Many of us who exercise regularly, perform tough workouts, or play sports tend to worry about knee pain before we ever consider our ankle joints — that is, until we’ve sprained them, fractured an ankle, or experienced issues with our Achilles tendons.
Building ankle strength and stability is crucial for avoiding injury and allowing you to do your workout or play a sport to the best of your ability.
Your ankle joint is made of three bones: the tibia (shinbone), fibula (smaller bone of the lower leg), and talus (a small bone that sits between the heel bone) as well as two joints and multiple ligaments.
The most common cause of ankle injuries involve twisting or rotating your ankle, rolling your ankle, tripping or falling, or a big impact (such as a car accident) damaging the ankle in some way. The most common cause of ankle injuries involve twisting or rotating your ankle, rolling your ankle, tripping or falling, or a big impact (such as a car accident) damaging the ankle in some way.
To prevent the bulk of these injuries, to avoid repeat injuries, and to help yourself build strong ankles, work a couple of these exercises into your weekly training schedule. Just add a couple of moves every workout. Studies show you should also be strengthening your glutes which will help your body control deceleration and decrease the impact on your ankle joints during exercises like plyometrics.
One of the best things you can do for your ankles is spend more time warming up before a workout. “Warm-up properly and stretch thoroughly afterwards. Start with an easy jog, a quick spin on a stationary bike or elliptical or, a brief set of jumping rope,” says Jonathan M. Roth, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sport medicine at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Alexandria, VA.
Moves to Help Build Ankle Strength
1. Balance calf raises
Stand on the edge of a step on your toes, rise up onto your toes with both feet and lift one leg behind you, knee bent in back, and then slowly lower yourself down with the other foot until your heel goes below your toes. Rise up and 3–4 sets of 10 reps per leg.
2. Ankle eversion with resistance band
Ankle eversion exercises strengthen the peroneal muscles that run down the outside of the lower legs, and are useful for those who “roll” their ankles or sprain their ankles frequently. Sit (or stand if you want more of a challenge) and tie a loop in the resistance band, placing your right foot in the loop. Wrap the resistance band around the other foot to stabilize or hold the end in your hands. Point the foot down-and-up 20 times, then perform ankle rolls in both directions for 20 more reps.
3. Single-legged yoga Warrior 3
Stand with arms at your sides and raise one straight leg off the floor (behind you) bringing your torso parallel with the floor (hold onto a counter or table for balance if needed). With your right leg extended in back, slowly bend left leg four inches or so, then push back up to full leg extension. Alternate 3–4 sets of 10 repetitions per leg . You can also challenge yourself (and your ankles) by placing small objects, like tennis balls or socks around the room and with each semi-squat, lean over unassisted to pick up one item. This balance exercise is excellent for working on ankle stability and calf strength.
4. Plyometrics and sports
“Jumping rope is a great way to teach soft landings,” says Roth. You can also increase the cadence as you get comfortable building speed. For lateral training — or side-to-side ankle stability — both tennis and basketball are sports that work your ankles and lower leg muscles.
In fact, in Beachbody’s own The Master’s Hammer and Chisel program, the trainers offer several effective ankle exercises to help prevent injury and strengthen the ankles and feet:
- rotating squat jumps
- multidirectional lunges
- skater triangles
- side shuffles
- lateral squat hop
Stretch Your Lower Legs After Each Workout
Roth suggests stretching your feet and ankles thoroughly after each workout to further stabilize and support your lower leg. Here are two effective, common ankle stretches:
Step Calf Stretch
Calf stretching is important to maintain flexibility while strengthening and prevent injury to the lower legs and ankles. Stand on a step with the middle of your feet on the edge of the step (hold onto a table or railing if you need more balance). Lower your heels down to feel the stretch in your calves. Hold for several seconds, and then return to neutral, even rising up onto the balls of the feet, and return to start. Repeat for 30–60 seconds.
Yoga Downward Dog
A very efficient calf and shin stabilizer, perform a downward dog pose with your hips in the air and both heels reaching toward the ground. (Your body should form an upside down “V.”) You can alternate bending one knee and then the other to deepen the stretch and aim for 30–60 seconds per leg.