How to Strengthen Ankles for Life

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Look down at your feet for a second.

Yea, those are your ankles down there.

More likely than not, you put very little thought into them. You kind of just expect them to work. Flawlessly.

But our ankles are precious. They do a lot for us. We don’t realize it, but each day our ankles go through a lot of stress just to support us in the activities we choose to do – even if it may just be standing or walking. On a daily basis, our ankle joints are constantly bombarded with forces from all different directions. They work hard to keep us up and running.

That being said, it’s really important that we take care of them – that we strengthen them.

I want to show you a number of ankle strengthening exercises that you can perform on a regular basis to ensure your ankles are apt for supporting you in all activities you choose to perform. I want to show you how to strengthen ankles for life.

Before we get into the exercises, let’s first go over the anatomy of the ankle. I think it’s important that you have a general understanding of how the ankle is structured before you can attempt to strengthen it.

Anatomy of the Ankle Joint

The ankle joint has a somewhat unique design that makes it very stable, because it has to be. The ankle joint is required to withstand 1.5 times your body weight when you walk and that number skyrockets to 8 times your bodyweight when you run!

Your ankle joint is complex. It is composed of a number of muscles, ligaments, and tendons that all work together to support the ankle joint as it works to support your body. But instead of getting bogged down with the details, it’s best to keep things simple.

The ankle joint is comprised of three bones: the distal (lowest) end of the tibia, the fibula (small bone of lower leg) and the talus (bone that fits into the socket formed by the tibia and the fibula).

Bones that Make up Ankle Joint (Source: Riverside)

As you can see,the talus sits on top of the calcaneus (the heel bone) and moves mainly in one direction. It kind of works like a hinge as it allows your foot to move up (dorsiflexion) and down (plantarflexion).

The ankle has a number of ligaments on both sides of the ankle joint that hold the bones together. It also has many tendons that cross the ankle to move the ankle and move the toes. If you were to look inside the joint, you would see that the bones are covered with a smooth material known as articular cartilage which allows the bones to move against one another in the joints of the body. It is like your shock absorption system.

Ankle Joint Ligaments and Tendons (Source: Rehab Authority)

There is really no need to go into detail describing each component. All you need to understand is that the components intricately work together to keep your ankle strong as it supports your body. If you’re interested in the details, you can check out this video here that shows you exactly what the ankle joint is made up of.

So now that we’ve gone over the anatomy of the ankle joint, let’s get into the important stuff – how to strengthen ankles for life.

I’m going to show you a number of ankle strengthening exercises that you can perform to strengthen the ligaments and the surrounding musculature that support your ankle. I’m also going to show you a few stabilization exercises that will improve the ability of your ankle to stabilize itself under varying loads that it encounters during our daily living activities (and especially during high intensity, fast-paced, direction-changing activities).

Ankle Strengthening Exercises with a Resistance Band

These exercises are designed to progressively load the connective tissues in your ankle joint. Performing these exercises will improve the ability of your ankle to resist varying loads that it may encounter. These exercises are often recommended by physical therapists during rehabilitation programs because they are effective for strengthening the connective tissues that support your ankle.

You’ll need a simple resistance band to perform these exercises. You can get these resistance bands at any health & fitness store and they are relatively cheap. They come in different colours to differentiate the different resistances.

Ankle Strengthening Exercise 1 – Alphabet

The first ankle strengthening exercise does not require the resistance band. This exercise is designed to loosen up the ankle joint by putting it through its full range of motion. This exercise will also improve the blood flow to the ankle.

This exercise can be done either standing up, sitting down or laying down –you can pretty much do it anywhere at any time. Elevate one foot a time and simply write out each letter of the alphabet. Focus on really moving the ankle through its full range of motion – feel the connective tissues stretching and relaxing.  Perform the same movement with the other ankle.

Ankle Alphabet Exercise

If you know other languages, try using them as well. If you don’t, alternate between lowercase and uppercase (or mix them up). Constantly put your ankle through varying movements.

Ankle Strengthening Exercise 2 – Plantarflexion & Dorsiflexion

The second ankle strengthening exercise will require a resistance band. If you are new to this, start with a light resistance band (the colours will identify the resistance). This exercise is designed to strengthen your ankle as it goes through plantar and dorsiflexion.

Sit down on a hard but comfortable surface. Extend one leg out in front of you and tuck the other foot in so your sole is touching your thigh (see picture below for reference). Place the resistance band around the ankle and hold the ends with your hands. Now, at a slow pace, move your ankle into plantarflexion and return it back to starting position. This exercise is to be performed one ankle at a time.

Plantarflexion with Resistance Band

You can change the resistance by changing where you hold the resistance band with your hands. As you progress, you can move onto higher-rated resistance bands. The second movement is that for dorsiflexion. Tie the resistance band around a support system and place the other end of the loop around your foot. The starting position [1] should be with your foot pointing forward. Against the resistance created by the band, pull your foot towards you in a dorsiflexion position [2]. Then bring it back to starting position. This should be done at a slow cadence.

Dorsiflexion with Resistance Band

Similarly, you can change the resistance by moving closer or further away from the support beam.

Perform: 40 repetitions total (20 plantarflexion + 20 dorsiflexion)

Ankle Strengthening Exercise 3 – Eversion & Inversion

The third ankle strengthening exercise also requires a resistance band. You’ll also need some sort of support that you can tie the resistance band to (a slightly heavier chair or table leg works fine). This exercise focuses on strengthening the ankle as it goes through eversion and inversion.

Sit down with one leg straight out in front of you. Tie the two ends of the resistance band to the support you’ve chosen and place the loop portion around your ankle. Position yourself so that the support is directly to the right of your ankle. The resistance will change depending on how close or far you position your ankle from the support. With the resistance band looped around, laterally move your ankle inwards against the resistance. You’ll notice the ankle naturally turns in a bit – allow it to do so. Move at a slow pace and don’t let the resistance band spring your ankle back. Maintain control.

Inversion with Resistance Band

Once you perform the exercise on one side, you’ll want to position your ankle on the other side of the support and work your ankle laterally in the other direction (bend laterally away from the midline of your body). Once again, your ankle will naturally turn out a bit. This is known as eversion.

Ankle Eversion

Like I mentioned earlier, you can change the resistance by positioning your ankle either closer or farther away from the support.

Perform: 40 repetitions total (20 inversion + 20 eversion)

Ankle Strengthening Exercises with Stabilization

The first series of exercises were designed to improve the strength of the connective tissues that support your ankle. The following exercises are a little bit different – they are primarily designed to teach your ankle and its supporting tissues to stabilize itself under varying loads on uneven surfaces.

Our ankles are rarely subject to consistently flat surfaces. Instead, whether we train or simply go about our daily lives, we are constantly moving on uneven terrain. More so, the surfaces are never the same – some are hard while others are soft. These are all things that our ankles have to quickly take into consideration and react to in order to stabilize our bodies and keep us moving flawlessly.

The following exercises are designed to help you improve in this area. On top of that, you’re going to identify any balance issues you may have. These simple ankle stabilization exercises will demand a good level of balance, especially as you progress from one tool to the next, so prepare for your balance to improve as well.

There are many stabilizing tools out there that you can use for these exercises. I want to show you three of them that you can use progressively. You can perform the same exercises I outline using all of these tools, but some are much more challenging than others. I am going to show you how you can progress from one to another.

Tools for Ankle Stabilization

Tool 1: Towel (beginner)

The first stabilization tool I want to introduce is the towel. Grab a big towel – the bigger the towel, the more challenging the stabilization becomes. Fold the towel a few times until it looks like the picture below.

Folded towel for stabilization.

Tool 2: Bosu ball (intermediate)

The Bosu ball is a half-ball shaped stabilization tool that can be found at any gym. It’s great for challenging your stabilization in more ways than one. If you’re just starting out with this tool, flip the Bosu ball so the half sphere is facing down and you’re standing on a flat surface. As you advance, you can flip the ball around so you’re standing on the half-sphere. You’ll quickly notice the difference as you try it out.

Tool 3: Stability Disk (advanced)

The stability disk is an advanced stabilization tool because it demands a tremendous amount of balance and stabilzation. You can find this tool in most gyms.

Now that we’ve gone over the tools that are available, let’s see how to strengthen ankles using each one of them. 

Ankle Stabilization Exercise 1: 10 second hold

The first ankle stabilization exercise is a simple 10 second hold. Grab one of the stabilization tools above (once again, if you are a beginner, start with the towel and progress to the other tools as you feel more comfortable). This exercise will improve your ankles ability to stabilize itself on an uneven surface while improving your balance at the same time.

Set the tool on the ground and simply stand on it. Hold the position for 10 seconds and switch to the other leg.

Ankle Stabilization: 1) Towel, 2) Bosu Ball, 3) Stability Disc

Key things to remember:

  • Keep your head up and facing forwards,
  • Keep your eye on one point to help you with balance,
  • The knee of your balancing leg can be slightly bent.

Note that as you progress with this exercise, you can move to longer holding periods to further challenge your ankle stability.

Perform: 3 sets of 10 second holds

Ankle Stabilizing Exercise 2: 10 second hold with medicine ball

The second ankle stabilization exercise is a slightly advanced version of the first exercise. You’re going to be holding the same 10 second hold, only this time you’re going to be holding a medicine ball straight in front of you. What this does is add an external load that your ankles have to account for. The exercise will teach your ankles to stabilize itself with external loads. This is something you need for every day life as you move about carrying various objects.

Grab one of the tools above and a medicine ball. Start with a light medicine ball and move up in weight as your ankle strength and balance improve. Stand on the stabilization tool and hold the medicine ball straight out in front of you. Hold this position for 10 seconds and switch to the other leg.

Loaded Ankle Stabilization: 1) Towel, 2) Bosu Ball, 3) Stability Disc

Key things to remember:

  • The knee of your balancing leg should be slightly bent, not fully extended,
  • Keep your arms fully extended in front of you,
  • Keep your head up and facing forwards.

If you want to make this exercise more challenging, instead of holding the medicine ball straight out in front of you, move it vertically and laterally to keep changing where the external load is applied. You can also move to a heavier medicine ball and extend your holding periods.

Perform: 3 sets of 10 second holds

To summarize

So there you have it – a simple guide on how to strengthen ankles for life. Keep in mind how much stress your ankles are put through to support you in your daily activities. Remember how hard they work to keep you running. This is why it’s important to take care of them.

These are simple exercises that you can perform anywhere at any time. Don’t wait until your ankles get messed up before you decide to do something. These simple exercises can and should be used as preventative maintenance – strengthen your ankles and minimize your chances of injury.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section below.

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Comments

  1. I already practice Exercise- 1 and it relieves my ankles a lot. I experience some kind of discomfort on my ankles but never tried to even study more about the anatomy of ankle joints. I’ve also tried the scandisk but I just can’t seem to balance, maybe I should make more visits to the gym and try again.

  2. Srdjan,

    I agree most of us take our ankles for granted. As a soccer player, I’ve suffered ankle injuries in the past and I know first-hand the importance of keeping them strong. I really like the exercises with the stability discs. These are great for balance and coordination as well. Also, after I started walking in my Vibrams a few times a week, I noticed my ankle pain during soccer virtually disappeared.

    Alykhan

    • I’ve played basketball for a very long time as well and have been fortunate to keep my ankles healthy because I’ve really put in the effort to strengthen the muscles and connective tissues that surround them.

      I like that you brought the Vibrams into the picture. I’ve heard great things about them when it comes to strengthening the muscles and connective tissues in your foot – ankles included. How long before you noticed a difference?

  3. Great post Srdjan, thanks for sharing these info with us. Glad that you took the time to actually take pictures of yourself demonstrating some of the movements. I am lucky that I haven’t suffered any ankle injuries before, and I don’t plan on doing so in the future by doing some of the exercises that you prescribed in this post. Thanks again!

  4. Very cool exercises to strengthen ankles. I especially like the alphabet one because it’s simple and can be done anywhere. I’m hopeful that I’ve increased my ankle strength through barefoot walking as well. I also do calf raises which I’d like to think helps a bit.

  5. Those are great exercises. I tend to do lots of stretching/moving like doing the alphabet with the ankles. But I do not do much to strengthen them. Those simple elastic bands are so versatile – who knew.

    I’ll have to give them a shot and work them into my routines. Do you think they fit better in a warm-up or cool-down?

    • Hey Troy it’s good to regularly put your ankles through their full range of motion, but it’s nice to throw in some resistance exercises as well. I would make them part of your cool-down session or simply do them separately at another time.

      And you’re right – these simple resistance bands are extremely versatile. I use them for everything!

  6. When doing the exercises is Bosu ball or stability disk, are we not supposed to wear shoes?

    • Don’t wear shoes with these exercises.

      I’d also suggest trying out Vibram shoes for everyday use to strengthen both ankles and the the small muscles in the feet that become weakened when we wear regular shoes.

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