Plantar flexion is the movement that allows you to press the gas pedal of your car. It also allows ballet dancers to stand on their toes. The term plantar flexion refers to the movement of the foot in a downward motion away from the body. This movement is crucial in many actions including the everyday action of walking. Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can reduce plantar flexion and make walking more difficult.
The ankle joint, which is actually two joints, makes plantar flexion possible. It also enables the opposite movement, dorsiflexion, which is the movement of the foot toward the leg. Your ankle joint supplies the power for 40% to 70% of your forward movement during walking.
Ankle weakness and ankle injuries can limit your ability to hold down a job and to live independently. They also negatively impact your quality of life. Exercise is important in keeping ankles strong and flexible and in recovering from injury. For older adults, "foot gymnastics" can increase muscle strength, improve gait speed, and reduce the likelihood of falling.
Exercises to Help Plantar Flexion
The normal range of plantar flexion is from a 20-degree angle to a 50-degree angle. Professional ballet dancers can achieve a much greater range of motion. Exercises for plantar flexion may not allow you to dance on your toes, but they will let you maintain a normal range of motion. Some exercises will combine plantar flexion and dorsiflexion.
Try these exercises that are easy to do at home to help plantar flexion:
Dorsiflexion and Plantar Flexion
Combining plantar flexion with its opposite move is a natural way to improve foot and ankle flexibility.
Step 1: Sit on a bed or on the floor with your legs straight.
Step 2: Flex your right foot toward you, pushing the heel away and the toes forward to create dorsiflexion. Hold for 5 seconds.
Step 3: Reverse the move, pointing your toes to create plantar flexion. Hold for 5 seconds.
Step 4: Repeat at least 5 times. Do the same with the other leg.
For extra benefit, bend your leg slightly at the knee and repeat the movements.
Single-Leg Heel Raise
This exercise provides overall strengthening of the foot and ankle.
Step 1: Stand near a wall or counter that you can use for balance.
Step 2: Lift one foot and stand with your weight on the other foot.
Step 3: Rise on your toes and hold for 5 seconds before lowering your heel to the floor.
Step 4: Repeat 10 times before switching to the other leg.
Try for three sets a day.
You'll need a small hand towel for this exercise, which targets the plantar flexors in your foot.
Step 1: Sit in a chair with your feet flat and place the towel on the floor in front of you.
Step 2: Try to grab the towel in the center with your toes.
Step 3: When you have grasped the towel, curl it toward you.
Step 4: Drop the towel, push it back to its original position, and repeat the exercise four more times.
Step 5: Repeat with the other foot.
Place a small weight near the edge of the towel to make the movement more difficult.
Ankle Range of Motion
This exercise requires movement in all directions. It is easy to do while you are watching television.
Step 1: Sit in a chair. Raise one leg slightly off the floor.
Step 2: Trace the alphabet in the air, leading with your big toe.
Step 3: Repeat with the other foot.
Work up to tracing the alphabet three times.
You will need 20 marbles and a small bowl for this exercise.
Step 1: Sit in a chair and put the 20 marbles on the floor in front of you, not too far in front or to the side.
Step 2: Pick up one marble at a time with your toes. Place each marble in the bowl.
Step 3: Continue until you have placed all the marbles in the bowl.
If the floor is smooth, you can put the marbles on a mat, towel, or rug so they won't roll away from you while you practice.
If you experience pain with plantar flexion, stop the activity that is causing the pain. Taking anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and using ice can ease the pain, but you may need to consult a doctor or physical therapist. A more long-term solution to help with foot and ankle pain is building strength and flexibility in the feet and legs, but you want to do it safely.
Ankle exercises can be difficult to perform first thing in the morning, when joints may be stiff. Allow time for the muscles to warm up, or take a warm shower or bath before exercising. If pain in the feet makes exercising difficult, try working out in the water, which reduces pressure on the feet and joints.