In this post we look at why you should train the muscles of your feet and three useful exercises to get you started.
Picture this, you go to the Doctor because you have a pain in your toe.
After careful examination she says you have two options:
1) live with the pain for the rest of your days
2) have the toe amputated
Which one would you choose?
Like me you’re probably looking for option 3.
This was the choice given to somebody I was speaking with recently.
She had lost so much muscle function in her foot that her little toe was being crushed under her fourth toe with every step she took. This was making walking excruciatingly painful.
I’m reassured by medical colleagues that pinky amputation is a last resort and usually related to disease and tissue death rather than bio-mechanical issues.
There is however a disturbing trend of people having their little toe’s removed so they can better fit into high healed shoes.
Cosmetics aside, I presume you’re reading this because you’d like to improve the function of your feet. And because you intend to keep all body parts attached if possible.
I share that ambition.
There’s a misconception that the function of the foot can’t be altered by internal means (muscle contraction) but is better addressed with external devices such as orthotics.
Let me ask you this, if you lost the ability to straighten your knee, would you apply a brace to do it for you? Or would you first attempt to work on the muscles responsible for that motion?
I think you’ll agree the latter is a more sensible long term strategy.
Let’s look at some exercises that may improve how your feet function in that case.
Exercises for the feet and ankle
Some of the muscles that move your foot also move your ankle.
Limitations at the subtalar joint in particular, which sits above your heel bone, will dramatically alter how your foot functions. For a more detailed look at the subtalar joint go to this post.
I’ll describe the motions that follow as either pronation or supination.
Pronation is a series of motions that occur to help your body absorb force as your foot hits the ground.
Supination is a series of movements that occurs to help propel you forwards.
You can think of pronation as your suspension system and supination as your gas pedal.
The subtalar joint post I mentioned contains a more detailed description of both terms.
Subtalar joint supination
Lay on your side with the outside of your ankle placed on a rolled up towel or something similar.
Curl the outside of your ankle around the towel so the outside of your heel travels towards the floor. When you can’t go any further, focus on bringing the inside of your heel up towards the inside of your shin.
Hold the top position for a second or two before slowly releasing your foot back to the start position.
Focus on the muscles on the inside of your shin working as you come up into the top position. With each repetition try to bring the inside of your heel as close as possible to the inside of your shin.
Subtalar joint pronation
Now reverse the position on the towel so the inside of your ankle is supported. Curl the inside of your ankle around the towel so the inside of your heel travels towards the floor.
When it can’t go any further, start to bring the outside of your heel back up towards the outside of your shin. Hold the top position for a second or two before slowly lowering your foot back down towards the floor.
Focus on the muscles at the side of your shin working as you come up into the top position. With each repetition try to bring the outside of your heel as close as possible to the outside of your shin.
Incorporating foot motion
Now we’ve addressed subtalar joint motion let’s look at an exercise that will incorporate the midtarsal joint of the foot into these movements.
One way of doing this is to stand with a foot on a half foam roller. This will enable you to use your body weight to slowly tip the roller in one direction which will drive foot and ankle motion.
You can then use muscle contraction to generate movement in the opposite direction.
Take care not to let your body weight take your foot and ankle into a position you can’t get to using muscle contraction alone. The previous exercise will give you an indication where this is.
In the videos below I’m using one of these but a half foam roller will suffice. Just make sure you place it on a non slip surface.
I also recommend wearing trainers to enable more grip and facilitate stronger muscles contractions.
Training foot and ankle supination
Stand with one foot on a half foam roller. Hold on to a door frame or something similar and slowly shift your body weight over the inside of your foot.
This will cause the roller to tip inwards.
Without changing your body position, gently begin to pressure the outside of your foot and slowly bring the roller back to level.
You should feel the muscles on the inside of your foot and lower leg working.
Move slowly between these two points taking care to keep the motion controlled.
Stop when you feel mild fatigue in the muscles around your foot and ankle, or those around your hip.
Training foot and ankle pronation
Still holding on to a door frame, move your weight so it falls outside your foot. This will cause the roller to tip outwards.
Without changing your body position, push through the inside of your foot to slowly tip the roller back to level.
You should feel muscles on the outside of your foot and lower leg working.
Again move between these two positions until you feel mild fatigue either around your foot and ankle or at your hip.
OK now for the fun bit, bending your toes and extending them. In some cases this will scramble your brain as you attempt to consciously control parts of your body that you may not have been in touch with for years.
Take a seat and place a foot on a yoga block or a book with your toes hanging over the edge. Make sure your metatarsal heads (balls of your feet) are in contact with it.
Slowly curl your toes down as far as they can go. If you can do so without cramping, squeeze your toes back into the side of the book / yoga block.
Hold this position for a few seconds before slowly beginning to extend your toes.
First from the proximal interphalageal joints (middle of your toes) and then from the distal interphalageal joints (just below your nails). Note your big toe only has one joint, whereas your toes have both.
Keep the metatarsal heads in contact with the book or yoga block and try to straighten your toes as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds before curling them down once again.
Your brain will probably fatigue before your muscles do but keep practicing this regularly and you will slowly gain more control of your toes.
The feet are still probably one of the most underated regions of the body. We usually only take notice of them when things start to hurt.
Don’t wait for that. Get them moving now.