Our feet and ankles are very important, considering we couldn’t stand, walk, run, or roundhouse kick someone in the face without them. Unfortunately, our lower limbs tend to be neglected unless something goes wrong.
Strong and flexible feet, ankles, and calves provide our base for stable movement, and are essential for performing our daily activities without pain or strain.
In my 18+ years as a physical therapist, I’ve worked with countless patients with foot and/or ankle trouble, and have seen the impact these issues can have on training and regular activities.
If you’re living with pain or limitations in your feet, ankles, or calves, it doesn’t have to be that way.
This article will give you a brief introduction to the the basic anatomy and movements in the ankle and foot (just enough for a good familiarity, but not enough for you to perform surgery…). Then, I’ll discuss the primary importance of working on this area, and finally, how to incorporate exercises for these areas into your training routine.
Your Leg Bone is Connected to Your Heel Bone (with another bone in between)
Your lower leg is made up of the bigger tibia on the inside and the smaller fibula on the outside, then connects lower down to the talus and the calcaneus (heel), then to the five small bones of the instep and the metatarsals and phalanges (your toes).
Lots of different sized ligaments connect the bones together for stability, along with various muscles from the big calf to the small muscles that move your toes.
The ankle and foot is made to move in a great variety of angles to provide stability and dexterity, carrying us over all types of terrain from soft sand to rocky ground. Your ankle is not like a hinge on a door, and your foot isn’t just one big lump you slide your socks onto.
All the large and small joints in this area work together to provide this nimbleness, but only if we keep them moving like they are supposed to!
How the Network of Muscles in Your Legs Work Together
Our calves (the bigger gastrocnemius and smaller, deeper soleus muscles) point the foot down, giving us the power to rise up on our toes and assist with running and jumping. But even with the foot flat on the ground, our calves provide stability in squatting, lunging, and other big movements.
On the front and sides of the shin are the anterior tibialis, posterior tibialis, and peronei muscles, which provide stability like stirrups and slings, and also the fine motor control that keeps us balanced and steady.
Down into the foot are many small muscles that control our arches and toes. These foot intrinsic muscles are the most at risk for atrophy from disuse when we don’t actively get out of our shoes and move our feet as we’re meant to do.
All Those Parts – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
With all this considered, it’s easy to see the complexity of large and small muscles and joints working together to keep us upright and walking, as well as running, jumping, and balancing.
The coordination and differentiation of all these possible movements is key to foot and ankle control, and to moving freely and gracefully through your feet.
It’s also likely why we hear so many complaints about stiff ankles and feet.
If the smaller muscles are too weak to support your foot and ankle, your body reacts by increasing the tension where it can: in the bigger muscles. This causes tightness in the calf and ankle. Stretching might help a bit, but improved control and strength in the foot is the solution.
Another common issue people experience are collapsed arches.
This may be caused by poor mobility in the midfoot, along with weak posterior tibialis and intrinsic muscles. With improved mobility and strength in these areas, the arches can correct themselves over time.
Below we’ll discuss a variety of exercises with an emphasis on coordination and dexterity to wake up dormant muscles and restore proper mobility and control over this important area.
Where Should You Start?
As you’ll see, I’ve included a LOT of different exercises and techniques below, some for the feet, some for the ankles, others for the calves. You may wonder where to start, and how to know where your particular issues lie.
As we’ve just seen, the muscles and tendons and ligaments from the top of the calves all the way down to your toes are very interlinked, and can’t really be separated.
So, chances are, if you’ve got pain or limitations in your feet, you can benefit from the calf stretches included below. And likewise if you’ve got “tight ankles,” spending time on motor control exercises for your feet can be immensely helpful.
Although there are many exercises and techniques below, if you follow the recommended hold times and/or reps, you’ll find that, even if you do all the exercises, it will only take a few minutes per day. And you’ll quickly discover which exercises give you the most benefit for your particular issues.
I’d recommend starting by going through all the exercises included, sticking with that for a week or so, and then cutting your routine down to the most essential exercises that give you the most benefit.
And if you want some additional help in these areas, locomotive exercises like we teach in our Elements program, can be very helpful for improving ankle and calf flexibility, as well as overall healthy function of the feet. Using the exercises below in addition to a locomotive practice will do wonders for your feet, ankles, and calves.
Also, this article over on Nerd Fitness will help you with finding the best shoes for your foot issues.
Note: If your back, shoulder, hips, or knees could also use some TLC, try the proven exercises in our free Body Maintenance Guide.
Strengthening Exercises for the Feet and Ankles
The exercises we show here have an emphasis on active movement in various angles and ranges of motion.
A lot of people don’t fully explore the movement our feet and ankles are capable of, and this results in stiffness and weakness. The first step is knowing that it is actually possible to move this way, and the next and best step is to practice!
|Do 10-15 reps in each direction for 2-3 sets||Foot Circles with Toes Flexed (Curled)|
|Do 10 repetitions of both variations for 2 sets.||Toe and Ankle Movement Coordination|
|Do 10-20 reps for 2-3 sets.||Diagonal Patterns|
|Do 5-8 reps for 3 sets.||Rolling up Onto the Toes|
|Do 5-8 reps for 3 sets.||Squats with Ankle Rotation|
|Do 5-8 reps for 3 sets.||Ankle Rolling Side-to-Side|
|Do 10 reps in each direction for 2 sets.||Weightbearing Ankle Circles on the Heel/Ball of Foot|
|Do 8-12 reps for 3 sets.||Calf Raises|
Fundamental Stretches for the Calves
A very common complaint we hear from people is their lack of ankle flexibility.
Many bodyweight exercise moves, especially as you move into intermediate and advanced work, such as the pistol squat and various locomotive patterns, require good ankle flexibility.
The calf muscles are a very dense muscle group because we use them constantly – even just in standing and walking. And the ankle joints, because of the lack of variety of motion throughout the day, tend to be stiff and immobile. This can require aggressive stretching, in terms of load, not intensity, to achieve improvements in range of motion.
A classic and effective exercise is using a step or sturdy block for your foot so you can drop your heel down to stretch.
It’s simple, not fancy, but works extremely well if you are consistent and approach it the right way. I recommend doing this in shoes, in this way you can place the middle of your foot on the edge of the step comfortably for the stretch. This is protective of your foot arch and allows you to put more weight into the stretch.
|Hold for up to 60 sec for up to 3 sets||Straight Leg Calf Stretch|
|Hold for up to 60 sec for up to 3 sets||Bent Leg Calf Stretch|
The variations are with your knee locked out straight and with your knee bent. The straight leg version emphasizes more of a gastrocnemius stretch, and the bent knee version gives the calf muscles a bit of slack and thus puts more of a stretch in the ankle joint.
Stretch before active movement such as the strength and motor control exercises above so that your body learns to adjust and retain the new range of motion from the stretching.
Self-Massage Techniques for Healthy Feet, Ankles, and Calves
A bit of self massage work is very useful in the lower leg and foot to loosen some tension prior to stretching and exercise.
The massage itself doesn’t make you more flexible, but it does temporarily help you feel less tight and gives you a window of opportunity to stretch further with less discomfort.
Just make sure not to overdo it, the trick is to apply just enough pressure to ease tension, not push as hard as you can to force it to happen!
|Area||Direction of Pressure|
|Arch of Foot||Start towards the heel, moving forward towards the toes.|
|Top of Foot||Move the pressure towards your toes, between the tendons.|
|Inner Calf||Start at the top of the calf, moving down toward the ankle.|
|Outer Calf||Start at the top of the calf, moving down toward the ankle.|
|Front of Shin||Move from the top of the shin down toward the ankle.|
|Arch of Foot with LaCrosse Ball||Start towards the heel, moving forward towards the toes.|
|Calf with LaCrosse Ball||Start at the top of the calf, moving down toward the ankle.|
Starting at the foot, work along the sole along the contours of the bones and feel the small muscles in you feet, keep the pressure light at first then gradually increase the pressure. If you are doing it correctly you’ll notice an easing off of tension in the muscles. You can then add more pressure and continue if you feel you need it, or move on to the next area.
Move on to the sides of your shin, into the calf and the front of your shin. The calf can be especially sore to massage deeply, so be aware of this and go gradually until you get accustomed to the pressure.
You can also use a ball to change the pressure and get into the muscles from a different angle.
Along with being mindful of gradually increasing pressure, you should limit your time on self massage to no more than 5 minutes. Too much of a good thing is still too much. And it is much more valuable to spend the majority of your time on active exercise.
Keep Your Feet Healthy for a Lifetime
Our ankles and feet are too often under-exercised and taken for granted considering how much we rely on them everyday. It’s no surprise that this neglect of their full range of motion and total potential for coordinated movement can lead to stiffness and weakness, and perhaps even pain.
This article focused on simple, yet effective exercises that not only lessen the chances of potential injury, but may also reverse some damage that has already been done (barring any true injuries in need of surgery or more intensive therapy).
In addition to the exercises we covered in this article, locomotive exercises like we teach in our Elements course will be helpful in strengthening your feet and ankles through variations in movement.
You’ll build a base of strength and flexibility throughout your body (including your feet) so that your athletic potential is no longer limited.
Strengthen Your Feet Through Locomotion
With Elements, you’ll introduce your feet and ankles to unique locomotive patterns, which will make them strong and flexible.