The Ultimate Ankle Strength & Stability Guide

Authors: Christopher Ioannou | Updated on: December 15, 2023
Weak to Strong Ankles in 5 Steps

The high prevalence of ankle injuries, particularly in sports [1] [2], is largely attributed to misconceptions about the correct way to strengthen this area of the body.

The aim of this post is to dispel such confusion by offering five science-based steps for building strong ankles.

Enhance Ground-Feel Through the Feet

Consider this: While walking, every step lasts, on average, just 0.63 seconds [3].

Gait Step Duration

In that brief half-second, our body performs a remarkable feat. It senses the ground, adjusts its ankle 'shock absorbers', and gears up for the next step—all seamlessly.

Imagine this process at hyper-speed during running, zig-zagging, and leaping over obstacles, particularly on unpredictable terrain where no two steps are the same.

It's as if our feet are a supercomputer, capable of processing an immense volume of sensory information at an astonishing speed.

And the source of all this invaluable data?

Our sense of touch!

Herein lies our first problem: most modern shoe designs prioritize comfort to such an extent that they actually dull our foot sensations. This reduced sensitivity delays the speed at which our feet and ankles can gather information and communicate with the brain.

As a result, even though we don't slow our movements to match our footwear, a mismatch emerges between our movement speed and reaction times.

This sensory lag can lead to issues like overpronation, which is an inward collapse of the ankles [4].

Cushioned Shoes Cause Overpronation

A recent study highlighted this concern, revealing that participants' ankles were 53.8% less stable when running in cushioned shoes compared to being barefoot [5].

Ironically, the common remedy often involves wearing motion control shoes. These shoes reinforce the inner walls of cushioned footwear to prevent excessive pronation [6].

However, the study suggests the opposite approach: reducing cushioning to re-establish sensitivity in the feet for better movement control.

Now, I understand that walking around barefoot isn't exactly socially acceptable in most situations, and that's where barefoot shoes come in handy.

These shoes are designed with slimmed-down, minimalist soles, allowing us to reconnect with the ground without having to go completely barefoot.

Slim and Flat Barefoot Shoe Soles

To sum up this point: if your goal is to achieve more stable feet and ankles, it's crucial to feel the ground beneath you. Once you've mastered that, we'll move on to the next step – foot strengthening.

Strengthen the Intrinsic Foot Muscles

Strong intrinsic foot muscles are vital for the ankles, as they rely on the feet as their base of support.

Each of the four layers of muscle in each foot not only helps to form a prominent arch but also keeps the ankle firmly aligned [7][8].

Four Layers of Muscles to form Foot Arch

Still skeptical? Try this simple test.

Place your foot on top of your knee and let it relax completely. Then, hold your heel and give it a gentle wiggle. It should feel loose and relaxed.

Next, while keeping your ankle position unchanged, flex your toes to engage those intrinsic foot muscles. Hold this contraction and wiggle your heel again.

You'll notice a distinct difference, clearly demonstrating the crucial role these foot muscles play in maintaining ankle stability.

Effect of Foot Muscles on Ankle Stability

Science supports the importance of strong intrinsic foot muscles.

A study from the Journal of Applied Biomechanics discovered that runners with low arches experienced a significant 17.3% increase in ankle joint movement compared to those with high arches. Furthermore, they observed that the ankle movements in the low-arched group occurred at a 32% faster rate [9].

This rapid and excessive motion is a clear indicator of poor ankle control.

So, how can we strengthen our feet to improve this?

The simplest answer is, once again, to spend more time barefoot.

The authors from a paper on barefoot running demonstrated that just four months of gradually increasing barefoot exercise time can raise your foot arches by a notable 4.7 mm [10].

In another intriguing experiment, high-level netball players were divided into two groups for an 8-week training course: Team Barefoot and Team Sneakers. The outcome? The barefoot group nearly doubled their performance in stability, agility, and speed tests compared to their sneaker-wearing counterparts [11].

8 Week Barefoot Training Improved Ankle Stability and Agility in Netball Players

The secret behind the effectiveness of barefoot training is simple; By removing the support provided by footwear, our feet are challenged to work harder, thereby becoming tougher and stronger.

Interested in exploring more about barefoot training and building strong feet? Check out our comprehensive Strong Feet Course.

Next up in our journey to better foot health, we'll delve into the importance of big toe alignment.

Improve Great Toe Alignment

When toes are properly aligned, they fan out at the front, creating a tripod-like shape.

This triangular configuration offers stability for two key reasons. Firstly, it broadens your base of support, much like the foundation of a pyramid.

The stable tripod foot

Secondly, correct toe alignment ensures that the intrinsic foot muscles connected to them are at their optimal length and position, providing essential support for the feet.

The most significant of these is the abductor hallucis, the large muscle connected to the great toe and directly responsible for stabilizing the foot arch [12].

Abductor Hallucis   Foot Arch Stabilizer

Now, consider the effects when our toes are pushed closer together—a common issue in older adults and individuals with bunions.

As the great toe shifts out of alignment, the abductor hallucis muscle is similarly affected, resulting in reduced strength.

Good Vs Bad Toe Alignment

With the abductor hallucis muscle unable to function correctly, the stability of the entire foot and ankle complex becomes compromised.

So, the burning question arises: what causes our big toe to fall out of alignment, and how can we realign it?

The primary culprit, as we might expect, is our footwear.

Consider this comparison: take a look at these popular trainers next to my foot. Notice the mismatch?

Toe Alignment in Shoes With Narrow Toe Box

The shoes taper to a point, failing to accommodate the natural shape of my foot. If we cut a window into the top of the shoe, this mismatch becomes even more glaring.

And as you can see, it's the same story with your average running shoes

Research sheds light on the consequences of ignoring this issue.

A Study[13] involving 176 individuals revealed that an astounding 80% were wearing shoes too narrow for their feet.

We recreated the side-by-side comparison from the study, juxtaposing the average foot shape of the participants with the average interior shape of their shoes.

Average Foot Shape Vs Shoe Shape in 62 to 96 Year Olds

The mismatch is clear.

Intriguingly, the average foot shape among the participants, who were aged between 62-96, showed significant alterations from the ideal. This offers a glimpse into the potential future of our feet if we don't choose our footwear wisely.

To ensure our toes stay aligned, our foot muscles continue their arch-supporting heroics, and our ankles remain steady, we need to consider barefoot-style shoes.

These shoes feature a wider, foot-shaped toe box, allowing the toes to maintain proper alignment.

Foot Shaped Barefoot Shoes

Observe the difference in the position of my toes when wearing regular shoes versus barefoot shoes.

Toe Box of Barefoot Shoes Vs Regular Shoes

Over the past four years, we've rigorously tested over 100 barefoot shoes that exhibit these foot-friendly features. We've compiled a list of our favorite brands for you to explore.

Alright, with that covered, there are two more crucial points we need to discuss.

Improve Ankle Mobility

For everyday activities like walking, running, or squatting, our ankles need a good range of dorsiflexion — that's the technical term for the 'knees-over-toes' movement.

When our ankles become stiff and dorsiflexion is reduced, our body's movement patterns change. This change is especially noticeable when walking or squatting, as the feet often spin outwards, resembling a duck's walk.

Duck Feet Postured Due to Tight Ankles

This common compensation, which involves spinning the feet outwards and collapsing the arch through over-pronation, effectively turns the mid-foot into a makeshift second ankle joint [14] [15].

The result of this compensation? A compromised foundation, leading to instability in the ankles.

Supporting this, a study[16] published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that individuals with ankle instability often faced greater restrictions in ankle dorsiflexion while jogging.

The key takeaway: For stable feet and well-aligned ankles, focusing on improving ankle mobility is essential.

Strengthen the Glutes

The fifth and final step to achieving invincible feet and ankles? Power up those glute muscles!

Both the feet and glutes are stabilization powerhouses. While the feet work from the ground up, the glutes operate from a top-down approach.

Give this a try: balance on one leg while barefoot. Soon, you'll feel a burning sensation in both your feet and glutes. That's our dynamic stabilization duo in action.

Single Leg Balance

This concept is more than just theoretical; it's scientifically proven.

A 2016 study[17] aimed to correct over-pronation – the excessive inward collapsing of the ankles – in two groups of people.

One group concentrated solely on foot-strengthening exercises, while the other worked on strengthening both their feet and glutes.

Foot and Glute Strengthening for fixing Flat Feet

The results?

As anticipated, the group that worked on both their feet and glutes saw a more significant improvement in correcting pronation than the group that focused only on the feet.

This synergistic effect of the feet and glutes working together to stabilize the body is nothing short of remarkable.

Discovering the interconnectedness of different body parts, like the glutes and feet, and their joint role in overall stability, is truly fascinating.

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Christopher Ioannou

BSc (Hons) Sports & Exercise Science

Founder of Barefoot Strength

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