Foot and ankle training is a topic that is relatively neglected and overlooked in the field of kinesiology. However, proper activation and function of these areas is not only vital for maximizing performance and strength but is also critical for tissue health and injury prevention.
Other than proper posture and spinal alignment, foot and ankle function may be the single most important factor when it comes to optimizing movement quality, biomechanics, and muscle function. If we’re talking about building strength from the ground up the first place to start is with the feet, ankles, and toes.
Feet and Ankles Affect Everything
For most movement, neural signaling begins at the feet. The better the feet and ankles are functioning the better the innervation all they way up the kinetic chain including signaling to the upper extremities.
When the feet and ankles are in a state of dysfunction any movement that requires even a slight degree of foot and ankle support becomes impossible to perform properly. The movement may look right on all accounts but intramuscular and intermuscular coordination as well as overall motor unit recruitment are greatly compromised. This is something I refer to as “pseudo arthrokinematic manipulation”. It may look right to the eyes but neuromuscularly it’s wrong.
Unfortunately a majority of athletes, lifters, and general populations display foot and ankle dysfunction to varying degrees with most of them exhibiting externally rotated feet, valgus ankle collapse, and toe crowding (lack of space between the toes). A majority of high-level athletes have incredibly poor functioning feet and ankles with many of them having feet and toes that resemble those of disabled and physically impaired/dysfunctional individuals.
No matter how strong, powerful, mobile, agile, fast, or explosive an athlete is, correcting these foot and ankle deficiencies will only improve upon their pre-existing biomotor capabilities.
The Impact on Lower Body
Addressing foot and ankle deficiencies will do wonders not only for strength and power but will also do more for technique and movement mechanics than most forms of corrective exercise. In fact, performing heavy lifts, particularly for lower body without proper foot and ankle mechanics only reinforces movement dysfunction.
Many injuries, tweaks, and areas of general tightness particularly in the lower body and lower torso are related to faulty ankle and foot mechanics. If you consistently have tightness or pain in your hips, knees, or low back then your feet and ankles need addressing.
In fact it becomes impossible to squat or perform any other lower body movement correctly with faulty foot and ankle mechanics because hip and foot activation are directly related (one greatly impacting the other). With that said training the feet and ankles properly will have an immediate impact on hip function, mobility, stability, muscle function, and lifting technique.
Core and Spine
Core strength and postural mechanics are closely related to ankle and foot activation. Getting better at one will almost always improve the other. Furthermore addressing both postural positioning and foot mechanics will resolve a majority of movement dysfunction as well as improve function in muscles throughout the body.
In addition, just because you play sports or perform consistent activity on your feet does not mean you have strong ankles or feet. In fact it probably places you at higher risk for faulty foot mechanics.
On a similar note, most shin splints, ankle injuries, and foot pain, are related to weakness and dysfunction in the aforementioned muscles. Rarely is it an overuse issue but rather an issue of faulty or incorrect use. Training the feet and ankles appropriately will address this. Remember, injuries such as shin splints are tell-tale signs that movement mechanics and function in the distal portion of the lower extremity are amiss. The good news is all of this can be remedied with proper training of the feet and ankles.
What About Shoes?
If a majority of your physical activity is performed in traditional shoes and you do little to train your feet and ankles then you most likely possess faulty ankle and foot mechanics.
Most shoes act like a crutch helping absorb force and impact that should ideally be performed by your foot and ankle muscles. Over time, this allows the muscles of the feet to become neuromuscularly inefficient gradually leading to improper foot and ankle mechanics being engrained into the central nervous system.
Barefoot and Minimalist Training
Performing activity in minimalist footwear (once the athlete has prepared and trained their lower extremities properly) builds strength, proper firing patterns, and optimal foot mechanics.
Competitive athletes involved in activities including but not limited to strength training, football, baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer, and track, should spend a significant portion of their training, practice, and skill work in barefoot or minimalist gear. This helps to build foot and ankle strength as opposed to traditional shoes that typically lead to foot and ankle deficiencies.
Take It Slow
With barefoot training don’t go too extreme too soon or you’ll set yourself up for injuries. Gradually progress into it. For some, fixing your feet and ankles will take weeks, while for others it may take months if not longer. Eventually you should be able to perform all of your physical activity in the most minimalist conditions.
Passive vs. Active Foot Activation
Many athletes display very passive foot activation when making ground contact with their feet. This often appears as though the foot is very dormant and inactive with little innervation running through the foot and ankle complex as well as the toes.
Rather than having the feet sit on the floor like two limp pancakes, the goal should be to incorporate active foot mechanics. Active foot mechanic should be incorporated on a majority of physical activities and movements. This involves gripping the floor aggressively with the feet, having more stress towards the outside of the foot, toes activated (especially the big toe), and the whole foot feeling as though it’s gripping or screwing into the floor rather than passively resting on the floor.
The Strong Feet Remedy
In order to gain strength from the ground up it’s important to incorporate specific movements and exercises that strengthen the feet and ankles as well as eliminate deficiencies specific to your area of dysfunction. Although you can perform general strengthening exercises for the feet and ankles it’s best to determine the specific type of dysfunction before charging ahead. This will allow you to perform the ideal exercises and training routine that are ideal for your specific issues.
In following sections I’ll highlight a few basic steps you can take to begin resolving your lower extremity deficiencies. However for those with more severe issues you may want to consider implementing the foot and ankle training protocols laid out in my recent e-book, Foot and Ankle Manual.
Common Foot and Ankle Issues
Although there are numerous types of foot and ankle deficiencies most issues fall into one of two categories, either pronation/eversion or supination/inversion.
Ankle and Foot Pronation
A majority of individuals display ankle pronation/eversion. This is often accompanied by protrusion of the inside ankle bone, a valgus foot collapse/ankle valgus (inward collapse of the foot), flat feet, fallen arches, overlapping toes, bunions, and hallux valgus (inward collapse of the big toe).
Significant foot rotation in either direction (excessive lateral or external rotation of the feet (duck foot syndrome), or internal rotation (pigeon toe position) are also commonly associated with the above issues.
These tendencies can lead to a host of other related problem such as ACL tears, low back injuries, knee pain, osteoarthritis of the lower body joints, severe ankle injuries, and various pulls, tears, strains, sprains, and fractures in the lower extremity.
If you trouble driving your knees out on squats, or if your feet have a tendency to significantly flare (out or in) on a consistent basis then the above syndrome probably describes your foot mechanics.
Ankle and Foot Supination
On the opposite end of the spectrum, yet less common lies the supinated foot, a syndrome more commonly seen in individuals that are bow-legged. These individuals tend to place greater stress on the outer or lateral portion of the foot. If you had to choose between pronated or supinated ankles, supination is definitely the lesser of the two evils although it still has its share of issues.
Foot or ankle supination tends to be associated with inflammation throughout the outer ankles, shins, and hips including the IT-band. Although the problems are typically less severe than those seen in ankle pronators, these individuals can be susceptible to ankle sprains and chronic foot discomfort.
Proper Foot Mechanics
In terms of what constitutes the “three point of contact rule” is a good starting point. These include the following:
Heel or calcaneus
The lateral upper portion of the foot or outer ball of the foot in line with the 5th metatarsal, baby toe area.
Near the proximal phalange also known as proximal phalanx, hallux or more commonly the big toe.
In addition it’s important to have optimal yet natural toe spread/splay (of all the toes) especially the big toe/hallux in line with the first metatarsal joint. In other words the big toe should be spread away from the other toes, not towards them.
Do This Self-Assessment
Determining which category you fall into is actually quite simple (supination or pronation). First, many individuals already know which category they land in as they’ve previously been assessed by a physician, trainer, or therapist, or they’ve simply taken the time to analyze their own feet and ankles in the past. If you have not been assessed by a professional and hope to perform your own assessment, there are several quick tests you can perform.
First, simply stand in front of a full-length mirror and examine your foot and ankle complex. Use the above descriptions and images to determine whether you pronate or supinate. For most individuals this should be fairly obvious.
If your feet and ankles cave in then you’re a pronator and if they push out excessively then you’re a supinator. If there’s no significant issue one way or another consider yourself blessed however you most likely still need to strengthen your feet and ankles with general activation exercises. You can also try performing several bodyweight squats as this typically has a tendency to magnify and expose the issues even further.
Another effective method for assessing your foot and ankle function is to have a ground height photo taken from the back of your feet and ankles. You’ll be able to see immediately whether you fall into the pronation or supination category by simply comparing it to Figure 1.
Exercises for Improving Pronation, Flat Feet, and Eversion
To improve issues associated with excessive foot/ankle pronation, flat feet, fallen arches, and eversion the key is to perform drills that require the individual to resist pronation or valgus forces. Essentially these drills force for the individual to drive into supination by pushing to the lateral portion of their foot.
Single leg variations of movements where the weight is loaded contralaterally (opposite arm and leg) are very effective for addressing this. For example performing a single leg stand on your left leg while holding the load in your right hand forces the lifter to push their ankle outward to resist the pronation forces creating by the contralateral loading.
Here’s one of my NFL athletes, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Taylor Heinicke demonstrating this exact protocol as he strengthens his feet and ankles for the demands of the rigorous NFL season.
If you have trouble with ankle and knee collapse during squats, jumps, lunges, and other lower body movements, performing drills that are loaded in a contralateral fashion are critical as they not only help eliminate ankle pronation but also strengthen the outer hips, abductors, and glute medius muscles.
Exercises for Supination and Inversion
To improve issues associated with excessive foot/ankle supination and inversion the key is to perform drills that require the individual to resist supination or varus forces. Essentially these drills produce the opposite effect of the above exercises used for pronation as they force for the individual to push to the medial portion of their foot.
Single leg exercises where the weight is loaded in an ipsilateral fashion (same arm and leg) are very effective for addressing this. Here’s an example of one my clients Matt Jordan demonstrating a unique variation of the unilateral straight arm pulldown that’s loaded in an ipsilateral fashion for correcting over-supination issues.
If you have a tendency to overspread your knees on exercises such as squats, which is in fact becoming more of a common issue in strength training settings, performing drills that are loaded in an ipsilateral fashion are of great value as they not only improve ankle supination problem also help strengthen the inner thighs and adductors.
General Strengthening Exercises for the Feet and Ankles
A majority of effective foot and ankle exercises can be used by every athlete and lifter regardless of the specific foot and ankle deficiencies they possess. Many of these drills include variations of the single leg stand and lower body stabilization movements that require the lifter to resolve their specific issues on the spot as anything less will result in a loss of balance.
Although there are numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen the feet and ankles in this fashion one of my go-to drills I use with all my athletes to improve foot and ankle strength are single leg swaps and variations there of.
One of the great features of the single-leg swap is its effectiveness for improving nearly all forms of foot, ankle and hip deficiencies. When you hold the weight in an ipsilateral fashion (same arm, same leg), your ankles are required to provide anti-supination support as you resist varus forces wanting to drive your hip and knee out laterally.
When you hold the weight in a contralateral fashion (opposite arm and leg), it turns the movement into an anti-pronation exercise where you have to avoid valgus collapse around the ankles, knees and hips. Whether you’re prone to supination or pronation of the ankles and feet or display any form of valgus knee and hip collapse, there are few lower-body deficiencies single leg swap variations won’t address.