The core you need to work: The ‘foot core’ system


foot core

How many times have people told you that in order to have good form when doing movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, cleans, or any other functional movement you have to have good core strength?

It’s all about that solid core. It keeps you aligned and keeps you moving.

A strong core is at the heart of every movement--literally and figuratively because hey, it’s the centre of your body. It’s strength in the muscles of the torso and lower back that serve to stabilize the spine and pelvis during exercises, but also to maintain good posture.

While there’s no denying that core strength and stability are key to good movement patterns, what if we told you that it’s notjustabout that core…

Having a strong foot core system is equally, if not more, important than having a strong abdominal core for moving properly and preventing injury.

The ‘foot core system’ explained

The feet are your foundation. They are what carry your body through every movement, every day whether that’s walking, sitting, jumping, squatting, or swimming. The feet are subjected to repetitive loads day in and day out, which means they’re also constantly being subjected to the potential for injury; this can be through trauma such as a fracture or sprained ankle, but it can also be from repetitive loads over a period of time. 

While the foot may seem pretty simple from the outside, it’s actually quite complex. It’s made up of dozens of bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles that allow the feet to move in specific ways and provide support and stability during various movements. The various tendons and ligaments of the foot also offer resistance to loads that occur during running or jumping movements and provide a ‘spring’ that absorbs and releases energy to propel us forward. 

According to McKeon, the human foot serves several different purposes aside from providing just a base of support [1]. During gait, the foot is stable at foot-strike and push-off, but during mid-support, the foot becomes a mobile adaptor and attenuates various loads, storing and releasing elastic energy with every strike of the foot on the ground. These unique characteristics of the foot are accomplished through the deformation of the arch, which is controlled by intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscles. The foot ‘core’ system that we’re talking about is based on the stability of this arch, which is the requisite to normal foot function.

Essentially, the ‘foot core’ is the network of small muscles that stabilize the foot, but also accommodate rapid changes in demands of the feet that occur with different activities. When the core muscles of the feet become weak from disuse, other areas of the body compensate and lead to stress and strain that eventually increases the risk of injury. However, we can counteract this compensatory effect by strengthening the ‘core’ of the foot through various exercises.

foot core

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The arch of the foot is under the control of both local stabilizers as well as global movers of the foot, similar to the lumbopelvic core. The local stabilizers are four layers of plantar intrinsic muscles that originate and insert on the foot providing stability to the arches. The global movers, on the other hand, are the muscles that originate in the lower leg, cross the ankle, insert on the foot and serve as the prime movers of the feet with minor stability roles. 

With every step, the intrinsic muscles are responsible for controlling the degree and velocity of arch deformation, but when they malfunction, the foundation becomes unstable and misaligned, which ultimately results in abnormal movement of the foot (supination, overpronation, etc.). Eventually, this can transition into various overuse injuries like plantar fasciitis. 

If we dig into this ‘foot core system’ a bit deeper, McKeon describes a specific system of stability:

Theactive subsystem is the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles and tendons that attach on the foot; thepassive subsystem is the bones, ligaments and joint capsules that maintain the various arches of the foot; and theneural subsystem is the musculotendinous, ligamentous, and plantar cutaneous receptors that are involved in the active and passive subsystems that provide us with body awareness. 

Importance of having a strong foot core

Athletes are built from the ground up. The body is a complex and interconnected system that your feet are the foundation of, and while the thought may not have crossed your mind, if you’re struggling to push past a plateau you’ve been hitting for the last couple of months, your feet may be your missing link. Despite the importance of intrinsic foot strength, most athletes--and even casual gym-goers--unwittingly sacrifice optimal performance and set themselves up for injury by neglecting to work on their feet and toes. Just as you would strengthen your core to improve balance and stability, which results in better overall performance, you also need to be strengthening your feet and toes. 

Foot strength is key for:

  • Proper toe alignment
  • Correct gait
  • Balance
  • Flexibility and mobility of the feet
  • Injury prevention

Don’t believe us? A recent study published inThe Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that a simple foot strengthening routine not only leads to improved standing and walking performance, but could also lead to significant improvements in running speed, horizontal and vertical jump distance, and strength [2]. The feet act as a bottleneck for speed, strength, and power, so, if you want to move and perform better, you have to fix your feet.

How to strengthen the foot core system

The body is a master of compensation, and if the feet aren’t doing their job properly, other areas of the body are going to step in to pick up the slack. Over time, this sets the stage for all sorts of overuse injuries. The knees and lower back are two major areas that are prone to compensation, so if you’re constantly struggling with low back pain and sore knees, weak feet could actually be the culprit.

So, how do we stop that? There are a few options for restoring the natural function of the feet and strengthening the foot muscles to achieve better performance and reduce your risk of injury. 

1. EI8HTBALL roll

If you spend long hours sitting or in super supportive shoes, the feet can start to take on an unnatural rigidity. Rolling the feet is a great way to reverse this and get the natural function and rigidity of your feet back, but also relieve tension and mobilize the skeletal structure. It’s as simple as it sounds. Roll the EI8HTBALL under the soles of the feet (ball, arch, heels) for 60-90 seconds a few times a day, or whenever you’re feeling tension.

2. Improve flexion

This movement to improve flexion of the toes has two parts. Begin in a standing position. 

  1. Press your outside four toes down (second through baby) and slowly try to raise just the big toe off the ground on each foot. Don’t worry if the foot starts to cramp--it’s a sign that your nervous system is still working on control of this movement. Perform this 12-15 times.
  2. Reverse the pattern. Press the big toes firmly into the ground and try to raise the lateral four toes. Even if you can’t lift the toes yet, try to focus on the intention of lifting them to rebuild your neuromuscular control. Again, repeat this for 12-15 repetitions.

The more often you perform these exercises (even though they can be frustrating and painful), the sooner you can start to regain the natural function of the intrinsic foot musculature. Aim for at least once daily. 

3. Six-point crawl 

The six-point crawl is great for restoring proper movement, especially of the feet, because it’s not just about building strength and mobility, but also teaching them how to move properly with the rest of your body. 

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Assume a quadruped position (on hands and knees with toes tucked under).
  2. Begin to move forward by simultaneously moving the right hand and the left leg forward with a crawling motion.
  3. Drive each step forward from the toes of the foot. You want to think about pressing the point between your big and second toes firmly into the ground with every move.
  4. Aim for 1-3 minutes of crawling.

4. Go barefoot

If you want to build strong feet, the best way to do that is to treat them like feet. Feet weren’t meant to be squished in shoes all day long, so let them out. If you’ve ever spent time in a cast, the same atrophy happens when you keep your feet shod. Regaining foot strength isn’t going to happen overnight, so ease into it and take your time to restore your foundation.

5. Wear Toe Spacers

Wearing Toe Spacers for as little as 10 minutes a day can help stretch intrinsic foot muscles, realign the toes and relieve tension.

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