The foot is the only part of the body that consistently interacts with the ground. It is the foundation of human posture and movement, and with a weak foundation comes a weak structure. Beyond just the structure and stability, the foot is also expected to be an effective and efficient force transmitter for human movement. The foot absorbs, transmits and expresses force/energy at a tremendous rate. On a small scale (in magnitude) but extremely high frequency, the foot is loading, transferring and expressing low-level force throughout your gait cycle. On the other end, the foot is responsible for doing the same but under extremely high force/impact conditions, although obviously less frequent.
A major point of emphasis with the foot and lower leg complex is variation and efficiency. With these in mind, I like to perceive the structure of the foot as a bridge, and the function as a mechanical spring. As the foot accepts (absorbs) the force imposed upon ground strike, this force then must be transmitted (rapidly and sequentially) in order to be utilized for producing movement up the kinetic chain. As such, the structure of your foot is only one variable of the equation. Yes, structure matters, but I’d strongly argue that function should be the primary focus in almost any situation. What this ultimately boils down to, is that we should spend less time trying to “fix” foot structure, and rather concentrate on improving the function of the athlete at hand. We want to optimize this system by emphasizing the integrity and compliance of the foot.
Anatomy and Structure
The foot is made up of around 28 bones, 30 joints,100’s of muscles and soft tissue structures. There are also hundreds (thousands?) of proprioceptive bodies found throughout the fascial tissue that envelopes the foot- namely on the plantar (bottom) surface. While some of those numbers may surprise you, they shouldn’t- we aren’t designed the way we are by chance or accident. Courtesy to millions of years of exposure and adaptation, the foot possesses some remarkable structure and architecture (video via Randale Sechrest). With the unique structure of the foot we have a sophisticated joint in the ankle (talocrural) joint, and the structural bones tibia/fibula erected above the joint. Let’s identify some major structures to be aware of:
The bones of the foot are classified as the five tarsal bones (including the talus), calcaneus (heel bone), metatarsals and phalanges (toes). For the lower leg and ankle, we have the tibia and fibula. The talus is an important structure, serving as the foots articulating structure to comprise the ankle joint, thus permitting dorsiflexion and plantarflexion actions. The talus also serves as a major attachment site for muscles of the foot, making it’s resting position significant. The talus can often be compromised unknowingly, and consequentially be restricting a host of different movements. Predominantly, when the talus is locked up, we are inhibited in our ability to dorsiflex (which is not a good thing for athletes especially… think about deceleration).
Similarly, when we have metatarsals and/or phalanges that are immobilized or generally weak we see consequences up the chain. For instance, weak metatarsal bones can make an athlete more susceptible to “rolling” into excessive pronation (video via Dr. Glass, DPM) during dynamic actions like sprinting or cutting. Not only does this become detrimental to performance as we leak mechanical energy, but it could also become a more prominent factor for injury risk (i.e. ACL, Achilles, Lisfranc).
The joint function of the foot is compromised in most athletes I work with, and I’d imagine in most individuals just generally speaking as well. A major culprit to this is the presence of shoes, not to mention how poorly most shoe designs (and structure) really are. Nevertheless, the cushioned bottom and “form fitting” insole surface significantly reduces our foots interaction with the ground. Among several adverse effects, one of them is destabilizing the articulating strength of the foot and ankle. When the joints are either compromised by lacking mobility or lacking stability, the end result is the same- a destabilized foot that lacks strength and/or efficiency. Most commonly, I will see joint disruption in ankle dorsiflexion, big toe extension/flexion, and lacking midfoot (pronation/supination) control.
I mentioned above that there are over 100 muscles in the human foot. I know, pretty wild. But with that, I think knowing nothing else, it makes a profound point- 100 muscles for a relatively small surface area must mean there are a ton of finite, coordinated actions going on. Or in other words- it may be more important that a bunch of tiny muscles work efficiently in concert than simply strengthening a handful independently. This perfectly describes my adamance for the importance of single leg work and training barefoot… but more on that in a second.
With that said, I am always sure to address the tibialis anterior (TA)/calf muscles, toe flexors/extensors, and the plantar muscles/fascia. The TA and calf muscles (namely the gastroc) are responsible for the major movements of the foot/ankle- plantarflexion and dorsiflexion. Additionally, the TA is the prime mover for foot eversion, which is highly important for sprinting/change of direction. A primary role of the calf muscles that often gets overlooked is their contribution to achilles tendon function. The calf muscles essentially act (isometrically) as a stable platform for the achilles to brace against when loading and expressing kinetic forces. Training the calves isn’t all just college bro work, this is extremely important for sport performance.
Finally, the toe flexors/extensors and plantar muscles which collectively provide stability and intrinsic strength/control to the foot. A common issue I see is limited toe extension, making virtually anything done in the split position either overly difficult or painful. A mistake I made early on in my career was automatically assuming is was a hip or ankle limitation. But compromised toe extension is another one that has sweeping consequences and can often present as something like limited dorsiflexion at the ankle joint. Conversely, when we lack toe flexion and plantar strength/compliance we will inherently have difficulties with unilateral exercises. This can also be problematic for gait and running cycles as lacking toe flexion can cause excessive migration of the midfoot (excessively pronating), or limitations in propulsive/elastic strength in toe-off.
Structure & Function
On a simplistic view, the foot can be perceived in three prominent segments- rearfoot, midfoot, forefoot. An important distinction with these three segments is that each provides a specific role or function. And, throughout various phases of movement, these foot segments have independent demands and functions that are intended to complement each other. These functions must occur in concert for the foot to function optimally. For example, when we go into tibial medial rotation, we see foot supination, midfoot pronation and eversion, and big toe flexion. This also serves as a good illustration of the spiraling nature to foot and lower leg structure.
In addition to segments, we also have three prominent arches of the foot. Collectively the arches of the foot are responsible for distributing weight appropriately across the foot and absorbing and expressing forces throughout dynamic action. These arches include the transverse, and the medial and lateral longitudinal arches (shown above). As you’d assume, each of these arches have distinct functions/responsibilities: (catching a theme here yet…?)
Ultimately what we want for sport performance and general health & wellness is a strong and stable foot, that is also compliant and elastic. Recognizing the broad and wide-reaching demands of the foot/lower leg is imperative. The foot must be strong (positionally) to provide a stable base for movement to occur, but we also need foot compliance and mobility to permit joint actions demanded at the ankle without limitation. We need stiffness and rigidity at certain points and times, while also needing mechanical propulsion and “spring” or elastic effects of the foot. This relies heavily on good muscular and fascial tone, sequencing, and proprioceptive awareness/ sensibility. Per usual, the first place to start is by assessing the individual(s) for what’s lacking out of those traits above. This is why I refrain from ever saying you inherently need “this or that”, because it’s never the case. Whatever the athlete shows you in the assessment + what’s demands in sport/duty = what’s performed in training.
The most effective and quickest resolve to weak feet is simple- get your athletes out of their shoes. Before I go any further on this, training out of your shoes is highly beneficial, but just like anything must be applied appropriately. I don’t think any high force (jumping/bounding) or high impact (running/sprinting) movements should be performed without shoes, at least not beginners. Start with static/foundational movements, work to light/low level dynamics like skipping/hopping or light jogging. I wouldn’t progress beyond that.
Once we get familiar training out of shoes with foundational movements, I’ll then look to add in deeper ranges of motion and new planes of motion. For instance, once an athlete becomes proficient with something like a SL RDL barefoot, I’ll then look to challenge them by adding rotation to the mix by using a crossover SL RDL. Remember we talked about hundreds of muscles earlier… well, here’s where that comes into effect. Just by crossing the body, we’re now increasing demand on the frontal and transverse oriented muscles and structures.
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Similar to “low back pain”, and “tight” hip flexors, just about everyone can say they have feet that feel chronically tight or achy. Well, this can again be largely attributed to the adverse effects of modern footwear and the consequences of compensatory movement patterns. Due to the softened nature of shoe bottoms, the foot muscles are often under a state of chronically firing as we are inclined to dig our toes down as we walk/move/etc. The effects of this are even more pronounced for those who wear slides or sandals frequently. In addition to the absence of stability and support, sandals also promote constant flexion of the big toe, which can lead to problems.
Anyhow, start again by simply getting out of your shoes when you can while training. This in and of itself will help to free your foot from the imposed constraints and force the foot to function as a collective unit again. In addition, the manual soft tissue applications can be highly beneficial here. For the feet I get a lot out of foot smashing (tennis ball), and general manual work.Although I encourage addressing the entire foot, the primary item to concentrate on is the medial arch. Keeping up with routine maintenance of this part of the foot is critical.
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Similar to what’s described above for weak feet, ditching the shoes alone will help significantly with calf/achilles strength and function. Because we have an optimized platform for the foot, we will also have a more efficient firing pattern for the calf. Additionally, we want to put a good bit of emphasis on strengthening the calf isometrically and eccentrically, as these are the two muscular actions that aren’t “demanded” in day-to-day function. Conversely, we all take however many of thousands of steps per day, meaning constant, chronic firing (i.e. muscular shortening) at the calf. Needless to say, we should look to balance the system. This also explains why I use so much reverse or backwards walking/marching/running with my athletes. Walking backwards essentially reverses the biomechanics experienced during normal walking- which we do all the time. Walking backwards has several benefits but recalibrating the calf and lower leg is chief among them. And if you don't believe me, take a look at this short clip from Pete Bommarito discussing the foot/ankle in warm-ups.
Having weakness or deficiencies at the calf/achilles complex can be truly jeopardizing for athletes, and potentially damming for anyone really. The achilles is a very large and very powerful tendon that incurs quite a bit of accumulative damage over time. When we lack sufficient compliance, stiffness, and/or elasticity at the achilles, muscles in the leg will ultimately be forced to work (harder) and more exclusively for themselves. When this occurs, the first consequence is they become more susceptible to acute injury (think stress vs. strain curve). The secondary consequence being excessive strain placed on joints (i.e. hip, knee, ankle) that create increased risk for more chronic-based injuries such as tendonitis or arthritis to develop, or injury to another tissue.
There’s certainly no shortage of discussion on the importance of ankle dorsiflexion, and while I obviously recognize the significance, I also feel strongly we need to see beyond just dorsiflexion. For starters, mobility of the big toe, as I touched on above. We need mobility of the big toe to support a host of other, bigger movement patterns. Typically this is a low hanging fruit type of item too, as very few athletes work on this on their own. In addition to mobilizing the big toe, we also want to have a good ability to “splay” the foot. I’ve recently dialed back on cueing athletes to just “grab” with the foot and supplemented it with “spreading” the foot. Sure, there’s a time for each specific instruction, but for the sake of this conversation my reasoning for this is to emphasize intrinsic foot muscles and increasing surface/contact area of the foot.
Speaking more to the ankle, we really need to look at 3 structures- the talus, the tibia, and the calf/achilles. The culprit in limited dorsiflexion is not always obvious or easy to identify. What I do to nip this in the bud is have my athletes do both closed chain and open chain dorsiflexion actions to see how the movement is produced. If we see limitations in closed-chain, I look first at the talus. Conversely, if there’s a limitation in open-chain, or we see this achieved by the foot extensors rather than the TA, then I look at the lower-leg compartments.
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How to Implement
There are several ways you can begin to integrate the foot and lower leg into your training that require minimal time or disruption. The areas I always point to first are warm-up, accessory work, and nightly/morning routine. Again, just understanding that this is no different than anything else in training and needs to be gradually introduced and progressed. Don’t just start hammering this stuff full throttle, it will backfire. Start by ditching the shoes for your warm-up and put the emphasis on getting familiar feeling the foot/ground interaction. From there, look to do most if not all of your accessory work without shoes on. But again, apply logic where needed… if you have heavy sled pushes on the books, obviously we need shoes for the turf. When there’s force/impact involve, favor shoes. When you have a crowded weight room with inexperienced/young lifters- keep shoes on. Again, context and logic.
The other item mentioned, nightly/morning routine is a gamechanger in my book. Primarily, this puts the onus on the athlete to take ownership of their well-being, and ultimately their performance. More tangibly, we’re addressing something that’s significantly needed, while also occupying time that would normally be spent doing nothing (i.e. just watching tv). There doesn’t even need to be anything specific to this, but some of the items I try to address include:
-SL stability across different surfaces/body positions
-Dynamic rudiment movements (i.e. march, hop, skip)
-Various walking patterns.
Here’s a compilation video of what I normally do: Nightly Foot Circuit
Bringing Everything Together
-Get your athletes out of their shoes… be logical about when and where you go barefoot.
-Be mindful of footwear, but not a zealot about it. Generally speaking, when training (lifting) we want a stable, flat soled shoe with minimal cushion. When running/sprinting/dynamic actions, we want a more pliable shoe that has a better cushion.
-The foot is not just some flipper along for the ride. Perceive the foot as a bridge (structurally) and mechanical spring (functionally).
-Don’t try to “fix” structure, optimize the individual
-Don’t overemphasize one thing or another (i.e. dorsiflexion mobility), consider it a system that needs balance. Identify individual weaknesses/deficiencies and go from there.
-My anecdotal benefits include improved stability, increased hip function, improved kinetic sequencing/force transfer, improved proprioceptive/kinesthetic awareness.
-Consider positions experienced in sport/duty. Reflect those in the positions you work from in training barefoot.
-Consider foot/lower leg compliance and the chronic demands experienced. The ultimate goal is efficiency and durability. As such, variation in training should be encouraged.
-The achilles tendon is a major player in sport and athletic performance. Do not neglect this area, and also consider the multitude of speeds and forces the achilles is subjected to.