior side of the ankle.
The easiest way is to just stretch the ankle with the assistance of your hand.
Once your ankle flexibility gets better, you can start placing weight on your ankles and stretch & strengthen them that way.
The picture above is the hardest way to do it - don't do it like this until your ankles have gotten strong. You can also do a similar stretch one ankle at the time.
3. Targeting the Lateral Sides
When you turn the ankle laterally inwards, it's called ankle inversion. When you turn it outwards, it's called eversion.
You can stretch your ankle with the assistance of your arms when you sit down. This is the simplest way to stretch it.
A good way to strengthen the ankle is just to walk while your ankles are tilted inwards and outwards (as in the pictures above). This will build strength and mobility.
This material should get your ankles strong and mobile.
Train hard, stay safe.