In rehab and performance, we often preach to train aspects of the body that are commonly underutilized. This could include physical training, perfecting a craft or skill, mental training, and so on. However, we could argue that training the feet is one of more commonly underappreciated aspects of most programs.
In order to develop a injury-free body, as well as tap into the highest levels of performance, the feet must be trained effectively.
The goal of this article is to focus on providing keys for improving foot strength and why it’s important to do so. Incorporating exercises and specific training methods designed around the feet is a large topic and will be touched upon in later articles.
Why are the feet important?
We use our feet to stand, walk, run, and balance. They serve as our foundation and are responsible for transferring all the force from our bodies to the ground. When the feet are weak, or injured, the rest of the body must develop compensations in order to deal with the demands placed upon it.
The stronger the feet, the stronger the foundation is for everything and the more efficient the connection between ground and body will be. As a result, we gain improved strength, power, and control in all aspects of life, but even moreso when performing high-level movements such as jumping, cutting, and running.
In the world of athletics, the separation between being good and being great often comes down to tapping into athletic potential. Jumping high or producing explosive movements seems natural or almost effortless for some athletes while others seem unable to develop that same level of “spring.” Developing a springy base (feet), as well as a rock-solid foundation for all dynamic movements, takes a creative mindset and a daily focus.
Here are 3 keys to improving foot strength.
Key #1 – Train barefoot
Barefoot training shouldn’t be done everyday. Not to mention the fact that it can be dangerous, training without shoes puts a limit on what can be accomplished in and out of the gym.
However, assuming the environment is safe and “shod” training is completed the majority of the time, barefoot work should be utilized. Not only does barefoot work improve intrinsic foot strength automatically, but also allows for a better sensory link of the feet to the ground, a better tripod and stable base, and better upstream firing patterns at the glutes and hips.
Rigid training shoes rob our feet of their natural range of motion and “cramp” them into tightness and weakness. Electing to free the feet of any structured shoe and go barefoot or minimalist at least 1x/week can help offset this undesired consequence of heavy training.
Key #2 – Train on “awkward” surfaces
To build from the previous point, we’ve become very comfortable in our daily lives, walking around in rigid shoes and on hard surfaces, rarely having to traverse over a root or slop through mud.
This is why exposing the feety to a variety of environments and training surfaces can provide such an effective training stimulus. Subjecting the feet to uncommon training variables results in a certain level of functional strengthening that is difficult to obtain otherwise.
In a controlled environment, equipment such as slant boards, foam pads, and BOSU balls provide us with this “awkward” training platform.
Outdoors, training on the grass, track, and even sand is useful. Trail running and hill running provide a similar effect, as opposed to running the same 5k loop on pavement every day as many of our running athletes report.
Key #3 – Focus on strength, not mobility
Smashing soft tissue with a lacrosse ball, or stretching out “tight” muscles, both provide value. Saying that these aspects of daily maintenance aren’t important would be close-minded and inaccurate.
However, what we often see misdiagnosed as tightness or limited mobility is often stemming from a lack of stability and strength somewhere nearby. Inability to feel, or obtain, proper glute activation or foot intrinsic activation is something we see often, and can translate into these perceived feelings of tightness. This tightness is actually a byproduct of our bodies compensating as a result of this weakness or inhibition and not the true root of our symptoms.
Summarized, conditions of the foot such as plantar fasciitis or achilles tendinopathy can usually be avoided through proper loading and strengthening, as opposed to rigorous tissue smashing and stretching.
Unsure as to what exercises provide the desired response? Look no further..
- Heel – toe walking
- Single-leg heel raises
- Extreme slow lunge
- Ankle and foot warm-up drills
These exercises should be programmed as supplemental pieces to a well-rounded program. Athletes and patients of all levels, ranging from toddler to geriatrics, can benefit from foot strengthening to some degree. However, it’s important to remember that when adding a new activity, we must ease into it and not overload the body while increasing the risk for injury.
I hope this article shed some light on the topic of foot strength. Be sure to be on the lookout for more coming soon. Thanks for reading!