Think a pull up is hard? Try lifting your big toe off the ground unassisted. At the gym we rarely pay attention to some of our most important muscles. We couldn’t move from place to place or maintain our balance without the small muscles of the feet.
The big toe alone should be able to produce a peak force of approximately 10% of one’s body weight, says Dr. Alexandra F. DeJong Lempke, co-director of the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
If our toes and feet aren’t functioning properly, that could lead to aches in our ankles, knees, hips or lower back. These compensations can lead to overuse injuries including plantar fasciitis, shin splints, anterior knee pain and Achilles tendinitis.
A 2020 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that recreational runners who incorporated foot core-strengthening exercises into their routine were95% less likely to experience a running-related injury.
You don’t need to be a runner or recreational athlete to benefit from these exercises. A systematic review published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2022 looked at the benefits of foot-muscle strengthening among adults 65 years or older. It showed that participants who did the drillssaw improvements in strength, balance, mobility, and possibly reduced fall risk.
You can do these exercises while watching TV, but they are not as simple as they sound. If you haven’t worked your feet much, you might be surprised how challenging they are. Think of them as toe yoga. Don’t get discouraged if you need to use your hands for assistance to move or adjust the toes at the beginning. It takes time to retrain the brain-foot connection.
Perform each exercise one side at a time and from a seated or kneeling position to start. Then progress to standing and eventually performing drills two feet at a time, while balancing on one leg, or on an unstable surface like a pillow or pad.
Lempke also suggests rolling your feet over a lacrosse or golf ball after the workout. “It’s like a free massage for your foot muscles,” she says. As with any new workout, consult with your physician if you have existing aches or injuries, and stop if you experience pain.
Short Foot Drill
Why:Lempke likens the arch of the foot to our core and calls this drill a core workout for the foot. This activation exercise works the intrinsic foot muscles responsible for stabilizing the main arch. **
How: **Slowly dome the arch of your right foot. Make sure your weight is distributed evenly across your foot, and toes are spread apart. Imagine pulling the big toe joint back toward the heel. Try to keep the toes and heel flat on the ground. Avoid clawing your toes. When you’ve raised the arch as high as it can go, pause, then slowly release down to the floor. These are endurance muscles, so you’ll want to perform high reps. Start at three sets of 40 to 50 reps and progress as high as 100 reps. Switch sides.
Big Toe Press
Why:The big toe is responsible for an outsize proportion of stabilization and balance, and for the foot’s push-off motion when we walk or run.
How:Press the right foot flat into the ground, toes spread apart. Imagine your big toe is pressing a gas pedal down. Maintain the arch in the foot and keep the other four toes relaxed. Hold for two to three seconds. Perform 40 to 50 reps. Switch sides.
Option:If your lesser toes are rising off the ground, gently hold them down with your hand.
Lesser Toe Press
Why:This drill helps strengthen the muscles that control our four smaller toes, which also assist with propulsion and balance.
How:Press the right foot flat into the ground, toes spread apart. Think about lengthening and pressing the lesser toes into the ground. Don’t let them scrunch up. Maintain the arch in the foot and keep the big toe relaxed. Hold for two to three seconds. Perform five to 30 reps. Switch sides.
Option:If your big toe rises off the ground, gently hold it down.
Big Toe Raise
Why:A healthy gait relies on the big toe to bend upward about 50 to 90 degrees as the body passes over the foot.If it can’t bend efficiently, compensation occurs and injuries happen elsewhere.
How:Distribute weight evenly across your right foot. Spread toes apart. Try to raise just the big toe off the ground while keeping the small toes pressing flat into the ground. Don’t let the toes scrunch. Hold the big toe at the top, then slowly lower down. Perform 40 to 50 reps. Switch sides.
Options:If your small toes rise, gently press them down. If your big toe won’t rise on its own, gently lift it with your fingers, release at the top and hold.
Lesser Toe Raise
Why:Lesser toe deformities, such as hammer toe or overlapping toes, can occur when there is an imbalance between the muscles and tendons within your foot that hold your toes straight or as a result of wearing tight shoes that crowd the toes.
How:Distribute weight evenly across your right foot. Spread toes apart. Press the big toe into the ground and try to simultaneously raise the four lesser toes while keeping them spread. Hold at the top, then slowly lower down. Perform 25 to 30 reps. Switch sides.
Options:If your big toe is coming off the ground, start by pressing it down with your hands. If your small toes won’t rise on their own, gently lift them with your fingers and then release at the top and hold.
Extend and Splay
Why:This is like a breathing exercise for the feet, allowing the toes to extend and spread while activating our arch.
How:Start with the right foot pressed flat into the ground, weight distributed across the foot. Think about activating your arch as you lift all five toes off the ground and spread. This exercise can be difficult—just getting the motion down can be a challenge. Try starting with 10 to 15 reps. Switch sides.
Option: Try a more passive toe stretch and extension by wearing Naboso Splay around the house.
Controlled Foot Supination and Pronation
Why:Pronation happens when the feet roll inward to absorb impact. Supination happens when your weight rolls to the outer edges of your feet. Rolling too much or too little in either direction can lead to pain or injuries. This exercise trains the body to work both motions in a controlled manner.
How:Step the outside of your right foot on the edge of a step or other elevated surface, while maintaining balance with the hands on a rail or wall. Your big toe and second toe will touch the surface, the other toes will hover. Slowly roll the toes and foot down and to the left so that the arch rises. The big toe will remain pressing down on the surface. Return to start. Reverse the motion for supination. The smaller toes will press into the surface, big toe hovering off. Slowly roll the inside of the foot inward to the right so the outside of the foot raises up. Repeat 10 to 12 reps each side.
You may feel some discomfort and fatigue when you start your foot strengthening routine. An extra 5 minutes for releasing your feet with the RAD Neuro Ball can provide relief.
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