Dorsiflexion: Why is It Important?

Although you might not think about them often, your ankles are very important to your ability to move. Ankle dorsiflexion is an important movement for efficient walking and running, balance, and sports performance. Stretching and strengthening exercises can be helpful in improving dorsiflexion and will be discussed in this article.

Key takeaways:

What is dorsiflexion?

Dorsiflexion is the upward movement of the foot and toes toward the shin and back. The word dorsum comes from the Latin word dorsualis, meaning "of the back." For fishermen or marine enthusiasts, the dorsal fin is the part of the fish above the water on the back (spine) of the fish.

Another way to think of dorsiflexion movement is to understand the opposite of dorsiflexion, plantar flexion. Plantar flexion movement is done while driving when we press the gas pedal with the toes downward. Dorsiflexion is when we release pressure on the gas pedal, moving our toes toward ourselves.

Ankle joint

The ankle joint consists of bones, ligaments, and tendons; it is a complex structure used for walking, running, climbing, and jumping. The ankle joint is a strong joint that absorbs a moderate amount of shock. Without a history of trauma, the ankle joint is much less likely to develop degenerative disorders like osteoarthritis than other weight-bearing joints like the hip and knee.

Why is dorsiflexion important?

Dorsiflexion is important, and we need to pay attention to this function; it affects activities like walking and running, stability and balance, prevention of injury, and sports performance.

Walking and running efficiency

In the gait cycle, dorsiflexion prepares the foot for shock absorption before it strikes the ground. Dorsiflexion is especially important at higher speeds, since improved dorsiflexion will allow you to run more efficiently by preparing your foot for striking the ground.

Stability and balance

Dorsiflexion helps us maintain the center of gravity for the ankle joint. Without proper dorsiflexion, we could twist our ankles and fall. One study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy in April 2013 found that ankle dorsiflexion directly correlated with balance.

Prevention of injury

When walking, dorsiflexion helps maintain the foot’s needed weight distribution, so one area does not receive excessive weight leading to a foot fracture, tendon strain, or ligament tear. In addition, proper dorsiflexion alleviates the stress on the hips and knees by having the ankles absorb the shock.

Sports performance

Dorsiflexion is needed for activities like jumping, squatting, and kicking, which are components of competitive sports. Without proper dorsiflexion, there may not be enough power generation for optimum performance.

Causes of inadequate dorsiflexion

The inability to adequately dorsiflex has several possible causes: muscular weakness, nerve issues, or an autoimmune disorder like rheumatoid arthritis where the body attacks itself.

One such nerve issue occurs when there is damage or compression to the leg’s peroneal nerve; the ankle cannot dorsiflex, and a condition called foot drop results. If this condition occurs, seek immediate medical care.

Exercises to improve dorsiflexion

Here are some of the best exercises to improve dorsiflexion:

Calf stretch

Woman doing calf stretch exercise

Calf stretches are used to stretch the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, since keeping these areas loose enables better dorsiflexion. A standing calf stretch is shown in the image above.

  1. Stand up with your hands on a wall and legs shoulder-width apart.
  2. Have one leg back while bending the other knee forward.
  3. Keep both feet flat on the floor.
  4. Lean forward, hold for 3–5 seconds, and then return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat this process three times.
  6. Switch the leg being stretched and repeat the process.

Standing quad stretch

Woman doing standing quad stretch exercise

The next stretch is typically done to stretch the quadriceps muscles at the front of the leg, but it also gives the ankle dorsiflexion muscles a nice stretch. Just don't pull too hard on the ankle and foot.

  1. Stand straight with legs shoulder width apart.
  2. Hold onto a steady structure if needed.
  3. Bend one knee enough to grab the ankle or foot.
  4. Pull gently and hold for 3–5 seconds.
  5. Return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat the stretch with the other leg.
  7. Perform the stretch three times on each side.

Toe squat pose

Woman doing toe squat pose

This stretch is done on the floor and can be easier for those that cannot balance to perform the standing quadriceps stretch (above).

  1. Kneel on the floor with the soles facing upwards.
  2. Rest your butt on your feet.
  3. Hold for 3–5 seconds and return to kneeling.
  4. Perform this exercise three times.

Resistance band dorsiflexion training

Woman doing resistance band dorsiflexion training

The dorsiflexion strengthening exercise is shown in the image above and requires a resistance band.

  1. Sit on the floor with the exercising foot straight and the other knee bent.
  2. Place the toes inside the resistance band loop.
  3. Bring the toes towards your head by using your dorsiflexion muscles.
  4. Hold for 2–3 seconds, then return to starting position.
  5. Do 3–5 repetitions on each side.

Ankle dorsiflexion is an important part of walking, running, and balance. To obtain healthy dorsiflexion, stretching and strengthening should be incorporated into your exercise routine.

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