Why a strong foundation is important for performance

Strong Foundation

For runners, lifters, and just about anyone in between, firing up the big muscles for training has always been the go-to warmup. We squat, deadlift, press, and pull to get those muscles primed and activated, and ready for battle. But what about the little guys on the ground that we constantly miss?

We throw on a pair of shoes and pretend like they just know what they’re supposed to do and how to do it. They’re forgotten, neglected, and therefore weak. I’m talking about the feet and all of the intrinsic foot muscles wrapped up in our foundation.

If you want to take your training performance to a new level, you can’t afford to ignore your foundation. While the muscles in the lower limbs must be strong for good speed, strength, and power output, along with being resilient and functioning in a coordinated fashion for effective energy storage during each movement, passing by the foot exercises that work these important muscles can actually do your body and performance a lot of damage and drastically increase the risk of injury--both on and off the field or floor. 

Photo source: ​​https://www.crossfit.com/essentials/foot-musculature-part-1 

Muscles of the lower limb and the foot are divided into two categories based on their function:

  1. Local muscles: The intrinsic foot muscles are also referred to as the foot-core. These guys are responsible for maintaining the shape of your arch and are required for absorbing shock. Compared to the larger muscles in the lower limbs, the local muscles are smaller in the cross-sectional area.
  2. Global muscles: These are the larger muscles that are primarily responsible for moving your ankle and flexing and extending your toes.

Weak local muscles can make for an unstable arch that doesn’t absorb shock well, which can ultimately result in faulty biomechanics. When the local muscles cannot properly stabilize the foot, other muscles have to compensate, which comes from the global muscles. Ideally, you want to avoid this situation because it’s not their primary function to stabilize the foot and absorb shock, but they also have a longer reaction time, thereby exacerbating the instability. As a result, you’re more susceptible to overuse injuries of the global muscles, plantar fasciitis, and even stress fractures.

If we’re dealing with weak local muscles, we want to be doing exercises targeting only the local stabilizer muscles rather than involving the global muscles, too.

Strengthen those lower limbs

By taking the time to strengthen all of the muscles of the lower limbs, including the feet, you’re working towards building a stronger and more stable foundation that will ultimately serve to improve your overall performance in every aspect. In this routine, you’re doing three exercises daily (short foot, toe splay, and big toe press) and two exercises about 2–3 times per week (leg swings and calf raise to big toe press).

Exercise # 1: Short foot

With this exercise, you want to “shorten” the foot by contracting the intrinsic muscles of the foot to raise the arch. In technical terms, you’re pulling the first metatarsophalangeal joint (big toe joint) towards the heel bone.

How to do it:

Sit in a chair barefoot with your knees at a 90-degree angle aligned with your ankles. Without crunching your toes, try to shorten your foot by pulling the ball of your foot toward your heel, raising the arches in your feet. You can do one leg at a time or both. Ensure you’re keeping the foot in a neutral position and not curling or extending your toes, or rocking inward or outward.

Being barefoot is important for this exercise because it helps to enhance your ability to feel sensory input from the bottom surface of the foot, which can help you develop a better sense of creating that short foot posture.

Hold for 5-10 seconds and relax. Repeat 5–15 times for each foot.

Exercise # 2: Toe splay

Ideally, moving the big toe independently of your other toes is what you want to aim for, but the vast majority of people cannot. The goal of this exercise is to enable all of the toes to splay, which helps to strengthen the intrinsic muscles.

How to do it:

Try pulling your toes apart (splaying them) as wide as you can while keeping your foot flat on the ground. You want to ensure that the toes are not curling or extending. Focus particularly on moving your big toe away from your other toes. In doing so, you should feel the arch muscle contract as it starts to activate. 

Hold for 5-10 seconds and relax. Start with 5 repetitions and build up to 20 to 30. 

Exercise # 3: Toe press

This exercise is a super simple and effective way to gain strength in the big toe and allow it to move independently of the other toes. 

How to do it: 

With your foot flat on the floor, press your big toe down while lifting your other four toes off the ground. Hold each press for 5-10 seconds and repeat for 12–15 reps per foot.

Exercise # 4: Leg swings

A lot of athletes use leg swings to warm up their hips for lower limb exercises, but unlike dynamic leg swings that use a large amplitude to swing to the end of your range of motion, pulling back the amplitude and only doing a small swing can challenge your balance, along with hip and ankle stability.

How to do it:

In bare feet, ​​stand on one leg and create the short foot posture. Swing the opposite leg forward and backwards 15 times in a controlled motion. Without rest, swing the same leg left and right in front of the leg on the ground 15 times. Repeat this sequence without resting, then repeat on the opposite leg.

Exercise # 5: Calf raise to big toe press

In bare feet, stand on the edge of a stair on the balls of your feet with your heels hanging off.  Let your heels drop below the level of the stair. Do a traditional calf raise, then finish by pressing onto your big toe only allowing your other toes to come off the stairs. If needed, grab onto something for balance. Repeat for 12-15 reps.