Foot stability is the foundation for all your lifts. Therefore, if you are not working on foot stability, you are not working on a solid foundation. If you want to be as strong as possible in your lifts, the first strength leak you need to address is your feet. I’m sure you assess your clients’ lifts regularly. But have you ever assessed their feet? Time to start…
A few days ago, I was filming my Movement Optimization for Prehab and Performance Level 1 Online Course. Yup, just dropped the news… you will soon be able to take the course in the comfort of your home at your own pace! Anyway, I decided to do a live assessment for the course case study. I assessed a client whose main difficulty was with his overhead press. His overall posture showed some thoracic kyphosis, rounded shoulders, slight forward position of the head. Things that could make you jump to the conclusion that he had poor shoulder and thoracic mobility and potentially poor scapular control and that that’s where his difficulty with overhead presses lay.
However, his assessment actually showed good mobility at the shoulder and thoracic spine and no scapular dyskinesis. What we did find was a significant rearfoot valgus and a tendency for the foot to pronate in both single-leg stance and under load.
When we looked at his overhead press, we noticed how difficult it was for him to maintain his center of gravity in the right position. Whenever he would press the barbell up, his weight would shift to the front of his feet due to the excessive pronation. His feet were in a constant struggle to resist that pronation.
We worked on creating awareness of his feet and worked on a couple of foot stability drills and within 5 minutes, we re-tested his overhead press and saw a significant improvement in his stability. Already, he felt more solid with a better transfer of strength to the barbell.
WAKING UP THE FOOT
The first step in improving foot function is getting connected to the foot. Most people spend a lot of time in shoes, and very little time barefoot. If they wear shoes with a very narrow toe box, they often have very little connection with the toes.
An efficient mobilization sequence for the foot involves increasing proprioception by stimulating the bottom of the foot, as well as tapping into movement of the toes.
Cutaneous sensation is closely related to the perception of movement and stability. A study of subjects suffering from diabetic neuropathy found that they required significantly greater passive angular displacement of the ankle in order to perceive movement.
Barefoot training stimulates the cutaneous mechanoreceptors of the foot. This information, as well as that coming from muscle and joint mechanoreceptors, is used by the nervous system to detect position and movement: this is proprioception.
The base of the first toe, base of the fifth toe and the heel should always remain in contact with the floor. This creates what we commonly refer to as the foot tripod.
A common misconception of the tripod is that we should be pushing it into the floor. The idea behind the tripod is that your weight should be centered within it. For that to happen, you need to have appropriate sensation of those 3 points of contact.
When using a lacrosse ball or spikey ball to roll under the foot, focus should be on the base of the first toe, base of the fifth toe and the heel, as well as the lateral aspect of the foot. You can also roll onto the plantar fascia to stimulate proprioception and/or alleviate tension. I typically suggest rolling for 1 to 2 minutes under each foot.
To complete the Mobilization sequence, it’s important to get the toes moving. There are many exercises to choose from to gain awareness of the toes, one of my favorites being the toe tap. Lift and spread the toes and then tap them one by one onto the ground. Do this for 2 sets of 8 reps for each foot. Make sure you watch the video to see how to do this!
The intrinsic muscles of the foot work as important stabilizers. As well, the tibialis posterior is the main medial dynamic stabilizer of the ankle and also stabilizes the medial longitudinal arch of the foot, while the peroneus longus is the main lateral dynamic stabilizer of the ankle.
The passive function of the fascia as well as the active function of the intrinsic muscles are important for the stability of the foot. As the distance between the heel and the sole of the foot is shortened and the height of the arch of the foot is increased, the tarsal bones are locked in a position of forced flexion to create a solid support structure.
The short foot exercise is an exercise for the intrinsic muscles of the foot as well as the tibialis posterior. While maintaining contact of the tripod, gently push the toes into the ground to actively lift up the medial longitudinal arch. Note that the head of the first metatarsal might be slightly off-loaded, and this is ok. I typically program the Short foot exercise in sets of 5 x 10s holds, which you could repeat twice for each foot. Watch the video to learn how to teach and cue this exercise.
HOW TO USE THE FOOT
Intuitively, we know the foot is important, but what’s lacking is how to properly transfer this awareness of the foot to lifting in the gym. At best, people are rolling a ball around under their feet and using the cues “spread the floor” and “screw the feet”. In the gym I often see people working on their feet as part of their warm-up, but then not transferring that foot work to their lifts. For example, people will spend time working on their feet but when they go on to lift, their toes are lifting off the floor or their weight is moving toward the forefoot.
We saw this as well with the live client assessment I discussed at the beginning of the article. He had been doing posturology for over a year and had worked on his proprioception, which had helped tremendously with his dynamic posture and positioning. However, he had never been taught how to transfer that awareness of his feet to his lifts, he did not know what his feet needed to be doing on the ground. That was the missing link.
This is what we focus on in the Integration sequence, where we are concerned with creating behavior. In this instance, understanding how to the foot works on the ground to create a solid base.
The evolutionary foot has adapted to bipedalism. Understanding the force couples of the foot and ankle in gait is important because it is the foundation of how the foot can function to support us not only when we walk and run, but also when we load the body.
For the sake of this article, I am going to make it simple and to the point. The support phase of the foot involves dorsiflexion and eversion, while the propulsion phase involves plantar flexion and inversion. Dorsiflexion and eversion are coupled with internal rotation of the tibia and the hip. Plantar flexion and inversion are coupled with external rotation of the tibia and the hip.
If you are looking for an in-depth explanation on foot function, I suggest you look at Dr. Emily Splichal’s work, as she is by far the person who explains the foot best.
In order to be effective in absorbing force, you need to be capable of controlling dorsiflexion, eversion and internal rotation (pronation). In a squat or lunge for example, if you cannot control dorsiflexion and eversion, where will your knees go? Your knees will go in. So when we see this, rather than starting at the knees with a band, it makes much more sense to start at the feet.
To develop optimal power, you need to be capable of producing plantar flexion, inversion and external rotation (supination). The best way to visualize that is to imagine you want to jump, but don’t. Like your feet are working isometrically into the floor to push into plantar flexion and inversion. I explain how to activate the foot in this way in the video, and I also go into it in detail in my blog article, Stop Blaming the Glute Med.
START WITH THE FEET
As a coach or trainer, you have an educational role to play with your clients. Part of that role is ensuring your clients have a proper, solid foundation to build upon. Granted, not everyone is going to train barefoot or adopt minimalist footwear, and not everyone has a pronated foot or unstable arch. People with supinated feet may just need to focus more on centering their weight within the tripod. The concept of getting connected with the foot and understanding how it works on the ground is important regardless of foot structure or footwear. Like the roots of a tree, foot stability is the foundation for all your lifts!
Enjoyed this article? Click the link on the top right-hand corner of the video to share it, we sure do appreciate it!