If you know even a little bit about building something, you know that a strong foundation is the first thing that must be considered. Any structure needs a strong and sound base. For the human body, the foot is the foundation of the structure.
Imagine two buildings, one on solid ground and the other on soft sand. Which one do you think is going to hold up the longest? Which one is going to stand strong through storms? Which one will be able to take a beating through the years?
Strong Foot, Strong Body
Thinking of your feet as the foundation to the “house” will allow you to understand why it is important to have strong feet.
How your foot interacts with the ground will send waves up the rest of the structure, or body. A weak foot, and in turn bad foot position, causes a chain reaction of compensation and poor position up the kinetic chain.
Let’s look at how a flat foot can cause problems.
As the arch drops in, the ankle follows and caves in as well. At this point the lower leg is no longer stacked over the foot. Further up the chain the knee internally rotates (having implications on the glutes ability to perform their action) and caves inward, also known as genu valgum.
This is an inefficient and troublesome position, especially when repetition is added into the equation.
Problems Caused By a Weak Foot
A myriad of problems can occur up the chain because a weak foot. Most of these issues are overuse in nature and become symptomatic after the tissues have taken a beating.
The plantar fascia can especially take a beating due to this position. The plantar fascia acts as a passive “cable” that helps support and maintain the arch. When the muscles which support the foot are not sufficient enough to maintain proper position much of the force falls on the plantar fascia. Overuse of the plantar fascia can eventually lead to inflammation and pain. If you’ve ever had plantar fascia you know it is not fun.
As stated earlier, due to the positional effect of a overpronated foot, or collapsed arch, the knee can also become problematic. An internally rotated and valgus knee can lead to undue stress on the anterior knee, causing conditions such as patellar tendonopathies as well as poor tracking of the patella.
The IT Band and low back can also become an issue due to the glutes being put position of disadvantage
How to Fix?
The foot and ankle must be trained just like any other body part but is often neglected in most training programs.
One of the biggest problems in strengthening the foot and ankle is the shoes that most people wear, in the gym and in real life.
Most shoes take out the need for force absorption, one of the primary responsibilities of the foot and ankle.
The shoes that most of us wear may weaken the foot causing weakness. As the muscles of the foot and ankle weaken, they are not able to support the arch, causing a collapse of the arch.
Shoes also dampen the signals from the ground to the foot. This can alter our proprioception or body awareness. This not only has a local effect but can affect the body globally.
It is time to start reconsidering our gym footwear. It is time to take a bit more of a minimalistic approach.
Barefoot training or the use of minimalist footwear can be effective in building strength, correcting poor movement patterns, and returning optimal foot mechanics.
It is important to proceed with caution when implementing this type of training. Going full tilt in minimalist footwear can almost certainly lead to discomfort, if not injury.
Gradual progression into “barefoot” training is recommended. Here are a few recommendations for those who would like to train barefoot or with minimalist shoes.
- Start by implementing into warm-up. This can help “turn-on” your feet before returning to your traditional shoes
- Slowly increase the volume and frequency
- Begin with bilateral movements such as squats and deadlifts. It is recommended to not begin with max effort work until you can create stability in the foot.
- Move to single-leg movements with stationary foot. (Ex. SL RDL’s, split squats)
- Progress to the “landing” of the moving lunge. (Ex. Walking lunge)
- Slowly add more dynamic moves such as hops, jumps, and agility ladder footwork
Before I move on, I must give you the one cue you should remember while training whether barefoot, in a minimalist shoe, or while wearing your soft cushy shows.
Maintaining an “active foot” will help create stability in the foot. This must be obtained or the arch will still collapse as you go through a movement.
When describing an active foot I tell clients to feel as if they have created a tripod with their foot, with pressure occurring on the heel, just proximal to the fifth toe, and just proximal to the great toe. Here is a graphic to help show the points of pressure you should feel. For more on this, read THIS article
Going Barefoot or Minimalist
If you train at home training barefoot shouldn’t be a problem. Nobody will give you funny looks nor will they turn up their nose if your feet give off that pleasant odor they are known for. I personally do not see a difference in with or without socks. Pedestal Footwear has created a product specifically for this type of training.
If you go to a more “hardcore” gym or non-judgemental, you may be able to get away with barefoot training. But in most gyms, walking around barefoot or in your socks may be frowned upon. Finding a minimalist shoe may be the way to go. Here are 5 characteristics of a proper minamalist shoe
- Wide Toe Box-allows your toes to splay, unlike most tradiational shoes
- Flexible sole-allows for proper movement within the foot
- Zero drop-heel is the same height as the forefoot
- Minimal to no cushion-allows foot to act as shock absorber
- Little to no ankle support
Below are a couple examples of minimalist training shoes.
Strengthening Exercises for the Foot
Outside of training in a minimalist shoe, you may need more training to help in correcting some weakness in the foot. Here are a pair of exercises you can include in your warm-up or in your training to help.
Single-leg Balance with KB Pass
Single-leg balance on it’s own is a good start to building the strength in your foot and ankle but adding a pass of a kettlebell from hand to hand cranks up the challenge. The weight shift caused by the KB pass challenges your balance and requires your muscles to react to keep you from tipping over.
Here is a demo of the exercise.
This exercise isolates the muscles of the foot and can help you strengthen the smaller muscles of the foot. It will also help you “feel” them contract.
Start the exercise with an active or tripod food. You should feel as if you remain on the outside of your foot throughout the entirety of the exercise.
Start by pulling or curling your toes up. You should feel as if your toes are spreading apart as you lift upwards. Hold for a 3 to 4 second contraction.
Then curl toes down and feel as if you are trying to grip the ground with your toes. Again, hold for 3 to 4 seconds.