Ankle & Foot Strengthening: Why it Matters

It’s easy to dismiss the foot and ankle as unimportant when it comes to strength, conditioning, and overall health. They are the first point of contact to absorb ground reaction forces, as they stabilise the posterior chain at the lowest level and are critical in helping you remain steady on your feet.

The feet contain almost 25% of the body’s bones, hundreds of ligaments, and connective tissues, and coupled with the complexity of the ankle joint, large volume of neural tissues – it’s an incredibly designed structure.

Whether you’re a full-time athlete, recreational fitness enthusiast, or you just want to remain pain-free and move well; not looking after your feet and ankles may contribute to injuries or movement dysfunction. 

‘The kinetic chain’ is a term that is used to describe the interconnected nature of the body aiding our movement. It begins at the feet, therefore if they are weak, they can collapse in, which can cause consequences higher up the kinetic chain. Pronation, or ‘rolling in’, of the foot can result in inward collapse at the knee joint (valgus stress), twisting of the hip (internal rotation), and extension of the lumbar spine. Any unnecessary stress placed on the joints and ligaments in these areas, can contribute to a number of injuries, such as sprains, torn ligaments or tendons, and bone stress related injuries. 

Moreover, another good reason to have strong ankles is to minimise the risk of falls. Research by, Ryoichi Ema et al in 2017 , has shown that having stronger (and faster reacting) calf musculature has decreased the risk of falls in elderly populations – though this can easily be extrapolated to be true for younger populations also. 

How do we achieve strong and functional feet and ankles?

In addition to baseline strength, it is important for the neuromuscular systems to be worked, as proprioception (the body’s ability to perceive its own position) plays a role in stabilising the body from the feet up.

Shoes and orthotics can provide a short-term solution to suboptimal foot biomechanics, but don’t really address the problem. In fact, they can compound the weakness in these muscles and ligaments if excessively relied upon. 

Strengthening the feet and ankles doesn’t need to be hard work or time-consuming, as the repetition of specific movements and exercises can have a high impact. Due to the nature of strengthening the foot and ankle, workouts can be conveniently done at home and don’t require lots of equipment or an intense workout. 

Top 3 foot and ankle exercises

Of course, with our assessment, analysis and treatment, every individual is provided with a unique plan specific to their problem and aligned with their goals – whether it’s daily life or performance orientated.

Below is an example of three exercises that are simple yet effective in helping to achieve strong, stable, and healthy feet and ankles. 

  • Single leg balance

Simple yet effective, it’s an exercise which can be done anywhere and with no equipment. Remove your shoes and neutralise your spine (stand straight and balanced). Then lift one foot off the ground while keeping your upper body upright and aligned. Hold for around 30 seconds, and repeat three times on each side. 

Regression – tandem stance for ~30 seconds or reducing time held in single leg stance.

Progression – close your eyes or make the surface underfoot less stable (i.e. a cushion/pillow).

  • Standing heel raises

Stand hip-width apart, next to something you can lightly hold onto for stability. Slowly lift your heels by going up on your toes, and lower yourself back down with control. You can hold the position on tip-toes for longer as you advance, and try to repeat three sets of 10-15.

Regression – seated calf raises with some weight on the knee (a rucksack filled with books or water bottles etc).

Progression – try performing on a single leg or hold a weight to make things harder.

  • Towel scrunch

Get a small towel and sit on a chair, placing one foot (no shoes) flat on top of a smoothed out towel. Make sure your knees are at 90 degrees and your toes are facing forwards. Keeping your heel on the ground, pull the towel towards you by scooping it with the arch of your foot and your toes. Try to repeat three sets of 10-15 on each foot.

Regression – Try both feet together or focus on the movement of the toes without resistance of the towel.

Progression – add a weight (some hardback books or filled water bottles) on the end of the towel to add some resistance.