Onstage, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company members are strength embodied. But even top dancers struggle with weakness-related injuries–just ask Ailey dancer Miranda Quinn, who’s gotten several ankle sprains throughout her career, all outside the studio–“usually walking or something,” she says.
That professional dancers can suffer ankle sprains during daily activities shows just how common these injuries are–and how vital it is to strengthen weak ankles, even if you’re mostly using them for walking around rather than leaping through the air. Because once you’ve sprained an ankle, you’re more susceptible to a repeat injury.
Luckily, Quinn has developed an ankle-care regimen that has helped her stay sprain-free for nearly nine years. She shared the exercises she’s learned along the way, and we vetted them with physical therapist Joanne Macza of Boutique Physio.
Exercises that can strengthen weak ankles
1. A dance-inspired warm-up
Since Quinn dances a variety of styles (including tap, which calls for some looseness in the ankles), finding the right balance of ankle stability and mobility has been a challenge. One thing that helps: This warm-up exercise, which she does daily before performance or rehearsal, inspired by the Gaga dance technique created by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.
Standing in a neutral parallel position with the knees bent, spend several minutes shifting your weight in circles to the edges of your feet, exploring how much hinge you can safely find in your ankles. Think about spreading the bottoms of the feet and the toes as wide as possible on the floor, and waking up areas of the feet that typically don’t get much attention.
What a PT has to say: Macza likes that this exercise is done in a body-weight position, meaning your ankles are actually bearing weight rather than sitting or laying on the floor. Another pro of exploring ankle mobility in a standing position: The spinal stabilizers are also working, says Macza.
2. Resistance band exercises
Several times a week, Quinn incorporates these tried-and-true resistance band exercises, probably familiar to anyone who has had an ankle injury.
Sitting on the floor with the legs outstretched in front of you, hold a resistance band wrapped around one foot. With tension on the band, wing your foot out to the side, then bring it back to a neutral position, strengthening the outer ligaments of the ankle. Do two to three sets of 10 on each foot or until fatigue.
Beginning from the same position with the band still wrapped around the foot, slowly point and flex the foot, finding as much mobility as you can. Do two to three sets of 10 on each foot or until fatigue.
What a PT has to say: These exercises are classics for a reason, says Macza. One way to level up your execution: Focus on involving the rest of your body by engaging the abdominals rather than relaxing in your seated position. And for an added balance challenge, try standing instead of sitting.
3. Heel raises
Quinn does heel raises a few times a week, or whenever she feels like she’s “lost the mental connection or not feeling certain muscles turn on when they should.”
Standing with one hand on the wall or on a chair for balance, raise the heels up as high as you can, then slowly lower back to the floor with control. Repeat until fatigue, 15 to 25 reps.
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 are doing a calf stretch. Leaning on the wall and on your front foot, do the heel raises on the back foot from this position.
What a PT has to say: Quinn does heel raises in both parallel and turned out positions, since she utilizes both as a dancer. But Macza says that the average person might want to practice these raises in an in-between, just slightly turned out position, since that is how most people naturally stand and walk.
The big picture
Macza emphasizes that if you feel like you have weak ankles, it could point to an issue higher up the chain. “I’m always checking up the ladder,” she says. “It’s not uncommon when you see ankle injuries that the lumbar stabilization, the pelvic alignment, the mechanics of those joints are at a disadvantage as well.” Any ankle-strengthening regimen should include spinal stabilization and glute stabilization exercises (like bridges, for instance) in addition to those that specifically target the ankles.
“The body is designed like a tree,” she says. “If you have a strong trunk, that has a correlation to how strong the branch is going to be. So the torso stability and the pelvic stability are vital in offloading work from the ankle, so the ankle doesn’t have to work as hard.”