Updated: Jul 1
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OK. So, I copped out with a gimmicky title, but hear me out. Allow me to introduce you to your peroneals, a group of three muscles spanning the lateral compartment of the lower leg. The peroneus longus, specifically, is an extremely important muscle that is predominantly involved in sprinting, cutting, and jumping/ballistic actions. The primary muscle actions of the peroneus are plantarflexion and eversion of the foot (2). Note: Video below via Muscle Premium App
But before I go any further, the caveat here is this- you are training this region with your athletes. Albeit indirectly, anytime we’re sprinting, working COD, jumping, or squat/split squatting, we’re stressing the lower leg muscles. We can even take it a step further in saying anytime you do something on one leg or that involves plantarflexion you’re kicking on the peroneal group. That said, the likelihood that most coaches are spending enough time training this area with emphasis, is probably a reach.
There are two critical roles that the peroneal group provides that are often less considered in training. The first is its role as a stabilizer of the fibula. The peroneus brevis and longus originate on the posterior aspect of the fibular head, which is a bone that has minimal support to begin with (2). When the peroneal tendon is disrupted, such as avulsed or torn, the stability of the lower leg becomes significantly compromised. Adding to that, the ability to dorsiflex and stabilize the foot will be substantially impacted as well. The primary mechanism of injury with the peroneus involves a dorsiflexion force on the ankle accompanied by a rapid and strong contraction of the tendons with eversion of the hindfoot (2).
Images showing common mechanism of injury for the peroneal group. Image 1 (frontal view) and image 2 (sagittal view) are demonstrating the combination of dorsiflexion force combined with eversion of the foot.
Another overlooked role here is that of the peroneal nerve, which is primarily responsible for supplying plantarflexion and dorsiflexion of the foot (2). Although less common, this nerve can be entrapped when excessive joint laxity is present (i.e. weak/loose myotendinous junction). The peroneal nerve can also be damaged in severe ACL injuries (even less common). The recent and great example of this being Jaylen Smith, middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. He’s an even greater reference now given the remarkable comeback he’s exhibited following that harrowing injury.
Training the Lower Leg
When we’re looking at emphasizing the peroneals, we want to consider the multiple planes of motion this group is responsible for. We understand the inherent demand for the sagittal-based actions (i.e. dorsi/plantarflexion), but frontal plane movements specific to the foot and lower leg are often a bit more remiss. The foundation for the lower leg is the foot and ankle, so when discussing training strategies we want to start here at the feet.
Athletes often lack fundamental foot strength, and full multiplanar movement of the ankle can be a common limitation as well. But weak foot muscles, particularly the intrinsic muscles, can create a cascade effect up the leg. This is especially the case during high volume training periods for my population. The good thing about addressing weak feet is that it doesn't take much time or effort, and can typically be built into the warm-up, movement prep, and accessory blocks of training. Here's a basic schematic for strengthening the feet:
Also be sure to check out our foot strengthening playlist!
I would recommend doing the majority of these without shoes, exceptions being obvious such as movements with high impact or dynamic action. The reason being, when we’re emphasizing the peroneal group, we need to consider the distal attachment underneath the big toe. When we have shoes, we impede this muscle action, resulting in an incomplete contraction overall as the movement of the big toe is inhibited. This speaks to the importance of strengthening the windlass mechanism of the foot outlined above.
Once we’ve established a foundation for foot strength and function, I’ll then look to be more intentional about implementing frontal plane-oriented movements to emphasize the rotational and lateral functions of this muscle group. This component is more specifically targeting the elements of foot compliance, which is the ability to bend, contort and create center of pressure across the foot. Improving foot compliance requires the mediolateral muscles of the lower leg (i.e., tibialis anterior-posterior, and peroneals) to be strong enough to hold the foot in certain positions across different centers of pressure.
One thing I've noticed in both the military and athletic populations is that foot eversion is often limited. Foot eversion is a critical motion for sprinting and change of direction, and when athletes are limited in eversion, it compromises the ability to fully pronate during takeoff. The primary muscle here is the peroneus longus, which also plays a significant role in maintaining the structure/function of the transverse arch (3).
Intuitively, we should recognize that in order to effectively stress this region we need to emphasize frontal plane actions. A good starting point for stressing these muscles and joint actions is to add more unilateral movements to your programming. Quite literally, anything done on one leg will challenge the lower leg, due to the demand for managing supination (inversion) and pronation (eversion) of the foot. A couple of novel drills I like to work into my warm-up and movement prep periods to address this:
In addition to the foundational drills, there are several ways we can strengthen the lower leg without having to do anything specific or specialized. Building layers into your conventional programming will always be the most effective way to improving overall outcomes. For the sake of the lower leg, utilizing a floating heel technique is a simple and effective way to address this. The theory here is that by suspending the heel, were driving more demand on the muscles surrounding the big toe (i.e. peroneus longus) and the plantarflexors by resisting collapsing out of the neutral foot position (3). The floating heel can be worked in as a phase of training similar to how eccentrics/isometrics can be phased in and out, or it can be used as a specific strategy for athletes to address specific limitations.
Once foundational strength has been established, the best bang for your buck, and ultimately the most effective way to train the lower leg muscles is by incorporating a variety of plyometics and med ball drills. Speaking to the plyos, I like to have athletes perform a variety of rudiment plyos barefoot 1-2 times per week pretty much irrespective of the training cycle we're in. My reason for this is the low hanging fruit of foot sensorimotor acuity and demand for compliance. These attributes are essential for strengthening the lower leg groups. In addition, I will typically work in some amount of extensive plyos throughout the training cycle as well. For these I will progressively work towards more directions and variation of movement before looking to add volume or intensity. As we continue to progress towards more speed and dynamic movements, we will then work in our intensive plyos, which mainly include aggressive bounding and a variety of box drills.
With regard to intensive and jump based plyos- remember that the only true purpose of jumping on to the box is to minimize eccentric loading. When we're specifically looking to stress the feet and lower leg muscles, jumping off the box is where the true value exists. The demand for dispersion of eccentric forces is what I find to be essential for improving the lower leg. With this, always start with short box heights (6-12"), start with shoes, and emphasize position and mechanics of ground contact. Progress by adding more velocity first, more height second, and external load or increased force third.
Where Does it Fit?
I know the common question or response to things like this are “yea, that’s great, but where the hell am I supposed to fit this in?” Well, the first response I always have to this is let’s look at your warm-up/movement prep. The warm-up and movement prep period is a critical component to creating a successful training environment and outcome. It’s easy to overlook and undermine the warm-up, but when used efficiently it can be a critical factor in progressing your athletes.
The added benefit to this part of training is that it is often the most flexible, meaning we can make subtle adjustments here and there, or make global sweeping changes over time. I would encourage the lower leg be a primary candidate to include during this time period. Especially for football, volleyball, and basketball athletes.
The next two places to look are your intraset work and accessory work. Recall that sometimes even just adjusting the position we work from or the stance/position of the foot can be a contributing factor. So for instance modifying from a bilateral bent row to a SL bent row w/ toe in pattern. This doesn’t need to be forever, or for every exercise. Just a few tweaks is all it takes.
Lastly, I would encourage you to considering adding this to your “recovery” or reset days. Getting the athletes out of the shoes for training once in a while is another indirect way to achieve some extra love for the lower leg. Giving appropriate attention to training on multiple planes of the foot (i.e. emphasizing pressure on outside and inside borders of the foot), adding a floating heel, or ball of the foot pattern for dynamic movements are great items to use as well.
These can all be very beneficial towards making athletes more resilient to lower leg injuries, including chronic ankle sprains and high ankle sprains. Of course we can’t prevent injury from occurring, but we certainly can do our part to build our athletes durability and reduce the chances of sustaining soft tissue injuries. I would also argue that emphasizing the lower leg a bit more in training will carry over very well to sprinting and jumping mechanics as the athlete will likely be more proficient with force transfer. In either case, Incorporating these drills into your training will go a long way for your athletes.
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3.) Zeidan, H. Suzuki, Y. Kajiwara, Y. Nakai, K. Shimoura, S. Yoshimi, S. Tatsumi, M. Nishida, Y. Bito, T. Aoyama, T., 2019. Comparison of the changes in teh structure of the tranverse arch of the normal and hallux valgus feet under different loading positions. Appl Sys Innov, 2(3)