Dorsiflexion 101: The Need-To-Know Practices For Improving Ankle Mobility
Every time I share a video or picture on Instagram of my dorsiflexion the comments are...flattering:
"That ankle flexion, though..."
"Wtffff you're a mutant biped! Just when I was beginning to feel good about my ROM."
"You're a freak, man. I mean that in the nicest way possible."
But the truth is: I don't have any particular predisposition for mobile ankles. I'm not a naturally bendy person. I just put in a lot of time into some very specific practices to improve my ankles' active range of motion.
Doing so has major carryover into my quality of movement and performance.
Think about it...improving your dorsiflexion has direct carryover into ANY movement practice:
- Want to rest comfortably in the squat for your MovNat training?
- Looking for more ease in your downward dog during asana practice?
- Are you stuck in your Olympic lifts because you can't get low enough with control?
Well then, you need to improve your dorsiflexion.
The truth is you're only as capable as your foundation. Bringing more strength and mobility to your ankles ripples out to the rest of your body as well. I've used dorsiflexion interventions with my coaching clients for back pain, hip dysfunction, and more.
Potent ankles make life easier. So let's dive into some of the foundational practices for improving dorsiflexion. I've posted about many of these at various times in the past, and below you'll find them compiled together in one resource.
As a general rule, I've found that ankle dorsiflexion responds particularly well to high volume, high frequency, low intensity training. Make of that what you will.
What seems to hold true for most people is that mobility restriction in the ankles has more to do with connective tissues (like tendons and ligaments) than the muscles themselves. Tendons and ligaments don't get as much blood flow and rely heavily on movement of the surrounding tissues for healthy function. Think in terms of 3-5 low intensity sets of 12-15 for most of the following.
Start With The Feet
Ball Roll/Passive Release
Ok, so your ankle stuff likely isn't just ankle stuff. We know by this point that everything in your body is connected, even at the level of your cellular structure.
If your feet aren't working like feet, you better believe the ankles will lock down too.
We need a strong foundation to build on, and it starts with the feet.
To begin I spend 90 seconds or so rolling out the bottoms of my feet or giving them a bit of hands-on TLC: massaging the soles of the feet, manually spreading the toes, and so on.
It's important to note: this is not myofascial release.
What this is doing is providing a bit of sensory stimulus to the bottoms of the feet and novel proprioceptive feedback to the joints of the feet. The benefit here is improved sensorimotor dialogue between your brain and your feet. The better they can "talk" with each other, the better your quality of movement will be.
Intrinsic Foot Strength
After you wake up the feet, it's time to teach them what to do.
These intrinsic foot strength drills, borrowed from Functional Range Conditioning, start to develop the musculature of the feet. The "stuff" that makes up your feet works the same as "stuff" found elsewhere in the body.
It can be trained.
Too many people seem to miss this fact and rely solely on orthotic supports their entire life. There's a time and a place for external supports (like crutches when you break your leg), but lifelong dependence on them is essentially outsourcing the body's natural capacity--and responsibility--for supporting itself.
Carrying our exploration of foot strength further, the plantar slide drill is one of the most effective ways I've found to develop strength in the arches.
In the video below you'll see that we're working on grounding down through the "flip-flop point" throughout the entire movement.
We're aiming to accumulate time under tension in this active end range to trigger the desired adaptations. I work in sets of 30 seconds or more, but scale back to the best of your ability.
Then The Ankles Themselves
Let's shift focus to the ankles themselves. The following two exercises are the best I've found for training dorsiflexion.
The dorsiflex step lends itself to high volume sets (3-5 x 12-15 repetitions), and it has two-fold benefits.
On the one hand we're working on eccentric loading of the tissues along the back of the leg. This gives us a safe way to strengthen our range of motion (and creates a self-limiting exercise...you can only step as far as you can step).
The other benefit is teaching the body a "biologically relevant" use for this range of motion. We're teaching our whole system that this range of motion is not only safe, it's useful for accomplishing real-world tasks (in this case, walking).
Demi Plié Relevé
This is another great way to work on control throughout your existing range of motion. It's hard to increase range when you don't own your current range, so it's worth spending time here.
When starting out, I recommend having something nearby for support in balance. After a bit of practice you'll be able to go through it hands-free.
Zoom Out To The Broader Context
Your ankles are stiff for a reason.
Look, I’ll be honest with you: all that time you spend stretching and limbering up is just a drop in the bucket. I want to introduce you to a new way to think about your mobility and flexibility, one that takes into account the other 23 hours of the day.
We’ve talked before about the SAID principle, Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand.
It’s the idea that your body is constantly changing and adapting in very specific ways based on what it’s coming up against:
- You fatigue muscles and stimulate tissue adaptation.
- You eat plenty of healthy fats and trigger beneficial hormonal responses.
- You meditate and create new neural pathways.
The things you do with your body shape it on a cellular level. But the SAID principle extends beyond that. It takes into account the big picture context of your life, including your habitat and the people you associate with. Remember: those things affect your behavior too.
If you want to get your body feeling looser, you have to examine this big picture. This is one of the key areas we focus on in the practice of Ecosomatics. Our bodies and minds are in an ever-changing, adaptive relationship with the world around us.
If you aren't happy with the way your body feels and functions, you need to rethink what you do with it day in and day out.
This is such a simple solution, and it can go a long way. One of the big consequences of the modern world is that we don't get much exposure to variety in the surfaces we put our feet on.
And rigid, unchanging environments make for a rigid, unchanging body.
I use this rock pad as a simple way to increase the amount of variation my feet get throughout the day. If you can't immerse yourself in nature, bring a bit of nature to you.
The "Long Ass Walk"
This isn't the most glamorous name, but it's effective.
When you've hit a wall in your dorsiflexion, this can tip the scales. For many of my clients I recommend taking 2-3 hours to walk the trails at their favorite park on a free weekend day. Make sure to get on natural terrain like grass, dirt, or detritus for more diverse stimuli.
Please note: when starting out, I would recommend dosing the time you spend barefoot.
As crazy as it sounds to some folks, you can get overuse injuries of the feet just like any other body part. Gradually increase the amount of time you can spend barefoot. We're in it for the long haul, and it's better to pace yourself with adaptation than it is to dive in and set yourself back with injury.
You have one body, and it has tremendous capacity for adaptation. That's both a gift and a responsibility. Living life on autopilot inevitably leads to tension and dysfunction.
If you enjoyed this article and want to find more ways of intentionally shifting your movement and life, check out my Mobility Foundations course.
It's a step-by-step approach to reclaiming your natural movement potential.
Click here to learn more.