Guest post written by: Kate Galliet
Low-inflammation diet? Check. Plenty of good sleep? Check. A good probiotic & digestive enzyme source? Check. And so on down the checklist of ‘stuff you learned from sites like this one to help you gain health & reduce disease-risk.’
We have a similar checklist for ‘stuff you need to do to gain & maintain high-quality movement’, and as a coach, all too often, I see clients with things half-way checked off, not checked off at all, or really good things that aren’t even on the checklist but that should be.
As I noted in my last post about how I work with my clients to build them an unbreakable body, one that has gorgeous movement-quality, and is free from aches & pains, I noted that I look at them through a different fitness lens – one that puts body durability, mobility, and foundational strength in each of 6 key pillars of the body at the forefront.
The 6-pillars are simply a way to look at your body and ensure you have critical areas for movement quality locked down. Mobility & strength work can get complex really quickly if you let it – analysis paralysis can take down the best of us. If you use this 6-pillars model, much like if you follow Robb’s basic guidelines for diet & lifestyle, it gets pretty easy pretty quickly.
To review, the 6 pillars are:
- strong feet
- strong glutes
- hip stability
- strong core
- postural strength
- scapular stability
Today, I’m going to dive into the first (and if I had to choose favorites…this one is in my top 2) pillar that majority of folks are not paying enough attention to. Strong feet.
Why Does Foot Strength & Function Matter?
In your workouts, you probably pay attention to your legs, and your arms, and your back, etc. What are you doing about the part of your body that holds all of that up? Your lower leg, ankle, and foot are the very bottom of the house you stand on. I know some folks think that how your feet move aren’t too big of a deal, but I’d like to offer a different viewpoint.
We know that having good muscle tone in our back, arms, and legs helps our bodies to move well. We know we need to exercise our bodies to fight against the non-movement that happens for most of our modern-lifestyle days. Why would your lower leg, ankle, and foot be any different?
Muscles support the skeleton. They are the suspenders that hold you up and help you stay tall when gravity (and over-the-shoulder bags, and small children hanging on you) are trying to pull you down.
You can fix your feet which can fix issues going on upstream of your feet. I have countless examples from clients, but today I’ll use myself as an example: I had chronic right side problems, and had a fairly flat arch in my right foot. I started working on building strong feet and in 6 months saw my arch return and have tone in it.
In addition, my shoe size shrunk a ½ size in those 6 months. This shouldn’t surprise you – muscle gives shape. Not only because muscle tone changes the way the muscles sit, but also because muscles are attached to bones via tendons, and if you change the way a muscle sits, you change the way the bone is positioned.
(Oh, and all of the right side aches & injuries disappeared over time as well.)
Unbreakable Feet, Unbreakable Foundation
Let’s dive into why having strong feet that are unbreakable (which means you have mobility where appropriate, you have stability where appropriate, and your ankle and lower leg are strong and function as your skeleton was built for) makes the rest of your body also more unbreakable.
The way your feet make contact with the ground determines how the bones in and above your foot will sit, and that affects how the muscles & joints throughout your body work. Look at this picture.
When arches drop and ankles cave in, the tibia & fibula no longer are stacked over the foot, instead leaning in at the bottom. The knee will internally rotate, and in time, this can make your glute activation go down the toilet.
Part of the glutes job is to keep the femurs externally rotated and the knees heading in the forward direction. It gets harder and harder to do that when the knees keep turning in because the guys down below (the arches & ankles) aren’t holding the structure up.
There are numerous things that can be done to bring foot mobility and strength back, but the first and easiest to discuss are foot position and fine motor control of the toes.
You can do all the strength drills you want but if you allow sub-awesome body positions during your daily life, and your foot still functions like a mitten instead of a glove, you’re still going to be in the hole.
Two Drills To Start Fixing Your Feet
In the video below I show two simple things you can do to start fixing your feet.
The first item addresses foot position. When you stand with your feet turned out, even slightly, as most folks do, you will also start to walk with your feet turned slightly out. Did you know kids learn how to walk partly by watching those around them walk? You’re doing yourself and the next gen a favor by fixing this up now.
Standing with feet turned out means the tripod that is your great toe ball joint, your ball joint on the outer edge of your foot, and your heel now is off-center. You’ll need to shift your hips forward to re-balance the weight distribution of your body.
When are hips start shifting forward, we start doing silly things like constantly flexing our quads to keep from tipping forward, arching our back to bring ourselves back to the original center of mass, and start relaxing our glutes which will eventually turn into disharmony between glutes, psoas, and everybody else making up the hip complex.
But wait! There’s more! When you turn your feet out, even slightly, your weight leans inward toward the inside of your ankle, contributing to arch collapse; in addition, when the main arch (there are actually 3 arches in your foot, not just 1) collapses, you’ll put your plantar fascia under greater load because it will begin to do the support work that the arches would be doing in a healthy foot.
The plantar fascia acts like a tie-rod. But it isn’t designed to be the only thing holding up a large % of your body’s weight. Plantar fasciitis was only a runners’ injury back in the day. High mileage, too much mileage too fast, and sub-optimal foot striking were common causes of this injury. These days, office workers everywhere who have never been a runner are being afflicted.
Your muscles are suspenders that hold up your skeleton. When your suspenders are broken, your skeleton (and all the body mass that’s on it), don’t get held up very well. And -itis injuries like plantar fasciitis become injuries simply from daily life.
The second item in the video digs into your fine motor control. You might be thinking, “but I’m not a dancer! I don’t need fine motor control!” Yeah, no, you do. Your brain is making an obscene amount of calculations every moment, via the signals your foot is sending about your location in space.
Here’s another analogy for you. You know when you wear mittens it’s almost like your hands don’t work anymore? Seriously, try to do something like separate your keys to get the one you want out and ready to put into the door lock while wearing mittens. Compare that to the ease of doing the same task while wearing gloves.
There are so many possible ways to move and articulate the bones and joints of your foot, toes, and ankle that you need an exponential equation to express it. Most folks I have worked with in the last 12 years were wearing mittens on their feet when they first began working with me and building strong feet (not actual mittens obviously…you’re still with me on the mittens/gloves thing yeah? good.)
What seemed impossible at first became do-able in time, and eventually led to similar results to what I’ve achieved in my own feet. I’d like your feet not to hurt or get injured. I’d also like your knees not to hurt and I’d enjoy seeing you do sports and daily life without low back pain.
The way your foot moves affects all of that. So watch the quick video and then get to work trying the two drills I present there and let me know as you start practicing them…does it feel weird? impossible? easy? Your feet matter! Don’t leave them behind!
Prairie Roots says
Thank you! We will get going with these two exercises for our feet-
John Caton says
Thank you. Very enlightening but it raises a concern for me. I have difficulty walking a straight line (even when sober) unless I point my feet slightly outward. There seems to be a balance issue that is corrected when my feet are outward a bit. I walk that way intentionally because my natural walk pretty much has my toes forward, but I will drift left or right when I walk that way. Can exercise correct that or am I possibly in need of orthotics?
Kate Galliett says
Hard to say without evaluating other elements of your movement quality, as there can be other muscles in your muscular chain that are too tight or too weak that are causing some of the dis-balance issues when walking. Also remember that balance is affected by the inner ear, so if there has been trauma there, balance can be an issue.
If you’ve never done a movement screen w a fitness pro, or physical therapist, it might be worth your time to do so, as they could see in person if anything else can be helped in your muscular chain to get you re-balanced when you walk.
A question (and I apologize if it’s covered in the video, but I’m currently at work and can’t watch the video yet). But what about if when you stand with your feet straight you feel like you’re knock kneed? If I try to avoid turnout, I feel like I’m twisting my knees something fierce. So I don’t think my walking/standing turned out is completely due to 8 years of ballet as a child (though I’m not debating the effect they have had – I have a hard time doing any exercise without pointing my toes for the fact that ballet is so ingrained into my muscle memory)…
Kate Galliett says
Dancers are always ingrained deeply w that foot turn out 😉 it’s true that you might feel knock kneed at first. This could mean that there is some tightness in the hips or weakness in the glutes contributing to the knees turning inward. Of course–this is ONLY a thought I can give as I can’t see you in person here in the comments section of Robb’s site 😉 but, I’ve found w in-person clients that glute strengthening and hip mobility can help many of them get their knees turning straight again as their feet are facing forward.
RITWIKA PAUL says
How should we walk or run? Placing foot in front of each other in straight line? Or hip distance apart?
James Burnette says
I’ll have to try the drills. I switched to wearing minimalist shoes 90% of the time and going barefoot as often as I can. Still have a weak arch though.
Robb Wolf says
Mine has improved with tinkering. Just start with low volume and ramp up slowly!
Gonna try this and hope it helps improve my surfing :-).
This does feel very pigeon toed….but I feel more pressure towards the outside of my feet which is good because I over pronate. I’ve had so many issues with my lower legs over the past few years I’ll try anything.
was there sound with the video? I didn’t have any and I was thinking it might be helpful to hear exactly what you are doing.
Hi Kate. I’ve been using orthotics for close to 20 years now. I have excessive rearfoot pronation and reduced motion in my big toe joints. I want to do these exercises to improve the strength in my feet. it would be great if I could stop using orthotics but I’m not overly hopeful.
My question is at what point will I be able to tell whether I still need to wear orthotics (i.e. the orthotics become counter productive due to increased strength in my feet)?
Of course, only you can be the best judge of when you should or shouldn’t do something anymore…one route a few of my clients took was to start injecting short periods of movement that they normally would have done with the orthotics now without. They’d go for a short walk without them, or spend part of their work day not wearing them, and would see how it felt. Over time, and always being aware of any pain that crops up, which might be a sign they’re not ready yet, they’d go for longer without them. It took a year for some, but what’s a year in the grand scheme of things anyways? 🙂
Very cool! I definitely pronate, and have had problems with plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis. Love the straight foot idea–no pronation when I do that. I’m going to try working more with a standing desk, so this will fit in perfectly! I hope you come back to go over some of the other 6 pillars–I found that weak glutes play a huge role in foot problems for me.
I like the idea of my feet being “unbreakable,” I already barefoot as much as I can, but I’ll definitely add these exercises into my workouts. Thanks for the helping of motivation!
I had always thought that it was the inside of the foot that was supposed to be straight forward. Why is it the outside?
A question about the exercise: what if you can’t do it? I can’t isolate my big toes that way. When I flex them, all my toes are engaged and lift up. So how do I work on just doing the big toes? With other exercises I know how to start with a lighter weight, do it for less time, etc. But I can’t figure out what the baby steps are here. Thanks!
Although this is great information and I think everyone could benefit from the drills outlined here, I do believe one you can have a predilection toward flat feet. My wife has very flat arches, just like her sister, brothers, and dad. But it is not because of a lack of exercise. She grew up on a farm so I know she worked her tail off and did more than 95% of people out there. While most kids were playing Dig Dug on their Nintendo, she was hauling wood, picking rocks out of a field, and baling hay. She also was a very good athlete (golf, basketball, and a sprinter in track) and played golf at the D-1 level. So, with that in mind, what kind of results can she expect to see? Are there any additional things she should focus on?
Thankfully, both of our boys have my insanely high arches (which I share with my dad). I hate to blame everything on heredity, but in some cases like I’ve heard Robb say before, picking good parents has a lot to do with things at times.
…so interesting and new to me as a runner! Would these exercises help deal with flatten metatarsal bone issues? I also have a hammertoe linked to bone problem so I wear orthotics! I think my right foot is headed for the same problem!
Meanwhile, I’ll try these exercises! Thanks
I was able to raise my toes right away in this excerisize, however what I find interesting is when I raise my left big toe it tends to steer towards the outside of my foot, so it moves toward my pink toe. So that little bone from my toe next to my big toe starts to feel a little pain. My left foot is always the one that has pain in the outer bottom side of that foot. Where as my right toe will lift straight up perfectly. Also it’s a mental excerisize as well, I have to concentrate on only lifting my big toes and it works but I have to tell my toes what to do I find that fascinating!
How many times should I do this exersize? Also do you know why my left big toe has this tenancy to move left instead of straight up?
Cameron Hamill says
Excellent story and I fully subscribe to your 6 pillars philosophy. Calves and Tibialis Anterior (shin bone muscle ‘front calves’ training as well. Though you did mention lower leg training.
I would add knee Strengthening as a 7th pillar. Specifically the VMO muscle (Vastus Medialis Oblique). The ‘tear drop’ muscle on the inner quad right above the knee cap and to the left.
I really appreciate your article and I support every word written!