How to Build Stronger Ankles: Mobility, Stability, & Balance

By on March 16, 2022

Building stronger ankles may not be a priority of yours right now, but it probably should be. Your ankles are the first line of defense against the force of gravity. They are what allow you to transfer power into the floor, which is crucial for countless explosive movements.

Ankles are also critical for balance and agility. Your ankles are key players when it comes to righting yourself if you are off balance, and they allow for rapid direction change and deceleration. If your ankles are tight, if they experience pain, or if they’re just not as strong as they could be… you won’t be moving optimally.

Ankle Strength

So, with that in mind, what can we do to address this issue?

Anatomy of the Ankle

The ankle joint, or talocrural joint, is a hinge synovial joint. It is capable of up and down movement (plantar and dorsi flexion). As has been the case with previous joints, a lot of movement in the ankle is actually generated from elsewhere. Specifically, we’re talking about the lower leg. That said, we can’t really talk about ankles without also talking about feet.

Slacklining

In fact, inversion and eversion (tilting the ankle) are not actually handled by the ankle joint strictly, but rather by other joints within the foot! Anatomically, the subtalar joint is a synovia articulation between the talus and calcaneus. It’s fine if you want to call this whole area “the ankle,” though.

Fine… but wrong.

The feet themselves also contain joints that work in tandem with the ankle to allow the foot to slightly bend and contort.

Function of the Ankle

The main function of the ankle joint, is to provide stability while letting you press off the ground.

See also: How to Strengthen Knees for Rehab, Prehab, and Explosive Jumps

The ankle needs to strike a fine balance between offering mobility and stability. Were we using it in our natural setting – running through forest in bare feet – our foot would naturally need to change angle and position to account for changes in the ground beneath us. This requires mobility. From there though, it needs to also provide stability in order to lock into place and allow us to transfer power through the floor.

Ankle Mobility

Unstable Surface Training

If you are regularly twisting and spraining your ankle, or just don’t feel steady on your feet, what can you do?

One popular option at the moment is UST: Unstable Surface Training. However, this is somewhat controversial.

UST includes balancing on balance boards, exercise balls, and the like. This is an effective form of rehabilitation for those recovering from ankle injury and those dealing with weakened muscles. However, you must ease into this gently (hold onto something!) to avoid further injury.

Unstable Surface Training

The problem is that this doesn’t appear to apply to the broader population. According to some studies, standing on a balance board will primarily challenge those muscles responsible for inversion and eversion of the foot. These include the tibialis anterior and gastrocnemius (calves) for inversion, and the fibularis brevis and longus for eversion.

It turns out, the vast majority of people already have sufficient control over these muscles and are thus unlikely to see any major benefit from this type of training (study).

Or are they? As it happens, it may simply be that your typical balance board protocol fails to offer enough of a challenge (and, in some cases, may only offer challenge in a single plane).

If we swap the rubber disks used in that previous study for a slackline, we see significantly more useful results – even in trained basketball players! In one study, female basketball players that had been training with the slackline saw their jump height improve significantly alongside “postural control” and proprioception. The study authors concluded that slacklining could be a powerful cross training tool.

Slackline Bulletproof Ankles

It stands to reason that this could also improve running speed. Greater stability in the ankle = less wasted energy and greater transference into the ground. Indeed, subsequent studies have found this to be the case (study). Another study found that slackline training could improve knee joint stability to prevent injury (study).

Strong Inversion and Eversion

There are several exercises you can perform with bands to train inversion and eversion. These generally involve pronating and supinating your foot against a little resistance. But as we have seen: this will barely provide any additional strength to a muscle that is already strong enough.

We have a bit of a tendency to assume weakness is the cause of all our issues. For example, people will perform heavier and heavier deadlifts under the assumption it will mean they never put their backs out picking up a sock.

Balance

But let’s think about this for a minute: are you seriously telling me that people who put their backs out picking up socks – and I count myself among this number – are too weak to pick up socks?

And nor is the issue with technique. You should be able to round your back and bend over, even against the might resistance provided by a sock!

More likely, the issue is to do with mobility, stability, proprioception, and reflexes. Are you too tight to move comfortably through the necessary range of motion? Are your muscles arranging around the new position to provide stability?

To achieve stability and thus power, and to prevent injury, we must look at proprioception and control.

The same goes here. To achieve stability and thus power, and to prevent injury, we must look at proprioception and control. To do that, we need to provide a sufficiently challenging stimulus in three dimensions.

Even if someone pushes you from the side, your ability to remain upright has little to do with your strength. It has much more to do with your ability to sufficiently contract in time.

How can we do this conveniently at home, without investing in a slackline?

cues in learning

Well, I’d wager that training with a balance board can be useful, so long as you find one that is challenging enough for you and you find ways to increase that challenge. And no, that doesn’t mean lifting weights on there (this does little to increase the proprioceptive challenge but puts you at significantly greater risk of injury!). Though squatting while balancing can be beneficial!

Another option is to use paralletes. Placed next to each other, these can create a makeshift balance beam. And a great way to train with these is by attempting to perform a full squat. This is something that Liam from Parkour Journeys suggested I try: performing a squat on a rail requires fantastic mobility AND balance and it teaches you to maintain a center of balance and the “tripod foot.”

Strength and Stability

Now, where we do want a little strength, is in dorsiflexion and plantar flexion. In particular, we need to be able to powerfully push off from the ground when we are running and jumping.

Partly, this is a matter of ankle stiffness.

This might sound odd to anyone that has been taught that more mobility is always better. The truth is, though, when it comes to running, you need stiffness to return energy to the ground. As JC Santana told me: the ability to sprint quickly is more a matter of energy transfer than a matter of power generation. And he’s right: studies show that during sprinting, there is actually minimal contraction of the calves during plantar flexion (reference). Instead, the calves maintain an isometric contraction, and thick Achilles’ tendons act like steel springs to release stored energy. Longer, thicker tendons create faster sprinters.

Sprinting ankles

Does this mean that a sprinter shouldn’t stretch their calves?

Not exactly! You see, it’s once again less about strength or mobility in strict terms and more about the dynamic ability to meet demands. It’s about training the nervous system to react quickly, while providing the necessary strength. It’s also about being able to relax the muscles as needed. 

See also: Tendon Training for Injury Prevention and Explosive Power

For the most well-rounded performance, you should have thick, strong tendons and the ability to rapidly, statically contract the calf muscles. A great way to train this is with skipping or, better yet, single-leg skipping. Other good options include calf jumps. Hill sprints are also excellent for strengthening the ankles.

See also: Hill Sprint Benefits for Athletic Performance (Sprinting, Jumping, Kicking)

But hill sprints are also excellent for encouraging proper dorsiflexion (pulling the toe up) to increase the range of motion in the foot (of course, this is due to the angle that the foot hits the floor). This is like loading the foot ready to exert force. When a sprinter is on the block, their foot is greatly dorsiflexed, and they should be able to generate massive power from this position where there is the greatest range of motion.

Mobility for Squats and More

Ensuring good mobility in the ankles is crucial for getting into a healthy, deep squat. If you feel as though you are falling backwards when you try and get into a resting squat (barefoot), or a pistol squat, there’s a good chance it’s due to poor ankle mobility.

This type of mobility is also crucial for changing direction and deep lunging while preventing injury.

Split Squat

The tendon should be strong with low hysteresis, but you should have ideal neurological control over the calf and shin muscles so as to be able to relax and reach those larger ranges of motion. Moreover, you should have strength and control in those end range positions.

A great way to achieve this, is by getting into deep squatting positions with natural dorsiflexion, under resistance. One of the best examples is the excellent ATG split squat, promoted by Ben Patrick AKA Knees Over Toes Guy. He also recommends a dorsiflexed variation of the calf raise.

If you feel tightness in your calves at these positions this may be indicative of – you guessed it – tight calves! To test this, get down onto one knee and try placing your foot about 5 inches from a wall. Now lean your knee forward and try to touch the wall. If you can, that suggests your ankles are mobile enough for optimal performance.

Ankle Mobility Test

There are plenty of great stretches for the calves that can help to deal with this. A deep, weighted calf raise is great for this, for example. As is downward dog, keeping the heels on the floor, or the elephant walk variation. Shout out to squat university, who has a great video on this!

Joint Distractions

Alternatively, you may feel a kind of “blockage” at the top of the foot as you try to lean forward. This can be caused by scar tissue, bone spurs, or a misaligned fibia – any of which are fairly common especially among athletes. In fact, this is one of the fun issues I’ve had to deal with in the past!

Joint Distraction

The solution for this, is to use a resistance band to perform joint distractions. Here, you are going to wrap the band around the talus – between the front of the ankle and the bridge of the foot – and anchor it behind and slightly downward. The aim is to open up the joint and create space, allowing you to ease into that full range of motion without discomfort. Perform about 15 repetitions, holding each position for 5 seconds, and you should notice an immediate increase in comfortable range of motion when you continue training. Over time, this should also lead to permanent adaptations and help to restore normal function. It did for me and I’ve been loving my legs again ever since. If you want more on this, Jeff Cavaliere of Athlean-X has a bunch of excellent videos.

Anterior Tibialis Raise

Another piece of the puzzle is the anterior tibialis raise. I’m not going to go into this in a lot of detail, seeing as I’ve discussed it a fair bit already. But basically, you want to train the tibialis anterior – the muscle on the front of the shin that plays a large role in dorsiflexion. This not only allows you to lift the foot better – useful for sprinting and running and for preventing shuffling as you get older – but it also provides some shock absorption when landing or decelerating. This is great rehab and prehab for those suffering from shin splints, too.

This is another one recommended by Ben Patrick and Tom Merrick, and can be done on a wedge for increase range of motion and challenge. Another fantastic way to train the tibialis anterior? Swimming!

And once again, we also need to consider the foot itself, particularly for plantar flexion. Specifically, we’re talking toe flexors. When jumping, we don’t just use our calves, but also muscles like the flexor digitorum longus, which is a deep muscle of the leg that runs from the tibialis posterior (near the soleus) and attaches to the four smaller toes. These also have a crucial role in maintaining the arch of the foot, and thereby enabling the “tripod foot.” The tripod foot is the ideal foot position during movements like the squat that maintains three points of contact with the ground and thereby achieves excellent stability.

The flexor hallucis longus, meanwhile, flexes the big toe and is one of the driving forces when pushing off the floor. Gripping onto the floor slightly with the toes even allows for more traction when running. The good news is that toe flexor muscles respond to training, and this has been shown to translate to faster running, better direction changing, etc. Fun fact, the extensor digitorum longus is also involves in rotating the foot outwards.

Barefoot Benefits

Our feet actually have a number of reflexes which ensure they properly shape themselves to match the ground beneath. For example, the plantar reflex occurs when you stimulate the sole of the foot and, in healthy adults, should trigger flexion in the big toe.

Vivobarefoot shoes

The natural ability of the toes to spread out and contor to the ground is a big deal in aiding the ankle with stability challenges. If your foot lands in a rabbit hole, you should find your toes naturally spread out to fill the hole, and your foot bends slightly. The same thing can work if half the foot hits that hole, while the proprioceptive information returned to your brain is what enables you to rapidly engage the correct muscles and create tension in the right places.

In short, what I’m getting at, is that proper function of your ankles is dependent on proper function of your feet. At the very best thing you can do for your feet immediately is to get out of large shoes with a heel drop and thick sole. These deaden all the senses in your feet, they squish your toes together to narrow your surface area, they create tension in the calves, they support muscles leading to potential disuse and weakness, they shorten the calves, they eliminate any benefit of toe flexion, and they completely remove those crucial reflexes.

Running for stronger knees

One of the very best things you can do for your foot AND ankle performance right now, is to invest in some barefoot shoes.

And here’s the thing: running barefoot trails will provide almost all the benefits we’ve discussed here, naturally. This is a natural form of unstable surface training, as you must adapt to differences in each stride. You’ll be training the muscles of the foot and lower leg to provide stability, and you’ll conveniently include uphill and downhill running .

See also: Why Everyone Should Run (Like Bruce Lee)

Again, trail running barefoot is training you to develop stability in the ankles so as to be able to generate maximum power with minimal energy leakage. It also naturally increases range of motion on all planes.

And this isn’t just speculation. In one study, it was found that habitual barefoot running could train children to sprint with shorter ground contact time and increase jump height (study).

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.