Look Down for a Strong Core
If buildings are built by starting with a strong and stable foundation, perhaps we should consider the importance of a strong and stable foundation through the bases on which many (if not most of us) roam this earth on - our feet!
The importance of core stability has fast become important in the fitness and movement culture. Having the knowledge, awareness and control of the local stabilizers within the torso, now often referred to as "the core", is attributed to having profound affects on the function and health of all surrounding structures. This idea has the potential to have the same affects down in our feet interacting with the lower leg that in return interact with the hips and the hips with the core of our torso!
Let's take a brief tour of our foot and how this idea of a core translates within this relatively small structure of tissue. The human foot has developed into a complex structure serving the function of stabilizer in both static and dynamic moments, and also as a spring reactor to produce and absorb force. Research has shown that the arch was developed from the human's need to carry loads and produce more force to run.
The extrinsic muscles, or the foot muscle tendons that run from the lower leg and insert within the foot, largely provide the propulsion and absorption for these dynamic actions. However the intrinsic muscles that are fully enclosed within the foot alone, provide immediate sensory information to the brain and body in order to stabilize and control the distribution of weight and force particularly within the arch of the foot. These intrinsic muscles, these deep stabilizers, are the four layers of the plantar muscles completely housed within the foot forming "the core" of the foot. Just like the deep stabilizers of our torso, when they are overlooked and underutilized they become dysfunctional. This in turn can lead to poor function, alignment, instability and possibly pain and injuries to the feet and their above counterparts.
While the foot strengthening has made a comeback through exercises such as towel curls and Theraband exercises, these exercises activate the extensor muscles in combination with the intrinsic plantar muscles. Core training of the torso starts with learning to stabilize the pelvis and spine with the deep stabilizers without surrounding global muscle participation. The foot core can be addressed and trained likewise. Exercises specifically activating the intrinsic muscles within the foot, as well as developing the control to move the individual structures of the foot (the bones that make our toes) should take precedence over exercises that integrate the more global foot extensors. And while barefoot practices like Pilates and Yoga provide increased sensory input and in turn require more active foot stability, the body will naturally utilize paths of least resistance to do this - using what is already strong and mobile to the benefit or detriment of the area.
On the road to developing a stronger foot core, the first stop is observation. Do the following seated or standing.
Observe how you stand in your own body. Where does the weight fall in your own foot? Are your toes curled? Can you track a line through your foot, from the forefoot/ball of your foot to your heel? Is your arch falling in? Are your heels twisting in and your foot rolling out? Is there tension or pain? What position is your foot interpreting the ground and your body?
Now try to align all ten toes to face straight forward and your heel directly behind your second (2nd) toe. Keeping the heel and the ball of the foot grounded to the floor, shorten your foot by trying to lift both the inner and outer arches of each foot. This is called foot doming, but we're not done. This is just the beginning because now we need to address the mobility that the mechanics of the feet should provide. What structure(s) within each foot can you and can't you move independently? Onward to the mobility station.
Can you move each toe independent of the others and without affecting the ankle joint rolling in and out? To do this, we're going to dive into foot mobility work from the Functional Range Conditioning system. Start by activating the foot core by foot doming and proceed with all the following, all while keeping the foot dome and the metatarsal heads (ball of the feet) and the heels grounded to the floor throughout (each exercise builds on the next so remember this!):
Lift all ten toes off the floor. Ideally, you want the toes to flex far enough away from the floor as they would if you were rising up onto your toes to lift your heels up to reach for a high branch in the tree. Again, this is just the beginning, now comes more fun stuff.
Keep all tens toes lifted and press the big toes back to the floor and then bring it back up three (3) to five (5) times. Just the big toes, the little toes stay lifted throughout.
Still keeping the all ten toes lifted, spread the toes as far away from each other by ABDucting the big toe and ADDucting the little toes. Now try placing each little toe down one at a time starting with the pinky toe. Then try to pick each toe back up starting with the big toe. Do this three (3) to five (5) times remembering to keep the foot dome and metatarsal and heels glued to the floor.
Place all ten (10) toes back down but keep that foot dome. Lift the big toes as far away from the little toes as possible. Little toes stay down. Lift the big toes three (3) to five (5) times.
Next keep the big toes down and lift all the little toes up as far away as possible. Try not to let the big toes curl and be mindful the arches don't fall in. Of course you wouldn't let that happen anyway because you're still foot doming. Lift only the little toes three (3) to five (5) times.
Last try lifting the big toes up and keep the little toes down again, then immediately switch by lifting the little toes up as you press the big toes down. Switch three (3) to five (5) times.
Having this kind of foot control, you'll definitely feel all the intrinsic foot muscles start to work. And if you lack the control and or mobility to lift one or several of your toes in any of these movement, well, you just learned a little bit more about some weaknesses in your foot core. Just like the core muscles in your torso, this affects the function, stability and interaction of the foot with the rest of your body. Any changes that you make down in the foot core, will have a trickle effect up that chain.
Try to add these to your daily routine, incorporate them into your workout, do them every morning before you put your shoes on and see how it affects not only the stabilization and sensations that you get in your feet, but how it gradually affects the whole rest of the structure standing and moving over that foundation.
Do better with visuals? Toe CARs is part of a whole body routine and can be found as a free preview from my online Kinstretch courses here (enroll or subscribe for future courses while you're there):
Interested in reading the research behind the foot core? Check this article out: "The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle function" by Mckeon PO, HertelJ, Branble D, et al., BR J Sports Med 2015; 49:290.