How to Improve Ankle Mobility for Deeper Squats

by Evelyn Valdez

Squats are a staple movement in any strength training routine because of how simple yet highly effective they are. They offer tons of variations and modifications that you can try depending on your fitness level to help you slowly make progress by strengthening your leg muscles and growing a more powerful lower body. And while strong muscles are definitely important when it comes to mastering squats, there’s another thing that you should keep in mind if you want to get the best squat results possible - ankle mobility.

Having strong ankles is the basis for a clean and controlled squat movement, as well as all the other exercises that involve some form of squatting, such as lunges, or even deadlifting to reduce the risk of injury during the lift. 

Ankle mobility is key for better performance, and we’re here to help you improve your flexibility with a few easy exercises and stretches that you can do at the gym - or even at home! But first, let’s talk about the importance of ankle mobility…

Why is ankle mobility so important?

To understand why ankle mobility can be a limiting issue when exercising, we need to talk about how the ankle works first. This major joint allows your body to go down into a squat while moving in a sagittal plane, meaning that it goes forward and backward. The backward movement is known as the plantar flexion and you use it to point your feet in an open motion. The opposite is the forward movement, known as dorsiflexion, and it’s the one you use during squats to bring your feet and your shins close together by flexing the ankle in a closing motion.

When it comes to working out, it’s ankle dorsiflexion that needs particular attention because it’s a basic element of many movements. If you don’t have enough ankle mobility, you won’t be able to go deep into a squat - or even close to it! Limited ankle mobility might cause pain and discomfort when trying any exercise that involves squatting, and when you add weights such as a barbell into your workouts it could even cause an injury.

But how exactly?

Well, when you have poor ankle dorsiflexion and you can’t perform a squat effectively, your torso will naturally come forward when you’re coming down to compensate and you will lose the neutral spine position, straining it and putting it at risk, and losing your balance at the same time. You won’t be able to exert maximum force in this position, interfering with the exercise, and not allowing you to move the weights and finish the movement successfully. It’s basically a chain reaction that starts with your limited ankle movement and ends with pain and discomfort that could range from your legs to your hips, and up to your spine.

If you’re curious, you can actually check how good your ankle mobility is by performing this quick test:

  1. First, find a wall and place one foot exactly 5 inches from it, facing the wall.
  2. Begin by lunging forward, driving your knee to the wall, and flexing your ankle. You can place your hands on the wall for support.
  3. Move your knee in a straight line without drifting to the sides, and keep the heel in contact with the floor at all times.

Ideally, your knee should be able to lightly touch the wall. If you find yourself lifting your heel, or moving your knee to one side to be able to reach the wall, that means you might need ankle mobility improvement for your squats.

But this doesn’t mean that you should only pay attention to ankle dorsiflexion! Both plantar flexion and dorsiflexion are important when it comes to increasing your overall ankle mobility for better performance because improving one helps the other. So keep reading to learn the safest and most effective ankle mobility exercises for your squats!

Ankle exercises and stretches to improve mobility

Improving your ankle mobility can be as simple as stretching your ankles regularly, and we’re here to show you how to improve squat depth safely and with good form so you can reap the benefits next time you’re at the gym. Plus, a few effective exercises so that you can get a good workout done while you work on your ankle flexibility!

Banded ankle distraction

This is one of the best exercises for ankle dorsiflexion mobility that you can do to improve mobility! To perform this movement, you will need a long resistance band, an elevated surface, and a pole or a rig to loop the band around it. Doing the banded ankle distraction will help improve the natural joint movement pattern of the ankle by going against a static force.

How to do it: First, tie one end of the long resistance band to a pole or the bottom of a power rack so that the band stays in place. Position one foot inside the band so that it goes around your ankle joint, resting on top of your foot. Place your banded foot at a comfortable distance so that the band has enough tension and step the foot up a box or a bench. Begin the movement by bringing your knee as forward as you can without raising your heel, hold for a few seconds, then go back and repeat. Switch legs and do it again with the other foot.

Calf foam rolling

Sometimes the lack of ankle mobility has to do with tight tissues around the ankle that are preventing it from flexing. The best way to soften and relax these tissues is through myofascial release, more commonly known as foam rolling. By massaging your calf muscles with a foam roller, you’ll release the built-up tension around the area for better mobility.

How to do it: Sit on the floor with your legs extended, and place your right calf on a foam roller. Cross the left leg on top of the right one for extra pressure and balance, and place your hands on the floor behind you for support. Lift your torso off the floor and begin by rocking your body back and forth, so that your calf rolls with the foam roller. The roller should go from the top of the calve, almost at the knee pit, all the way to your ankle. Whenever you feel a tense spot, stop rolling and flex your ankle forward and backward so that the muscle presses against the foam roller. When you’re done with one leg, switch to the other.

Shin foam rolling

Another way of foam rolling for better ankle mobility is by going the other way and rolling your shins to release any tension that you might have in the area. It’s pretty similar to the calf foam roll, except that you’ll be rolling the front of your legs, where the tibia is located. This is a critical area that you need to take care of if you want to achieve more squat depth, so never neglect your shins!

How to do it: Place your hands and knees on the floor as if you were in a push-up position, with the foam roller under you. Position your right shin on the foam roller and let your bodyweight exert enough pressure on the area. Begin by rolling your body back and forth with your hands and your free leg, rolling your shin from your knee to your ankle. Just like with calf foam rolling, whenever you feel a tense spot, stop the movement to focus the pressure on that area and flex your ankle forward and backward to release the tension. Repeat as many times as needed and switch to the other leg.

Toe raises and heel drops

This movement is excellent for overall ankle mobility because it helps improve both your dorsiflexion and your plantar flexion by bending your ankles all the way through. You’ll need a small step or a similar low surface where you can stand on, which makes it perfect as a home exercise whenever you can’t go to the gym!

How to do it: Stand on the low step with only the balls of your feet, leaving your heels hanging off the step. If you prefer, you can perform this movement close to a wall or a table so you can grab it for support. Begin by lifting your heels, pushing through the balls of your feet until you’re standing on your toes. Then, slowly lower your heels until they drop below the step without losing your balance, keeping the balls of your feet on the step. Repeat this up-and-down movement as many times as you can.

Bench stretch

The bench stretch is a great way to improve your ankle dorsiflexion angle for deeper squats by pushing the flexion to the max and then releasing it. You only need a bench or a plyometric box to use as an elevated surface, which will help make the angle greater by allowing you to exert more pressure over your leg and stretch your calves.

How to do it: Find an elevated surface, such as a bench, and place one foot on top. Bring your hips toward your elevated knee, so that you’re leaning on that leg with your body weight while keeping your other leg firmly planted on the floor. You can grab the other side of the bench with your hands for support. Begin by driving your knee straight forward, so that it goes past your toes, making sure you’re not drifting to the sides. When you reach the point where your heel is about to lift off the bench, pause for a moment, then go back and repeat. Finish your reps and switch to the other leg.

Toes elevated squats

This exercise is an actual squat variation that you can do to practice your ankle mobility! While heels elevated squats are great to get deeper into the squat and give your muscles a good burn, the toes elevated squat will challenge your ankle mobility and your balance by making the angle narrower, helping you improve your ankle dorsiflexion.

How to do it: Grab a squat wedge or a weighted plate and place the balls of your feet on it, so that you’re only touching the ground with your heels. Place your hands in the air in front of you or behind your head for extra balance. Begin by going down into the squat, keeping your back straight and your head up. Lower your body as much as you can without losing your balance. Pause for a moment, then stand back up and repeat.

Knee extension with dorsiflexion

This is probably the most challenging one, but it’s really effective! You can try it after you’ve made progress with the previous exercises and feel more confident in your ankle mobility and strength. You only need somewhere to sit and a kettlebell for this exercise, so you can do it at home if you have one - if not, try it next time you’re at the gym!

How to do it: Start by sitting down on a bench, a chair, or any other elevated surface where your feet can sit comfortably on the floor. Place the handle of the kettlebell around the toes of your right foot, so that you’re holding the weight with your foot. Begin by lifting your leg with the weight, and then go back down without dropping the kettlebell. You’ll need to keep your ankle flexed during this part of the movement so the weight doesn’t slip out of your foot, and the weight will provide tension. Repeat a few times and switch to the other foot.

Goblet squat stretch

This is another squat variation with a modification that helps improve ankle dorsiflexion and overall flexibility. It uses both your body weight and the weight of a kettlebell to exert tension on your ankles, and helps you develop a better squat form in the process!

How to do it: Grab a kettlebell and hold it by the handle with both hands. Place your feet about shoulder-width apart and your feet slightly pointed outward. Begin by lowering your body into a squat position, slightly opening your legs so the weight falls in the middle. Rest your forearms on your thighs to increase the tension on your ankles and start rocking back and forth without losing your balance. Do this for a few seconds, then come back up and repeat.

Alternatively, when you’re down in the squat position, instead of rocking back and forth you can place the weight on top of one knee. Keep the weight there for a few seconds, increasing the tension on that ankle, then move the weight to the other side for a couple of seconds. Go back up and repeat.

These are only a few of the best exercises and stretches that you can do to increase ankle mobility, but there are countless variations that you can try with all kinds of free weights, exercise bands, or just your body weight! The important thing is that you take the time to work on it and improve it so you can make the most out of your squat routine while avoiding any unwanted discomfort or even injuries the next time you’re working out.

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