Maybe you often roll your ankles while running. Or maybe you have a hard time raising your heels in barre class. No matter the activity, weak ankles can make certain movements painful. According to Alena Luciani, strength and conditioning coach and founder of Training2XL, weak ankles are often a result of many things. These include overuse, the wrong footwear, structural imbalances, or the reliance on external support (instead of building your own strength). This is what happens when you wear high-cut shoes or ankle braces—ahem, basketball players.
Additionally, certain physical activities may make you more susceptible to ankle injuries. “Athletes in sports like basketball, volleyball, and soccer are prone to hitting the ground at the wrong angle and turning [their ankles] over, [thus] stretching the ligaments and tendons in the region,” Luciani explains. “For those who have rolled their ankles a lot, they’ll have weaker stabilizer muscles to protect them from repeating the same accident.”
Not only do weak ankles increase your likelihood of ankle sprains, Luciani says that they can lead to other injuries, too, including knee and hip problems. “In order to build strength throughout your whole body, you need to have a solid base to stand on,” she explains. “Weak ankles totally inhibit your ability to perform at your very best.” So, how do we strengthen our ankles? Here are some easy exercises to try.
Luciani, who helps trains athletes at Toronto’s York University, suggests one exercise that’s super simple and can be done anywhere: single-leg balances. Standing on one leg, place your hands on your hips and try to keep your balance for 30 seconds. “Set your gaze to the floor in front of you. Or find a spot and glue your eyes there to help keep yourself in a strong, stable position,” Luciani says. After 30 seconds, switch legs and repeat. As your ankle strength builds over time, you can progress to standing on unstable surfaces. For example, use a BOSU ball or couch cushion. This will add an extra balance challenge. Another thing that Luciani says that you should do is increase the length of time that you hold the balance each week, so that your ankles continue to improve.
An active exercise and strength-builder, walking lunges not only help improve weak ankles, but they help with balance, too. To do a walking lunge, take a step forward with one leg and bend your front knee at a 90 degree angle while letting your back knee dip to the ground—the same way you would if you were doing a static lunge. Hold this position briefly. Then use your back leg to step in front and repeat the lunge with the opposite leg. “Walking lunges strengthen the lower body—especially the ankles, knees, and hips,” Luciani says. “You’d be surprised at how much stability you need to do these well.” Do ten lunges per leg.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
To do a single-leg Romanian deadlift, you need to start out by standing on both legs with a weight or kettlebell in one hand. Slowly, and with control, bend at the waist. Lower the arm with the weight down toward the floor while raising the leg on the same side of your body off the ground. The goal here is to balance on your single standing leg, while keeping your body parallel to the ground. Hold, then slowly return to a standing position. If it’s too much to balance with a weight, Luciani says that you can ditch the kettlebell entirely. “I love this exercise because you can do it with no weight and no shoes and still really work the stabilizer muscles,” Luciani says. “It’s easy to [modify], depending on your level.” Do ten deadlifts on each leg.
Single-Leg Step Downs
Another easy move to do at home or at the gym are single-leg step downs. While standing on a step, box, or elevated surface (like a bench), dip one foot down off the edge of the platform. Slightly bend your supporting knee. With control, bring the leg back up. “Focus on keeping your whole [standing] foot on the box and driving the weight through your heels,” Luciani says. The key here is to keep your balance on your standing leg while performing a controlled movement. “These exercises are awesome for building strength in the lower body, while working on your control and balance,” she says. Do 15 single-leg step downs per leg.
How to Prevent Weak Ankles in the Future
In order to prevent injury and weakness, it’s important to maintain strong ankles even when they seem to be in good working order. This can be done with ankle strengthening exercises, but also through strength training activities. Luciani suggests doing some barefoot work before a workout to help warm-up your ankles. This reduces the chance of injury. “Before lacing up [your] shoes, take a couple minutes to just jog in socks, and then perform a couple different balancing exercises,” she says, specifically single-leg balances or deadlifts. She also suggests regularly practicing yoga. “It’s great for stability since you are literally in bare feet the whole time.”
But, one thing Luciani stresses is that it’s important to rest your ankles if you’ve severely injured them. “If it’s a fresh ankle [injury], take the time to recover, because even if you’re only working your upper body, lots of blood is still flowing in the body, which can increase inflammation in the damaged tissue,” she explains. But, otherwise, weak ankles only get stronger through work.