The fact that professional dancers can sprain ankles during everyday activities shows how common these injuries are—and how important it is to strengthen weak ankles, even if you’re mostly used to walking instead of jumping in the air. Because once you’ve sprained an ankle, you’re more susceptible to re-injury.
Fortunately, Quinn developed an ankle-care regimen that has helped her stay sprain-free for nearly nine years. She shares the exercises she’s learned along the way, and we put them to the test with physical therapist Joan McJay of Boutique Physio.
Exercises that can strengthen weak ankles
1. A dance-inspired warm-up
Because Quinn dances a variety of styles (including tap, which calls for some looseness in the ankle), finding the right balance of ankle stability and mobility has been a challenge. One thing that helps: These warm-up exercises, which she does every day before a performance or rehearsal, are inspired by Gaga’s dance technique created by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.
Standing in a neutral parallel position with knees bent, spend a few minutes shifting your weight in circles to the ends of your feet, exploring how much hinge you can safely find in your ankles. Think about placing the soles of the feet and toes as wide as possible on the floor and awakening areas of the foot that normally don’t get much attention.
What a PT has to say: Macza likes that this exercise is done in a bodyweight position, meaning your ankles are bearing the weight instead of sitting or lying on the floor. Another pro for exploring ankle mobility in standing positions: Spinal stabilizers are also working, Macza says.
2. Resistance band exercises
Several times a week, Quinn incorporates these tried-and-true resistance band exercises, probably familiar to those who have injured their ankles.
Sitting on the floor with legs extended in front of you, hold a resistance band wrapped around one leg. With tension on the band, wing your leg out to the side, then return it to a neutral position, strengthening the ligaments on the outside of the ankle. Do two to three sets of 10 on each leg or until fatigue.
Starting in the same position with the band still wrapped around the foot, slowly point and flex the foot, finding as much range of motion as possible. Do two to three sets of 10 on each leg or until fatigue.
What a PT has to say: These exercises are classic for a reason, Macza says. One way to even out your execution: Instead of relaxing in your sitting position, focus on engaging the rest of your body by engaging the abdominals. And for an added balance challenge, try standing instead of sitting.
3. Heel Raise
Quinn does heel raises a few times a week, or whenever she feels like she’s “lost the mental connection or doesn’t feel when certain muscles should be activated.”
Stand with one hand on a wall or chair for balance, lift the heels as high as you can, then slowly lower to the floor with control. Repeat until fatigue, 15 to 25 times.
If you’re recovering from an ankle injury and traditional heel raises are too intense, try a version that requires less weight bearing: With both hands on the wall, extend one leg behind you like you’re doing a calf stretch. Leaning against the wall and your front foot, raise the heel to the back foot from this position.
What a PT has to say: Quinn raises heels in both parallel and turned positions, as she uses both as a dancer. But Macza says the average person might want to practice these raises in an intermediate, slightly modified position, since most people naturally stand and walk.
Macza emphasizes that if you feel like your ankle is weak, it could indicate a problem up the chain. “I’m always checking up on the stairs,” she says. “It’s not unusual when you look at ankle injuries that lumbar stability, pelvic alignment, the mechanics of those joints are also compromised.” Any ankle strengthening regimen should include spinal stabilization and gluteal stabilization exercises (such as bridges) specifically targeting the ankles.
“The body is designed like a tree,” she says. “If you have a strong trunk, that has a correlation with how strong the branch will be. So core stability and pelvic stability are essential in offloading from the ankle, so the ankle doesn’t have to work as hard.”