Pop quiz: What part of your body is most likely to get injured this year?
Shoulder? Nah. Hip? Guess again. Knee? Aim lower.
The ankle—the lowly, unassuming joint just north of the floor—can cause a ton of problems for athletes: sprains, strains, Achilles tendons tears. And those are just the obvious ones. Tight or weak ankles can also cause poor squatting technique and even knee pain. (Learn more about ankle injuries.)
The problem is poor mobility. For the ankle to work properly, it needs ample plantar flexion (the ability to point your toes) and dorsiflexion (pulling the toes toward your nose). Plantar flexion usually isn't the problem; our lives demand at least a little plantar flexion every day. But except when we're in the gym, we usually never go into dorsiflexion. (Watch Dwyane Wade strengthen his ankles.)
Because we spend most of our days in a plantar flexed position, our Achilles tendon becomes "short." It's the same reason why just about everybody in America has tight hamstrings—we sit with our knees flexed all day, which shortens the muscles on the backsides of our legs. A tight or "short" Achilles is just asking for ankle injuries, knee issues and awful squat mechanics. (See Warm up your Achilles tendon.)
The first step in nearly every ankle-strengthening program should be to improve dorsiflexion mobility. This lengthens the Achilles, making the calf region more flexible.
Perform the following five drills to improve your ankle mobility. Over time, you should notice a difference, and eventually it may even help with knee pain. Each move is a little harder than the last, so take your time and listen to the signals your body sends you throughout.
Self Myofascial Release
You can do this before every training session. Use a foam roller or a PVC pipe to roll out your calf muscles, which loosens up knots in your muscle fascia and increases flexibility. As you roll, you can do simple mobility drills like dorsiflexion holds and ankle circles. Do 10-15 seconds on each side.
Wall Ankle Rocks
This deceptively tiny move can make a big difference in your Squat depth. Perform 10 rocks moving straight ahead and back, 10 knee drives over the pinky toe, and 10 knee drives over the big toe.
Knee Break Ankle Mobilization
By elevating your toes onto plates, you begin this move in dorsiflexion. Push your knees forward over your toes to increase your ankle mobility even further. Try 2 sets of 8 reps.
1/2 Kneeling Ankle Mobilization
This big "bang for your buck" exercise not only works your ankles, it produces some glute activation in your trailing leg. The core will fire and your rear hip flexor will get a nice stretch. Do 2 sets of 12-15 rocks.
1/2 Kneeling Ankle Mobilization With Band
After you've mastered the above drills, add the band for extra resistance. To add an ever greater challenge, place a dowel at the top of your 5th toe and aim to drive your knee outside your ankle. Go for 2 sets of 8-12 reps.