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A lack of ankle mobility is a common culprit of poor squat depth or poor squatting mechanics, leaving lifters frustrated with their performance.
As someone who has both fractured their foot and suffered from Achilles tendinitis, limited ankle mobility didn’t come as a surprise to me, but there are ways around it, and you shouldn’t let it stop you from achieving your goals.
So, how do you increase ankle mobility for back or front squats? Try some of these 13 ankle mobility exercises:
- 1. Calf Foam Rolling with Ankle Dorsiflexion + Rotation
- 2. Anterior Tibialis (Shin) Foam Rolling
- 3. Resisted Dorsiflexion with Band
- 4. Calf Barbell Smash
- 5. Slow-Eccentric Calf Raises
- 6. Ankle Banded Distractions
- 7. Ankle PAILs and RAILs
- 8. Squat Hold with Barbell on Knees
- 9. Squat With Heels on Plates
- 10. Use Heeled Squat Shoes
- 11. Flare Your Toes While Squatting
- 12. Goblet Squats
- 13. Box Squats
Remember, however, that the same underlying reasons don’t always cause restricted ankles, and so not every mobility drill or dynamic stretch will work for everyone.
Also, improving mobility is a long-term commitment and won’t fix all your problems immediately.
This article will go over drills you can start implementing today in your warm-up to improve your ankle mobility, as well as several options for those who don’t want to wait and have more immediate strength goals related to squats.
As you’ll read, one of the best ways to improve ankle mobility is to wear heeled squat shoes. I wrote a complete guide on heeled squat shoes and provided the best recommendations in my article on the Best Shoes for Squats. Make sure to check it out!
Why Is Ankle Mobility Important?
We often hear mobility being mentioned when we’re talking about squats. However, improving ankle flexibility is important for your overall health and well-being.
The flexibility of your ankle impacts your ability to exercise. It impacts your movement patterns, which can impact your daily living. Poor ankle mobility can result in poor posture, muscle tightness, joint stiffness, and chronic pain, which can lower your quality of life.
Why Is Ankle Mobility Important For Squatting?
You need your ankle to bend or flex to get into a stable and strong squat position.
The ankle is one of several joints involved in squatting and is important because its ability to flex will allow for deeper and more stable squatting. If you lack mobility and stability in your ankles, you may feel like you are going to rock back or fall over when you come down into a squatted position.
Some lifters may also find their demands are higher, like long-legged lifters or lifters who squat in a narrow squat stance. This is because both of these circumstances require a greater degree of flexion to hit an appropriate depth.
In addition, certain squat variations also require a greater degree of ankle mobility, including front squats and high bar back squats, particularly when compared to low back squats.
We address this topic in greater detail in my article on Should Powerlifters Train Calves?
Want to improve your squat technique?
Assessing Ankle Mobility For Squats
Before thinking about getting better ankle mobility, you should assess your ankles to determine their current flexibility. There are several ways to check if your ankles would benefit from some mobility work, including assessing your squat, the lateral tibial glide, the knee-to-wall test, and doing a plate squat.
Assess Your Squat
Record your squat from both the side and front angle, and look at how your heels, knees, and ankles are moving.
If you see your heels coming up during the squat or if you see the foot roll out, you may be dealing with an ankle mobility issue. Additionally, if you notice your knees coming inwards as you come out of the bottom of a squat, you may also have a restricted ankle joint.
Another easy test is to just try a bodyweight squat with a flat foot and see if you can comfortably come down and stay in the position without feeling any pulling in the shins, ankles or calves, or feel any pinching at the front of the foot.
Someone with poor ankle mobility may find it hard to balance in the squat. If that's you, check out my article on Losing Balance While Squatting: 10 Tips To Fix.
Lateral Tibial Glide
Lateral tibial glide is a simple test to see if you have any restrictions in your ankle joints.
To perform the test, you must be in a lunge position with your front foot firmly pressing into the ground and your back leg kneeling.
You will then shift your knee to the right and lift, watching if your foot starts to leave the ground almost immediately. A healthy ankle joint will let you shift side to side with the foot flat on the ground.
Knee To Wall Test
A knee-to-wall test is a good way to test your ankle mobility and give you insight into where your restriction stems from.
To perform the test, measure and place your big toe about 5 inches (about 10 cm) from a wall. Now lunge into your front foot as much as possible and try to get your knee to touch the wall.
If you notice your knee caving inwards or you feel a pinching at the front of the ankle joint. You likely have a restricted joint.
Alternatively, if you notice your heel coming up and a pulling or tightness in the back of the ankle by the Achilles tendon, you likely have tissue tightness in the ankle stemming from tight calves.
Do A Plate Squat
A simple way to screen and see if your ankles are to blame for issues with squats is to give them some help. This will be helpful if you notice your heels rising during squats.
Place a plate under your heels and go into a squat. If all your problems seem to disappear after you’ve done this one action, your ankles may be your limiting factor to good squat performance.
If you're a powerlifter, learn how low you need to go for powerlifting squats in competition.
13 Exercises To Improve Ankle Mobility For Squats
Knowing how to increase ankle mobility is vital when you want to get a better squat. Luckily, there are plenty of great ankle mobility stretches that you can do to improve the range of motion around these joints.
Give the following ankle flexibility exercises a go to improve your squat.
1. Calf Foam Rolling with Ankle Dorsiflexion + Rotation
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you.
- Place a foam roller under one of your calves while supporting your body weight with your hands and your other leg.
- Gently rock yourself back and forth to roll your calf over the foam roller. As you’re doing so, point your toes up toward the ceiling before dropping them down toward the floor to take your ankle through its full range of motion.
- Repeat on the other leg.
A great way to self-release any tightness in the ankles and improve ankle flexibility is by using a foam roller on your calves.
However, in addition to rolling through the muscle itself, you will want to stop on areas of tension and then move your ankle in all ranges of motion.
To set yourself up, place one leg outstretched on the foam roller and cross the other leg over the top of the straight leg. If you want extra pressure, prop yourself on your hands and roll through the muscle.
Once you find a spot of tension, flex your foot toward you, point it away from you, and repeat, sinking the muscle deeper into the roller.
In addition to dorsiflexion, you can also keep the foam roller still while rotating your ankles in a 360-degree motion. This will release the calves and warm up your ankle joints.
2. Anterior Tibialis (Shin) Foam Rolling
- Lie on the floor in a prone position with the foam roller under one of your shins.
- Gently rock yourself back and forth to roll your shin over the foam roller. Make sure to roll along the full length of the anterior tibialis.
- Repeat on the other leg.
In addition to foam rolling the calves, foam rolling along the anterior tibialis muscle can benefit those with limited ankle mobility.
Not only will this self-release make your ankles feel a bit more limber, but it may also help you avoid or relieve shin splints if you get those from squatting or other activities.
Like with the calf foam rolling, you can also point and flex your foot while on the foam roller to further release the muscles that are controlling the dorsiflexion of your ankle.
In our article, Should Powerlifters Do Yoga, we explain how certain yoga poses may help increase your ankle mobility.
3. Resisted Dorsiflexion with Band
- Sit on the floor with your legs fully extended in front of you
- Place the resistance band around the arch of one of your feet, keeping your toes pointing up toward the ceiling
- Slowly point your toes toward the floor before returning them to the starting position. Repeat this several times on the same foot, then repeat on the other side
Resisted dorsiflexion with a band is an easy ankle mobility stretch that can be done with any resistance band and is often prescribed for those with ankle injuries.
In a seated position with your leg straight in front of you, loop a resistance band around and pull on your foot while actively pushing back into the band. Hold the flexed foot position for about 15 seconds and repeat a few times on each leg.
4. Calf Barbell Smash
- Kneel on the floor with one knee on the floor and the other at a 90-degree angle, with your foot flat on the floor.
- Carefully place the end of a barbell on the calf resting on the floor and roll it up and down the muscle several times.
- Repeat on the other leg.
The barbell can be used as a self-release or massage tool by rolling it directly on the calves to help with tightness. This may be uncomfortable, and it is advised to start with a lighter barbell available or have a training partner close by who can lift off the barbell in case the pressure becomes too much.
In a kneeling position, place the barbell on the calf of your kneeling leg and slowly move it over the muscle, pausing on any point of tension.
5. Slow-Eccentric Calf Raises
- Stand on a raised platform with one foot and the heel hanging off the platform.
- Slowly lower your heel as far as it will go to stretch the calf before going onto your toes.
- Repeat this movement several times before repeating it on the other leg.
Slow-eccentric calf raises with elevated toes are a great dynamic warm-up to add to your workouts and increase ankle mobility if calf tightness limits your ankle mobility.
With your toes positioned on a weight plate or low platform, bring your heels up and slowly let them sink to the ground. This exercise will warm up the ankles, dynamically stretch out the calves, and relieve some tightness.
6. Ankle Banded Distractions
- Step one foot on a raised platform with a long resistance band wrapped around the ankle
- Push your knee forward to stretch your calf. Slowly move your knee back and forth to take the calf into and out of its end range of motion
- Repeat this several times on the same leg before repeating it on the other side
If you felt a pinching at the front of your ankle or foot when you tried the knee-to-wall ankle mobility test, you will benefit from using banded ankle mobility drills.
Fasten a resistance band around a pole, place it over the top of your foot (not around your shin), and step the foot up to a box or platform. Once in position, lunge forward and hold for a few seconds before releasing. This drill will allow your ankle to move deeper and give you extra mobility.
Related Article: 7 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Ankles
7. Ankle PAILs and RAILs
- Kneel on the floor in a deep lunge and push yourself forward to stretch the calf to its full range of motion. Make sure your heel doesn’t come off the floor.
- When you’re at the end of the movement, raise your toes up to the ceiling.
- Repeat this on the same leg for several repetitions before moving to the other leg.
Ankle PAILs and RAILs are a form of isometric loading to help with range of motion and require no equipment, and can be added to your pre-squat warm-up.
In a lunged position, you will bend your front ankle to its limit without letting the heel lift and then press into the ground with your foot as firmly as possible. The second portion of the drill is done by “pulling” your toes up towards your shins. Between each hold, rock your ankle and sink into a new range of motion and hold.
8. Squat Hold with Barbell on Knees
- Get into as deep of a squat as possible and rest a barbell on the midpoint of your thighs
- Hold this position for as long as possible to feel the stretch in your calves
Coming down into a deep squat with a barbell resting just above your knees can be a great way to practice the deep squat position and stretch your ankles.
If your current strength level doesn’t allow you to keep a 45lbs bar on your legs, you can modify this by placing a kettlebell on your leg and stretching one leg at a time instead.
9. Squat with Heels on Plates
- Place two small plates on the floor, hip or shoulder-width apart (the plates should be as far apart as your feet are during squats).
- Load your barbell accordingly and lift it off the rack onto your upper back.
- Place your heels on the plates and squat as normal. You should be able to squat deeper because the plates elevate your heels.
If you do not feel strong or comfortable doing squats and ankle mobility drills haven’t improved your range of motion enough to make them feel better, placing a plate under your heels may be a solution.
By elevating your heels, you decrease the angle needed to be achieved by your ankle to come down into a full squat. Although using plates isn’t a good long-term solution for those with competitive lifting goals, if you don’t have any other options and you need to do some squats, grabbing some small plates and placing them under your heels will give you the relief you need.
I wrote an entire guide to squatting with your plates on heels if you want more information on this variation.
10. Use Heeled Squat Shoes
If you find placing a plate under your heels works well for you, investing in a pair of heeled squat shoes may be the right decision for your performance.
I am a lifter who chooses to squat in squat shoes because I have the option available to me, and I know my ankle mobility can be very unpredictable. Using shoes with a heel works on the same principle as squatting with plates under your heels. The difference is that shoes can offer a more permanent and reliable fix and one acceptable in competition.
For more information, check our article on the best squat shoes.
11. Flare Your Toes While Squatting
Choosing a squat stance with your toes pointed outwards rather than straight ahead will make sinking into a squat easier if you struggle with ankle mobility restrictions.
There are a variety of different squat stances that work for different lifters. Flaring out your toes is no less optimal for performance, especially if not doing so prevents you from squatting.
I can only squat with flared toes, no matter how many warm-ups or drills I do. You just need to ensure your knees track in the direction of your toes throughout the movement.
12. Goblet Squats
- Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell and hold it with both hands by your chest.
- Squat as deep as you can while keeping your torso upright and the dumbbell or kettlebell close to your chest.
- Squat for several reps and repeat for 3-4 sets.
Goblet squats are a squat variation that makes it easier to sink low without great ankle mobility. They can also be used as an alternative exercise or to work your ankles up to doing barbell back squats.
To do a goblet squat, hold a dumbbell, or kettlebell, at chest level and squat down, keeping the weight close to your body. Although the movement is a squat, you will notice that getting into a stable squat position will be much easier because the weight is in the front.
Goblet squats can also be used as a mobility drill if you choose a lighter weight and just hold in the squatted position.
Looking for other mobility routines? Check out: Sumo Deadlift Mobility: 10 Exercises With Full Routine
13. Box Squats
- Place a plyo box or bench behind you.
- Place a barbell on your back or hold a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate by your chest.
- Squat down until your buttocks lightly tap the box or bench before returning to standing.
- Repeat this movement for several reps and a total of 3-4 sets.
Box squats are a variation of regular barbell back squats that don’t require as much ankle mobility in order to complete the lift.
As you progressively work towards improving your ankle mobility, it may be necessary to take a few steps back and start with box squats. Or, if squats are not a focus for you now and you just need a heavy leg exercise, opting for box squats may do the trick.
Want more exercises to help your squat depth? Check out my article on 22 Exercises That Will Help You Squat Deeper.
Improving Ankle Mobility After An Injury
Improving ankle mobility after an injury involves performing similar exercises to those I have mentioned above. Depending on your injury type, you may need to modify certain stretches or drills to avoid aggravating the injury.
I would always recommend consulting a qualified physical therapist before you attempt any new ankle mobility drills while recovering from an injury. If the area is still painful, you may need to practice some corrective exercises for ankle mobility to regain strength and stability in the joint.
For example, if you’re dealing with an injury to the ankle tendon, practicing dynamic movements that increase the range of motion around the ankle will be helpful. However, with other injuries, such as a sprained ankle, static ankle mobility stretches might be more suitable.
Foam rolling can be helpful after an ankle injury to relieve muscle tension and improve blood flow to the area, which can speed up the recovery process.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Causes Poor Ankle Mobility?
A number of different things can cause poor ankle mobility, including a general lack of flexibility in the lower leg muscles (the gastrocnemius and soleus) or issues with the ankle joint itself caused by previous injuries or surgery. Regular use of high heels can cause tightness in the calves, leading to poor ankle mobility.
If you fail to focus on your ankle nobility, it can worsen over the years. Ultimately, if you don't use it, you lose it. In other words, if you don't push your ankle to its end range of motion, you will eventually lose your ability to reach this range. This can impact your ability to achieve a deep squat.
How Long Does It Take for Ankle Mobility To Improve?
There is no specific length of time to improve ankle mobility. It largely depends on your existing joint flexibility and how often you practice ankle mobility drills. On average, you will start to see improvements within 2-4 weeks of daily practice.
Does Walking Backward Help Ankle Mobility?
Walking backward (known as reverse walking) can improve ankle mobility and range of motion. It is often used in physical therapy to improve people’s lower body movement patterns and gait.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you can confidently answer the question of ‘how can I improve ankle mobility?'
Having stiff ankles isn’t uncommon, especially if you are generally sedentary, have a history of foot injuries, or are just new to squatting.
The necessary ankle mobility to do back or front squats will improve over time if you continue to place stress on them by doing squats. However, you don’t want to compromise your squat mechanics as you just passively wait for your ankles to adapt.
This article's ankle mobility exercises and modifications can help you get the most out of squats right now. Ultimately, you can actively train and improve your ankle mobility or elevate your heels as many lifters still do, even at a high level.
Remember that increasing ankle mobility can take time. It's not going to be an overnight task but staying consistent with practicing all of the above exercises for ankle flexibility will give you the best long-term results.
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