The purpose of this blog is to discuss four different options for improving your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion.
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What Is Ankle Dorsiflexion
Dorsiflexion is a motion that occurs at the talocrural joint, otherwise known as the ankle. When dorsiflexion occurs, the forefoot raises up towards the shin.
Alternatively, it can also occur when the foot stays in contact to the ground and the shin moves forward.
Why Is Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion Important?
During dynamic activities, such as squatting, our body makes adjustments in positioning to shift load across different body segments. Having more dorsiflexion allows more options for adjusting that load.
For example, Fry 2003 demonstrated that when squatting, if you limit the knee from travelling forward, there will be an increase in torque demand at the hip. In contrast, if you let the knee travel forward, there will be reduced hip torque demand, with it shifting to a higher knee torque demand.
As well, Fugslang 2017 identified that there was an association between an individuals ankle dorsiflexion and their torso positioning. If you have more ankle dorsiflexion, you will squat with a more upright torso angle.
In contrast, if you have less ankle dorsiflexion, you’ll squat with a more bent forward torso angle. This is important for some activities that benefit from having a more upright torso. For instance, with weightlifitng, when receiving a clean or snatch in the bottom position of the squat, a more upright torso is ideal to optimize leverages and likelihood of a successful lift.
Ankle dorsiflexion is also very important during jumping. Fong 2011 examined the relationship between the amount of dorsiflexion during landing and the degree of ground reaction forces the person absorbed. They found that when individuals landed with more dorsiflexion, there were lowered ground reaction forces. This is an important finding for rehab purposes and performance.
If you’re coming back from an injury and working on building back your jumping volume, dorsiflexion can be a way to moderate the amount of ground reaction forces you experience. In contrast, for athletes who jump a significant amount, such as volleyball or basketball athletes, increasing dorsiflexion can be an option for reducing ground reaction forces during high volume periods.
How Do You Assess Your Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion?
To assess your ankle dorsiflexion, you can use the weight-bearing lunge test. This a test where you set up in half kneeling facing a wall, with our lead foot touching the wall. From there you shift forward, aiming to have your knee touch the wall while keeping your heel on the floor. If you are able to do so, progressively move further back from the wall. Once you find the maximum distance where you are able to contact the wall without your heel lifting up, measure the distance from your toes to the wall.
Gohil & Tilaye determined the normative score for individuals 20-30 years of age was 12-15cm, or approximately 4.5-5.5 inches. While this number gives some context to scoring the weight-bearing lunge test, if you want to improve your ankle dorsiflexion, use the score as a reference value as you work to increase it.
Options for Improving Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion
I am going to show you four different options that can be used to improve ankle dorsiflexion. Within each option, I will present multiple versions that you can try.
Option 1: Static Stretching
Variation 1 – Wall lean stretch. Set up in a long split stance with your hands on a wall. Lean into the wall, push your rear heel towards the ground and hold. This can be done with either a straight leg, or bent knee.
Variation 2 – Off step stretch. Standing on a step or box, with your hands holding a wall or handrail for balance. Let your heel sink down off the box or step into a stretch and hold. This can be done either with a straight or bent knee.
Variation 3 – Half kneeling ankle stretch. Set up in half kneeling and then drive your knee forward, similar to the weight bearing lunge test. Once you get out, hold the stretch. You can use your hands to push further into the stretch, or use some kind of resistance, such as a DB or KB on your knee.
There are two ways you can approach static stretching – short duration or long duration holds. Long duration holds have been found to impact strength and power in the short term, particularly in the subsequent 5-10 minutes following the stretch. If you are using a static stretch for a warm up or between sets, it’s best to keep it a short duration stretch.
For short duration stretches, perform 1-2 sets of 10-20 seconds, every day.
With long duration stretches, perform 1-2 sets of 60 seconds or longer, every other day.
If you find you are not progressing in range of motion, then look to increase the total duration of your stretching across the week – increasing your frequency, number of sets, or duration of holds.
Option 2: Dynamic Stretch
Variation 1 – half kneeling ankle rocks. Set up in half kneeling, then rock forward and back like the weight bearing lunge test, but repeat for multiple reps.
Variation 2 – Foot elevated ankle rocks. In standing with your foot elevated on a box or bench, rock forward and back, similar to the half kneeling variation.
Variation 3 – Downward Dog Ankle Marching. Start in a push up position, then lift your hips up and begin alternating driving one heel toward the ground, sinking into dorsiflexion on that side.
A common question individuals will ask about is the incorporation of a posterior band pull with ankle mobility exercises, such as these dynamic drills. This was assessed by Cruz-Diaz 2020 who found there was no significant benefit for the inclusion of banded traction movements for increasing ankle dorsiflexion range of motion.
Mizuno 2017 assessed how much volume should be performed for dynamic stretching and found that performing 4 sets was superior to 1 set, however there wasn’t a meaningful difference between 4 and 7 sets. This helps to guide you that performing multiple sets is beneficial, but you do not need to perform a ton of sets.
Focusing on performing 2-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions, 2-3 times a week is an excellent starting point, progressing the frequency, number of reps, or number of sets as needed.
Option 3: Eccentric Plantar Flexion
Eccentric means lengthening while contracting. Mahieu 2008 found that individuals performing an eccentric single leg calf raise program increased their ankle dorsiflexion range of motion.
Variation 1 – Eccentric single leg calf raise. Stand on a box or step and perform a calf raise up with two legs, then lift one leg and lower down slowly on the other leg.
Variation 2 – Seated Calf Raise. This can be done either with a standard seated calf raise machine, or using a bench, small box, and a barbell or dumbbells on the lap. Raise up into as high as you can, then lower slowly down, accentuating the eccentric.
There are two ways you can perform the parameters for eccentric plantar flexion.
Option 1, which comes from the Mahieu study. Perform three sets of fifteen reps, daily.
Option 2, treat it like normal training. You would perform 2-4 sets of 6-15 repetitions, 2-3 days per week. Monitor your results and progress your intensity, volume and frequency as needed.
Both options can work, select which works best for your schedule.
Option 4: Active Dorsiflexion Usage
This option is slightly different than the priors in that it is not a specific set of exercises to be done, but instead, it’s a concept that can be applied to training. During most exercises where you use dorsiflexion, such as squats, lunges, split squats, etc. you likely don’t actively use as much dorsiflexion as possible.
Working on actively dorsiflexion during these movements can be an option for improving your range and usage of that range. You can use a constraint lead approach with this where you incorporate some kind of object, such as a foam roller or box, in front of your knee to contact on each rep. Perform the weight-bearing lunge test to see how far to set up, then apply it with each rep.
Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion Summary
Ankle dorsiflexion is a movement which occurs at the talocrural joint, where the forefoot and shin come closer together. Ankle dorsiflexion can be used to adjust how much load is experienced at the knee versus the hip in a range of activities. As well, during dynamic activities such as jumping, ankle dorsiflexion can be used to help reduce ground reaction forces. To assess your ankle dorsiflexion, use the weight-bearing lunge test.
If you’re looking to increase your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion, there are four main options to consider: static stretching, dynamic stretching, eccentric plantarflexion, and active usage of dorsiflexion. Research shows similar results with each, so select one to try for a few weeks to a few months and compare your results with the weight-bearing lunge test. Afterwards, if you haven’t seen the results you were looking for, either continue with that option or trial another.