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Exercise Solutions For Weak Feet And Foot Related Injuries

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 22 January 2018
Hits: 24751

Our ability to walk, run and jump is all initiated by our feet. But it is not just walking or running, it is for any movement you do standing up, neural signaling begins at the feet as they are the first part of the body to feel the ground and tell the system what to do. The feet are loaded with thousands of nerve receptors that are very sensitive and designed to help us move. They tell the brain where you are, if you are balanced enough to move yet, and basically instigate movement before it even begins. The better the feet are functioning, the better the signal all they way up the kinetic chain, and the more efficiently we can move. Unfortunately due to many factors ranging from poor footwear, lack of exercise, poor exercise choice etc, our feet become lazy and weak, and so begins the catastrophic destruction of our movements and joints. It is amazing the correlation between foot instability and knee pain or hip pain. I cannot tell you how many cases we have seen where the foot was the main problem with these injuries. Yet like many other injuries in the body, the area that causes the pain is rarely in pain itself. It sends the problems of instability and dysfunction to other areas. And to make matters worse our current health and medical treatments are ignorant to looking for a cause and hellbent on treating symptoms so this weakness or instability is often left unchecked and continue to cause pain and suffering. This article we will try to explain how the foot works and provide some simple exercise solutions to correcting any weakness and instability.

What Is The Foot Meant To Do?

Our feet are designed to do 2 critical things.

  1. ABSORB shock and then.
  2. Provide the ability to PUSH off the ground when we walk, run or jump.

The foot needs to act like a spring being soft flexible foot to cushion the stress of each step we make, and then instantly become stiff enough to provide enough power to move us forwards or upwards. This is also known as being able to lock the foot at one point and then being able to unlock the foot at the very next part of the movement. Problems arise if we lose either one of these two things, and ultimately lose our spring. This is where injuries will occur at other joints. So if you are someone reading this newsletter who has knee pain, hip pain, back pain and even shoulder pain, you would be very wise to take the time to read everything here very carefully, as you may find some hidden clues to the cause of your trouble!

There is many different foot types, so it is important to know what type of foot you have before you do anything so you can make the correct adjustments. You can see below a very simple diagram of the different foot types. If you are the normal foot, then you have great news. If however you are either the flat foot or the high arch you will have a few things to work on as we will soon show you.

First let's take a look at the Flat Foot which is the most common fault.

1: Flat Feet (Fallen Arch)

This is the most common of all the feet problems we see and is often associated with excessive pronation. This foot is basically very unstable, has become over stretched along the bottom of the foot, that now makes it almost impossible to become a rigid lever to create the "spring" and release energy. People with this type of foot are at an increased risk of developing injuries to the knees and lower back more so than the high arched foot.

See article Knee Pain Has Nothing To Do With The Knee for more on this.

This foot type is the most commonly one fitted with orthotics to help correct the fallen arch. Unfortunately it does not "fix" the problem as the foot still remain weak, and the orthotic does not provide the spring, if anything it dampens it!

Now I am not necessarily saying to get rid of your orthotics altogether. In some cases people have such weak feet that this is the best option, however it is always wise to try and correct these problems with strengthening drills first, in particular with young kids.

The key to correcting the weak foot is with improved stability strategies and STRENGTHENING! Remember this foot type problem is all to do with instability and weakness and like any muscle or joint it needs work. A quick note on pronation. Pronation is not bad, in fact it is absolutely essential, the problem is when you have too much of it in the case of weak feet. So understand we don't want to get rid of it altogether we just need to limit how much we have. As you will see soon with the high arch foot, it is pronation that they need most and a lack of it that is the problem! You are very likely to find glute weakness and stiff hips with this person so looking further up the chain for these problems is critical.

2: Hollow Feet (High Arch)

This foot type is exactly the opposite of the previous version and is basically stiff and rigid instead of weak and unstable. This foot type is more exposed to stress fractures and achilles problems. This foot type struggles to decelerate and load and can often find trouble over uneven terrain. This foot poorly absorbs shock!

I have found people with this foot type to also perform squats with terrible form as they are unable to "unlock" their foot when lowering to the ground. This then forces huge amount of pressure into other joints such as the hips and lower back to make up for the fact that they cannot achieve good range without compensating. And in turn also creates weakness at the glutes and hamstrings for the same reason, and even the quadriceps as they fail to be used correctly. A real failure to achieve optimal balance between the hip moment arm and the knee moment arm. See picture below.

Read our full article Is It Okay To Let Your Toes Go Over Your Knees When You Squat for detailed explanation on this.

A faulty squat means also you have an energy leak if you jump, for the jumping action is created from the squat. And with enough time of over compensating you also begin to create new injuries similar to the weak flat foot, but for the exact opposite reason. The correction for this foot type is improving MOBILITY of the foot and ankle.

3: Neutral Foot

Lastly this foot type as the name suggests is exactly what it is meant to be. It has the ability to lock and unlock and can maintain optimal alignment. Does this mean you don't have to worry at all about this foot type and go about things as normal? Not quite. You still may have to look after this foot type with a combination of stability and mobility work, for things can very easily change and put you in either one of the other two categories. Again poor footwear choices and a lack of exercise, or even abuse of exercise can all lead to ruining a really good neutral foot and turning it into a flat or high arch foot. So you have to work at it and look after your feet to ensure you remain fully functional and efficient.

Always remember.....

Okay so now you know a bit more about the feet what do you do? Well before you jump straight into corrective exercises and drills you MUST find the cause of your problem. If you fail to do this, any exercise intervention is pointless, for the movements you make throughout the day will negate any amount of repetition you perform with exercise program. Let's take a look at where to look for common causes.

How Do Our Feet Become Weak Or Rigid?

Well in the introduction I gave you some of the clues as to what the big causes are. And they are footwear and poor exercise regime or lack of it. Poor footwear is the main reason or should I say wearing shoes too often! Most shoes place us in elevated heels and create short tight calves with rigid ankles and weaken our feet. Flip flops (thongs as they are known in Australia) are even worse as they completely change our gait cycle and require “toe gripping” to keep them on while you walk. And you will soon see how this can be a disaster for your stability if you are a toe gripper.

Other factors that contribute to the problem

  • Lack of exercise & sitting too much
  • Poor running form or training technique
  • Fatigue
  • Previous injury

Let's take a detailed look at problems created from different footwear.

High Heels

All pictures above are examples of shoes commonly worn that have elevated heels. The runner might surprise many people as they are told that these shoes are correcting their problem. They are not correcting the problem, more just getting around it and creating new problems.

Firstly the female high heel shoes which are great for fashion, but terrible for the body do some very destructive things.

If the body were rigid a two-inch heel would displace it 22.5 degrees forward, while the four inch heel would displace it 45 degrees forward. Because the head and eyes must always remain level for reasons of posture and balance the body has to make adjustments at other joints to maintain this. The forward leaning creates compensation at all joints above the foot! Postural problems from these shoes are seen below.

You can read more about these different postures in the article Best Exercises To Improve Your Posture And Get Out Of Chronic Pain

While the men's leather shoe does not have a heel as high, it still is enough to create weakening of the foot or rigidness. The lack of spring in the sole of the shoe also contributes to the problem as we are unable to provide the critical spring, to unlock and lock at the right time. The running shoes are better in this regard but even still they have such high heel supports inside to overcome our weakness or rigid feet that are feet get lazy with never having to adapt to stimulus on the ground. So while this sounds like a good idea, remember the shoe cannot create our spring for us, it cannot unlock or lock at the exact right time just like our feet are designed to do.

A good example of this is watching people with terrible heel striking form when they run which is not just inefficient but the fast way to create injuries. When we remove the shoes and ask them to run barefoot, there is no way they can with that heel strike. The shoes with the extra cushioning allow the person to get away with a technique they would never have used if they were barefoot!

Now the problem with both of the last two shoes if you need to wear these to work is you are going to continue doing it. What you have to do is find ways to minimize the time in these shoes and when you get a chance to walk barefoot you can. Completing exercises to counter the damage from these shoes is mandatory. This is featured shortly.

Flip Flops & Sandals

The next shoe that is commonly worn and causes a stack of problems is the "Flip Flop" (thongs as they are known in Australia). These shoes are even worse as they completely change our gait cycle and require “toe gripping” to keep them on while you walk. And you will soon see how this can be a disaster for your stability if you are a toe gripper. Constantly wearing this footwear encourages the toe gripping to be adopted as part of your new ‘plan B’ approach to stabilizing the foot by overusing the toe flexors instead of using the foot musculature. A bit like a virus in the computer. This is where you see clawing, hammer toes, bunions etc.

Gripping can be a huge problem as you have basically just narrowed the width of your foot making you unstable. Anyone who has toe gripping must spend considerable time learning to spread the toes again, and also regain function of the big toe which you will find is almost non existent. Shortly I am going to show you how you can get this back and improve your ability to spread your toes and use your big toe correctly.

The big toe is so important to your ability to walk. I can tell you exactly how important it is as I broke my big toe twice, and it is impossible to walk without it! This person who is a toe gripper usually finds single leg exercises difficult, often cramps in calf or feet instead of feeling strength or fatigue kick into their glutes as it is mean to. You can see how this person will over time develop extremely weak glutes from a foot problem. The weak glutes then create massive problems at the hip exposing the back and knee to injury.

For more detail on this chain reaction read the article Best Exercises To Use For Improving Pelvis & Hip Stability

The Danger Of Foot Instability

We have already touched on this to some extent and we have covered this many times in many of our other articles on injury before but we will discuss this briefly again just to show you how easily injuries are created from weak feet. Take a look at the picture below and see the chain reaction to the over pronated "flat feet".

The potential injuries from the feet doing this are endless and range from plantar fasciitis to patella tracking knee pain, ACL tears and even hip pain and lower back pain. Great articles to read with more detail on some of these specific injuries are below.

Okay so what do you do about all this? What are the best exercises? Let's dig in and see.

Best Exercises To Correct Weak Feet

Now we know what type of foot you have. We also know what the cause of your trouble may be, and can put a plan in place to change your destructive habits. Trying to walk barefoot at home as much as you can. Training in the gym barefoot is an excellent way to encourage strength and mobility of the feet and ankle as they were designed. Avoiding the flip flops and sandals and if you can make a transition to minimal footwear you are well on the way to getting there. But many of you are going to need much more than this and exercises and drills to activate lazy weak feet is very much needed in the beginning. These exercises can be very frustrating.

Make sure you watch the video below as I show you 7 exercises you can do.

Toe Spreading

This drill is so simple to do and very important in mobilizing all the bones and muscles in your feet to provide you with a wider base to stabilize. It is amazing how difficult this can be to do if you have weak feet, and you will most likely need to use your fingers to do this.

Try releasing with your hand for several minutes and then trying to stand up and do so on your own. It will take some practice to be able to do this. See pictures below. Next standing up, I try to lift the BIG TOE ONLY. If you are able to do this try to lift each toe on it's own and place it back down, moving your way across each toe one by one. A very difficult drill to do.

Calf Stretch, Top Of The Foot Stretch & Foot Massage

These strategies are very well known to most people and they are important to use in conjunction with the stability exercise like the last one. The calf muscles are chronically shortened due to the heels in our shoes, and sitting all day, so it is a stretch that every person we see needs, unless they are someone who walks barefoot all day. The calf muscles also act as a stabilizer muscle to help us stay upright when we stand. They act as if trying to stop us falling face first. And lastly the calf muscle and the achilles tendon especially also provide us with the spring we need for jumping and running. Ask someone who has torn the achilles what it is like to try and walk or be able to jump again after they have completed rehab and they will tell you they have lost their spring.

There is 3 things I would do.

1: Stretch the calves as seen below.

This knee to wall calf stretch is also great to use a test. You should be able to move your foot back 10cm from the wall without your heel lifting off the floor. Hold this for 30 seconds to a minute as often as you can throughout the day.

For the high arched foot I also like to use some simple ankle mobility drills that you can see in the videos below.

2: Release the stiff fascia under the foot.

This can be very painful if you have flat feet but absolutely necessary to wake up the lazy nerves and muscles that never get the stimulation to work anymore. Rolling over a spikey ball or a golf ball will do the trick. And if you are really keen a massage.

3: Stretch The Top Of The Foot

This stretch helps to get rid of the "gripping" tension in your toes that we discussed earlier. It also stretches the top of the foot which can be great for the high arch foot too. Anyone who has worn flip flops a lot will benefit greatly from this stretch for the flip flops require excessive toe gripping to keep them on your feet. Again aim to hold this for 30 seconds to a minute as often as you can.

Short Foot & The Foot Tripod

We are now up to the point where you are trying to engage the feet in a stable position. This is also what you will need to learn when completing gym exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges and especially single leg squats or deadlifts. This is a concept developed by Vladimir Janda, regarded as the grandfather of postural correction.

I like to use the idea developed by Dr Evan Oscar in his book "Exercise Solutions For Hip & Shoulder Dysfunction", where he refers to the foot as a tripod base. This is where you are trying to keep the toes spread, and create a tripod base to stand upon. By trying to place pressure at the heel, just behind the big toe and just behind the little toe and gently trying to pull back without any toe gripping you now have established a great base to work from where the feet are working evenly.

You can watch a quick video of this below, and one way we use a toe wedge to help prevent the toe gripping. You will see in the video how difficult it is for the person to spread the toes and why he will need a lot of work with this ongoing.

Single Leg Stance

Now you MUST get to this stage if you are going to have any hope of changing anything. But it is also at this stage where you encounter stacks of mistakes. Stability is now required at multiple joints and any weakness in one will result in problems at them all. This is where you try to apply all the things you have been working on so far into the particular stance you need the most and the one where all the problems will be amplified.

This is the stance you need for walking and running so it makes perfect sense to become great at this. I highly suggest you read our article on How To Use The Single Leg Squat To Pinpoint Weakness for great detail on this. Below is the video that takes you through an assessment using a single leg squat.

For many the single leg squat will be far too difficult so we need to use simpler methods and even tools to assist you in finding the lost stability at other joints in tandem with the newfound foot stability you have developed. You have to teach the brain how to use the new information. This is very important for all the stretching and releasing of tight muscles, for the stiffness was there for a reason. To provide you with stability. If you take it away and do not show the body a new way of stabilizing without the stiffness all that will happen is you go back to the way you did it before. So it is crucial you get to this stage and develop your skills.

Below is a great video we use that combines the walking pattern.

Another great tool we use is the Sensa Mat. This is a great tool for forcing better for stability. Again I highly suggest you read the full article How To Improve Your Foot Stability Using The Sensa Mat.

Summary

There is so many more exercises and drills I can show you but this is more than enough to get you started. These drills although they look easy will take a lot of time to improve if you are flat foot or high arched foot. Learning to squat, lunge, deadlift and improve movements on single leg stance are all great ways to show the body how to move efficiently and optimally with great stability and mobility at the required joints. It is only through learning to move correctly that everything works as it is designed. So please do not get stuck just working on the toe spreading or the calf stretches and fail to integrated into full body movements or you will get nowhere fast.

Some great Free Reports you can download with more information on other movements like the squat and lunge are below. Click on the image below to download.

And if you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about this article or any of our programs fill in the form below to request a free consultation as to how we can help you.