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Yoga Sequences

6 Foot, Toe, & Ankle Stretches to Improve Your Yoga Poses

Stretch and strengthen these often-overlooked areas and watch your asana practice flourish.

The major muscles of the legs—the quadriceps and the hamstrings—tend to get a lot of attention. And they should; they’re the workhorses of the body, propelling us forward and backward in daily life, and yes, in asana. But the muscles in the lower legs also play an important role in mobility, helping us pivot and move side-to-side—an important life skill that can also come in handy in your yoga practice. For a healthy, flexible body, you need a healthy, flexible foundation, which is why the lower legs—including the feet and ankles, which carry so much of our weight—are also worth paying considerable attention to.

Lower leg geography

I consider the “lower leg” to be the area beneath the knee, which includes the feet and toes—both of which tend to be overlooked when it comes to stretching. These smaller muscles also tend to get abused a bit. Besides carrying our weight, they get shoved into shoes, sometimes have to contend with the strain of wearing heels, and are subject to pounding on pavement and irregular surfaces. This leaves them vulnerable to injuries like ankle twists, calf and foot cramps, and Achilles tendon strains. The lower legs, in other words, definitely warrant some TLC. You’ll find the exercises you need to give it to them in the following sequence.

Taking care of your toes 

Stretching should start literally from the ground up, which means your feet and toes. I want to stress how important these body parts are. Take the super-underrated big toe. It helps control balance and can affect the way we walk, run, sprint, and perform many other movements. The rest of the foot is integral to how we move, too, but encased in hard and narrow shoes, sometimes all day, the foot and toes begin to stiffen and lose the ability to move in the way they should. If you can keep these little guys mobile, it can help the way your whole body moves overall, improves pain symptoms, and enhances your athleticism.

Foot and toe stretches to try now

A man performs a kneeling toe stretch in yoga
Photo: Fred Lopez

Kneeling foot stretch

I never used to think much about my feet. But then sharp pains and discomfort started to pop up here and there. That got my attention! Many people are bothered by plantar fasciitis and other foot problems but don’t know how to ease the pain. I suggest starting here. This is a very simple stretch I use to give my feet a little love.

Kneel on the floor with your toes tucked under, heels up. Slowly shift your hips back so your butt rests on your heels and you feel a good stretch in your toes. Hold for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

Customize your stretch: 

  • Sit your hips further back toward your heels to deepen the stretch.
  • If your knees hurt, place a pad or towel beneath them.

Target areas:

A man performs a standing toe stretch
Photo: Fred Lopez

Standing toe stretch

Five toes = five things people rarely stretch. Of the five, the big toe is the most important from a functional standpoint, but the others team up to keep you standing, walking, and balancing. Don’t forget these small but important body parts!

Stand straight and tall, a few inches from a wall or block. Step forward with one foot, then angle it and place your toes up the wall or block. Place your hands on the wall (if using), then lean in until you feel a good stretch in your toes. Hold for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Switch sides.

Customize your stretch:

  • To get a more intense stretch in the smaller toes, increase the angle of your foot.

Target Areas:

  • Toes
  • Feet
  • Plantar fasciae
A man performs a standing big toe stretch
Photo: Fred Lopez

Standing big toe stretch

When I give my clients big toe stretches and mobility exercises, they give me a look that says, are you serious? I absolutely am! The big toe propels you forward when walking and can grip the ground to help you stay balanced. Kind of important, don’t you think? So anytime someone gives you a funny look for stretching your big toe, drop this knowledge bomb on them. They may start big toe stretching, too.

Stand up straight and tall, and place your big toe on top of a tennis ball. Bend your knee slightly, and slide it forward to help your toe press down on the ball. Hold for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Switch sides.

Customize your stretch:

  • Place your other toes go to the side of the ball.
  • To deepen the stretch, lean forward or take a small step forward while keeping working heel on the floor.

Target Area:

  • Big toes
A man performs a foot stepover
Photo: Fred Lopez

Foot stepover

If you like to take long walks or hikes, this move is for you. It stretches out the bottoms of the feet and ankles.

Place a rolled-up mat or towel on the floor. Standing straight and tall, step the front half of one foot onto the roll, keeping the heel on the floor. Take a small step forward with the other foot to stretch the raised foot. Do 10 reps, holding each for 2 to 5 seconds. Switch sides.

Customize your stretch:

  • The ankle stretches as you step.

Target Area:

  • Feet
  • Ankles

Ankle stretches and drills

Do you ever think about your ankles? Of course not—no one does! But here’s why you should: The things that almost everybody does every day, like walking and squatting down, and the things that some people do every day, like yoga, running, and jumping, can be a lot tougher if your ankles are stiff. Inflexible ankles cause the body to overwork other areas to compensate for the lack of mobility.

Imagine if you had blocks of concrete for ankles. The rest of your body would have to struggle to move to make up for those stiff joints. The knees in particular may torque in awkward ways, and that could then cause some wonky stuff to happen in your hips. You might end up with both knee and hip pain.

When talking about ankle mobility, you might think of flexing the ankle (pulling the foot toward you), but the ankles need to be able to move in the opposite direction (down), too. Likewise, they must be able to agilely shift from side to side—that will lower your risk of a twisted ankle. These stretches cover the full range of motion to keep your ankles flexible and allow your lower legs to move with greater ease and to help optimize performance in activities like walking, running, jumping, and squatting.

Half-kneeling ankle mobility exercise

The more active you are, the more you need this ankle mobility exercise. Say you’re on the basketball court and (as so often happens to basketball players) you turn your ankle. This can also happen when transitioning between yoga poses. If you are walking and the sidewalk is uneven, a mobile ankle is going to keep you out of the ACE bandage section of the pharmacy. Either way, if your ankle has mobility, you’re going to walk away unscathed. If the muscle stays rigid, a sprain is the likely outcome. 

One way to judge if your ankle is stiff is to see how easy or hard it is to get your bent knee to shift out over your toes during this stretch. You may start out with little mobility, but the more you do it, the more your ankle is going to loosen up.

Kneel on one leg with the toes tucked under, the other leg forward and bent at the knee, foot flat on the floor. Place your hands on your bent knee, and gently shift forward so your knee is over your toes. Hold for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Switch sides.

Customize your stretch:

  • Keep your heel on the floor.
  • Don’t allow your knee to cave in; make sure your knee stays over the middle or little toe.
  • Place your hands on your knees for support.
  • Point your hips forward.

Target areas:

  • Ankles
  • Calves
  • Achilles
A man performs a standing ankle mobility exercise
Photo: Fred Lopez

Standing ankle mobility exercise

There’s a good chance you’ve done something like this stretch before; when you hold the position, it’s a common calf stretch for the back leg. The twist here is that you don’t stay in a static pose. Instead, you add dynamic movement, which shifts the emphasis to stretching the front ankle rather than the rear calf.

Stand straight and tall, hands on your hips. Step one foot back. Bend your front leg and lean in, sliding your knee over your toes until you feel a good stretch in your ankle. Straighten and bend your knee for 10 reps. Switch sides.

Customize your stretch:

  • Make sure your knee stays over the middle or little toe.
  • Keep your heel on the ground.

Target areas:

Joe Yoon, also known as “Joe Therapy” through his social media following, is a trainer and massage therapist who is one of the fitness industry’s leading experts on mobility. He is the author of Better Stretching: 9 Minutes a Day to Greater Flexibility, Less Pain, and Enhanced Performance, published by St. Martin’s Group, from which this post was adapted. Find him at Joetherapy.com