5 Exercises to Strengthen Weak Ankles

The foot and ankle complex is a fascinating area of the human body. One of the continuing education courses that I have taken stresses how when the foot hits the floor everything changes. This is due to the complex biomechanical nature of the foot and ankle. Having weak ankles exacerbates many problems in the knee and hip. 


During normal walking, or what we call gait in the physical therapy world, ALL of your body weight has to be supported on one side as the other leg swings forward to advance. Imagine if you had a minor imbalance in your ankle in regards to a weakness or tightness. Normal walking around the house may not even bother you. Instead it may take a hike, long day shopping, or taking the dog for a long walk for you to notice some increased ankle pain. 


This is due to the tremendous amounts of force that is driven through the foot/ankle with every step. The problems arise when that small biomechanical imbalance repeatedly is stressed, by say the average goal of ten thousand steps per day. That’s 5000 steps with 100% of your body weight going through an ankle/foot that is not functioning optimally. Highlighting how a subtle imbalance or weak ankles can contribute to ongoing issues. 


Causes of Weak Ankles?

Ankle weakness can be caused by a number of different factors including: 

  • Years of improper footwear
  • Prior injury to the foot/ankle
  • Or simply not strengthening that area of the body through daily movement tasks.

First a little anatomy background. There are three major joints that we will discuss in the ankle/foot complex. First, and possibly the most important or maybe the most overlooked, is the subtalar joint. This joint is between the bones of the talus and calcaneus (heel bone). The major movement in this joint is inward (inversion) and outward (eversion). 

Often when people discuss their ankles many say, “I overpronate.” This overpronation is likely excessive calcaneal eversion which is a very common problem for individuals with weak ankles. Occasionally this biomechanical issue can be due to limited range of motion in the opposite direction or calcaneal inversion. Most often what I see clinically is a weakness (limited motor control) of the subtalar joint which allows the joint to collapse into excessive eversion. Below we will discuss a few exercises to address such issues. 


Another major joint in the foot/ankle is the talocrural joint which is primarily responsible for plantarflexion (pointing toes away from your face) and dorsiflexion (toes towards your face). Please see my other blog post on ways to improve your dorsiflexion for more information on this specific joint. 


The talus is a bone that sits between the medial and lateral malleolus (the bones that stick out on the inside and outside of the ankle) and is primarily a hinge joint. In walking we are required to have at least 10 degrees (likely considerably more) of dorsiflexion to walk properly. When this joint is tight walking and squatting can be significantly impacted. 


The last foot/ankle joint we will discuss today is the midfoot or the tarsal metatarsal joints. Think of this joint as the arch of your foot. The motion controlled here is supination (high arch) and pronation (flat arch). All of the joints of the foot/ankle work in concert, well for that matter all of the joints in the human body work in unison. 


Often this joint gets painful or strained due to poor mobility in the two joints discussed above which places excess stress on the midfoot. Occasionally rigid arch supports can limit the required mobility of this joint and cause pain/dysfunction. For further information concerning the ankle please go to https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/picture-of-the-ankle


How do I know if I have Weak Ankles?


The one way to know for sure if you have weak ankles is to be evaluated by a skilled movement professional, such as a Physical Therapist. Ankle/foot problems vary widely between individuals and it is not wise to assume that your ankles are weak just because there is a problem in that area. There is no substitute for a skilled movement screen to determine the root cause of your movement dysfunction. We offer local Physical Therapy in Destin Florida. Not in the area? We also offer Virtual Physical Therapy or Telehealth visits online. 


Now that we have a basic understanding of the foot/ankle complex it is time to discuss a few interventions to strengthen weak ankles. 


Here are Five exercises to fix weak ankles that when properly completed on a consistent basis will improve your ankle stability and motor control. 


5 Exercises for Weak Ankles 


  1. Walking Matrix


This is an ankle strengthening exercise that I use most clinically, learned from my mentor Gary Gray. What makes this exercise so beautiful is the carryover from the exercise to daily life. When I prescribe exercise for my patients, they are not designed to make people great at exercising. I want my patients to excel in life and their favorite activities instead of just being very good at exercise. 


There is a principle in neuroscience called task specificity which outlines how as humans we improve on the exact task or activity that we are working on. For example if we want to train to become a great sprinter, what would we do? Would we lightly jog for 7 miles a day multiple days per week? Would we jump rope? Swim? Or would we do multiple short distance sprints the exact length of the race we wanted to excel in? The answer is clear. We train whatever task we want to get better at.


This is not to diminish cross training as that can be a valuable tool for many different reasons I won’t get into in this space. But as a general rule if you want to get better at a task or activity, practice that exact (or as closely resembling as possible) task or activity consistently.


So in this example many people with weak ankles have issues with walking or hiking. So why wouldn’t we strengthen our ankles with an exercise that resembles walking? 

For the walking matrix you start by standing on the affected side. Swing the unaffected leg in front of you and tap that toe lightly down while simultaneously swinging your opposite arm in front of you. Remember, this should resemble walking. Then take the affected leg and lightly tap that toe behind you while you swing the opposite arm backwards. 


Continue tapping the unaffected to in front and in back of you with opposite arm swings. To increase the difficulty you can speed up the leg swing and/or go with no tapping of the unaffected.


Another beautiful principle learned from my mentor Gary Gray is training your body/joints/muscles in all three planes of motion. In this example do we want our ankles to be strong only in the front to back direction or what we call the sagittal plane? NO! We want our ankles to be strong in every direction/plane of motion. 


Especially in hiking and other daily activities we will not only walk straight forward but we will also walk sideways or have to rotate. This underscores the importance of strengthening our ankles in all available planes of motion.

The next phase of the walking matrix is the side to side or frontal plane movements. Same starting position with standing on the affected side. This time imagine there is a line that goes through the middle of your foot separating your foot front to back. 


When doing this part of the exercise you can only step on that line with your unaffected side. If you are tapping your toe out to the right side then both hands will swing to the left. If tapping toe to the left then both hands will swing to the right. 


The last plane of motion is rotation or the transverse plane. Here imagine that a 45 degree line is going through your stance or affected foot/ankle. Now tap the unaffected toe up and across then down and back. This movement should facilitate rotation through the stance leg, hips, and trunk. Similar to the other movements swing arms opposite the direction that the leg is swinging. 


  1. Single Leg Stance With Arm Drivers Out of Sync 

Start by standing on the affected side. Lift the opposite foot off the ground supporting all of your weight on the affected leg. If this is too challenging you can lightly touch your toe down on the opposite leg which will make balancing easier.

Now with both hands over head, one arm will reach forward as the other reaches   back. Then switch. Similar to the previous exercise the faster the arms move the greater the balance challenge and the more stress the ankle has to overcome with its stability. 


Next swing the arms side to side with them over head, think jumping jack arms. Lastly is rotation where we swing our arms in front of us like we are giving ourselves a hug then arms out wide. All the while standing on one leg.


If this exercise is too challenging without additional support consider using a toe touch on the non stance leg to improve your balance. 


  1. Single Leg Stance With Arm Drivers in Sync 


This is the more advanced version of the exercise listed above. The major difference with this one is both of the arms will swing in unison creating a greater challenge for the stance ankle and leg. The further you swing your arms outside of your frame the greater the challenge to your balance and ankle stability. 


With the out of sync arm drivers, or arms swinging opposite directions, your center of mass stays mostly over your base of support. In this version of the exercise your center of mass begins to drift away from your base of support towards the direction of the arm swing. Therefore a greater balance challenge is created here. The faster the arm swings, the more challenging the exercise.


Start with both hands over your head and swing them together front and back. Then side to side. Lastly with arms reached out in front of you rotate them all the way to the left then all the way to the right. 


  1. 3D Heel Raises


This exercise is best performed on a step or some kind of elevated surface which enables your heels to fall towards the floor further than the ball of your foot. This will ensure that you are strengthening your ankles in a full range of motion and maximizing the benefit of the exercise. 


For this exercise first we place the ball of our foot on the step then allow the heel to fall down towards the floor as far as possible. Next, keeping your knees relatively straight, raise the heels as far up as possible and pause at the top of the movement for at least half a count. 


Similar to the previously discussed exercises we don’t want to strengthen this movement in only one position or plane. So now we can do the same movement with both of our toes pointed inwards towards each other. This will strengthen the ankles and calf muscles more on the inside.


The last step is to complete another set of heel raises with the toes pointed out or the heels closer together. Now we have strengthened that movement in all planes and positions that the body may demand for activity. 


  1. 3D Jumps With Single Leg Landing


3D jumps with single leg land- This exercise should be reserved for those who are not seriously limited by ankle weakness, pain, limited mobility or dysfunction. Think of this exercise as something to strive for if you are an athlete or are very active. Please don’t attempt this exercise unless you can safely and relatively easily complete the others on the list 


This exercise requires jumping and landing with all of your force onto one leg. Considerably more force is produced from jumping and landing on one leg than just walking. So before we would try this exercise it is important that we have a baseline level of strength and we are not overly limited by weak ankles. 


To begin, jump with both feet and stick the landing on the affected side. When we say stick the landing we are referring to no false steps upon landing. Once your landing foot hits the floor it “sticks” in that location and the force is absorbed through triple flexion. 


Triple flexion refers to dorsiflexion of the ankle, knee flexion, and hip flexion. Or another way to say it is the ankle flexes, the knee bends, and your trunk gets close to the ground as your hip hinges. This is the proper way to absorb force throughout the body when coming down from a jump. 


Once again the human body does not just move forward and back, we also move side to side and rotationally. Therefore, when jumping let’s think of a clock. Don’t make two jumps to the same place. Think of a clock that is drawn on the floor and you are standing in the center where the hands meet. 


If you are working on strengthening the left ankle, land at 12 o’clock, 11 o clock, 10 o clock, 9 o clock and so on until 6 o’clock is reached. If you are strengthening the right ankle land at 12 o’clock, 1 o clock, 2 o’clock and so on until 6 o’clock is reached. This multi-directional movement will ensure that your ankle will be challenged in all planes of movement so your body will be ready to tackle any challenge. 


The importance of proper ankle stability cannot be overstated. Weak ankles can be a driver for chronic knee, hip, and back pain. You don’t have to live a life of pain! There is always a natural solution. Unfortunately that natural solution is not always the quickest or the easiest, but it is the one that will solve the problem for good with very few if any side effects. 


As always this free information is in no way intended to be a substitute for a skilled movement screen and precise exercise prescription. When in doubt listen to your body and if it hurts you probably shouldn’t be doing it. If you need further assistance please reach out to a local movement professional.  


If I can be of any further assistance please call/text/e-mail me for your in person Physical Therapy in Destin Florida. Not in the area? We also offer Virtual Physical Therapy or Telehealth appointments online.


Please our other content at healixtherapy.com/blog


Until next time…

Be well and stay lifted,


Robert Linson, PT, FAFS, FMR, TPS

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