Foot Intrinsic Muscles & the Arches of the Foot
The intrinsic muscles of the foot are located within the foot, in between the bones that make up the toes and foot. They connect the bones of your foot together, provide integrity and support the arches of the foot. They absorb and attenuate force when we walk, run and jump.
We have three arches, two longitudinal ones (medial and lateral) and one transverse (along the front of the toes). It is imperative that the arches maintain their resiliency and integrity throughout our lives, or common foot problems, such as plantar fasciitis, ankle instability or bunions begin to occur.
Foot Weakness & Bad Habits
The most obvious sign of a weak foot is what is often called “pronation”, or the flattening of the medial arch. This weakness develops over time and is often cause from an inefficient use of the foot with daily activities, such as walking. Walking with a foot excessively rotated outwards can cause the collapse of the medial arch and ligamentous structure of the foot. While it is true that some people are born with “flat feet”, more often than not, this habitual pattern forms over time.
A common cause of walking with your foot in an outward position is from a severe ankle sprain. The ankle is a mortar joint, in which the very shape of the bones and integrity of the ligaments attached, determine the stability of the joint. Often after a sprain, the ligaments are stretched, and the talus bone is no longer held in a neutral position. This can cause stiffness in the joint and sometimes pain in the front of the ankle. This stiffness changes the way you use your foot when moving.
After walking with your foot pointed outwards for an extended period of time, the big toe is often compromised. The big toe is an important joint of the foot for movement and efficiency. Instead of walking over our big toe, repeatedly extending it, we start to swivel around it. This leads to the deformation of the great toe, also known as a bunion.
Taking care of the health of our feet by exercising the intrinsic muscles, keeping the big toe (and all the toes) mobile and fixing bad habits will help improve or restore good foot health. Once range of motion is adequate, then motor control exercises are used to clean up bad habits. Once you understand how to use your foot properly, then you can strengthen the legs. The exercises listed below are examples of a starting point in the rehabilitation of foot pain and the prevention of recurrence or other injuries.
Range of Motion
To have a well-functioning foot, you must have adequate range of motion of your ankle, foot and toes. Here is an exercise to improve the mobility of your toes. Toe Yoga
Base of fingers in between each toe (at the base) -> Do Ankle circles 10x ea direction
Lift big toe while pressing little toes down -> Press big toe down and lift little toes up. X 5ea
Lift your toes and spread them apart X 5ea
Lift your toes and then press one down, one at a time, starting with pinkie toe moving to your big toe -> Reverse the opposite direction. X5 ea direction
Lift your toes and place the big and little toe on the ground while keeping the middle toes lifted. X 5 ea
To determine if you have a stiff ankle, it helps to measure it and compare it to your other foot. To measure your ankle dorsiflexion, you can do the wall test.
Dorsiflexion Knee to Wall test in Half Kneel
In lunge position, get close to the wall, so your front toes touch the wall.
Move your knee forwards to touch the wall, keeping your heel on the ground.
Move your heel away from the wall 1 cm and repeat the test (touch the wall with your knee)
Keep inching your foot back until you find the farthest distance you can touch the wall with your knee, keeping your foot flat on the ground.
Mark or measure this distance.
You can improve ankle range of motion by stretching your calf muscles and using myofascial tools, such as foam rolling or a type Graston scraping, to improve the flexibility of these muscles. There is a plethora of information on the internet and tools you can purchase to help reduce muscle tightness. You can also try massage.
Often, range of motion in the great toe, foot and ankle is restricted from “mechanical” blocks. This can be a stiff joint, ligament, or nerve. Simply stretching the area is often not enough. If you have pinching in the front of your ankle with a calf stretch, this may indicate that your talus is not gliding backwards, as it should, with this motion.
The talus is a very special bone in the foot. It is one of the few bones, that have no muscle attachments. When it gets “out of whack” from either an ankle sprain or abnormal movement due to restricted range of motion, it won't go back into alignment by just stretching.
The best course of action is to have a physical therapist or trained professional treat this dysfunction. But, if you want to try a self-mobilization yourself, you can try this mobilization.
Stand with a small theraband loop around the ankle that needs to be mobilized.
Place this foot on a small stool and stand on the other side of the loop with your other foot that is on the ground.
Make sure you have tension in the band.
Move your knee forwards, tracking over the toes, until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf.
Hold here for a few seconds and release.
After trying a few different techniques to improve your ankle range of motion, remeasure it using the knee to wall test. You can use this test to help determine what type of mobilization your ankle needs the most (stretching vs talus mobilization).
Often, injury or pain causes us to move differently. This experience alters our brain's control over the joint/limb and if it is not corrected, it develops into a habit. Consider this example used in today’s Pain Science Education Programs.
Let’s imagine we were hiking at Pine Creek, scrambling up the rocks, exploring crevasses and up on a ledge you spot a Mountain Lion… and the Lion is staring right back at you. The lion leaps down and starts to chase you. As you scramble back down through the rocks, you catch your foot in a hole, severely twisting your ankle. In order to avoid imminent death, you get back up and run to safety. Over time, the damage heals but the altered gait remains (now you walk with your toe pointed out to avoid the pain and stiffness). This new pattern of walking eventually becomes your new normal.
To break this habit, you must consciously correct the use of your foot and address any stiffness or weakness that may have developed since the injury. Motor control is essentially your mind/body (subconscious) connection and how we move every day.
To see if you’ve developed a bad habit over time, check out the bottom of a well-loved shoes. Take a look at the wear on the tread. Is the big toe worn out, or do you push off with the lateral part of your toe. How about the heel? Inside or outside, worn out? Ideally, we wear out the center to lateral part of the heel of the shoe and the center to medial part of the front.
To improve the motor control of your foot, you need to first be able to activate your foot intrinsic muscles and use the ankle joint efficiently. These are brain exercises, not so much strengthening. You must learn to dissociate movements of the toe, foot and ankle.
Short foot (seated)
Sit in a chair, with one foot flat on the ground and just under your knee or a bit closer to you.
Push your heel forward into the ground (like you’re trying to scoot yourself backwards)
Press the ball of your big toe into the ground, then the ball of your pinkie toe
Engage the muscles of your foot by trying to lift the arches of your feet
Lengthwise (medial and lateral)
Across the ball of your foot
Another way to engage the muscles of your feet is by lifting all your toes up.
Keep the arches lifted and try to relax the toes back to the ground.
Now keep the muscles of your foot engaged.
2 sets of 5 reps hold 10sec
Cross the foot of focus across your other knee, while sitting or lying down
Move your heel up and down
Keep your forefoot/toes relaxed
keep in a straight plane with your lower leg.
Repeat the first part of the exercise. As you lengthen through the heel, curl your toes.
As you shorten/pull up your heel, extend your toes up towards your knee.
Dosage: 20 reps ea
Strengthening of the foot occurs in the gym or at your home. This is done by doing heel raises and functional movements such as lunges, step-ups and hops. It is also important to add balance on an unstable surface, like a foam pad, which will also help strengthen the foot. These programs are available online or at your local physio.
If you keep your feet healthy, your overall mobility, health and mental state with stay healthy. With the feet being the farthest away from the brain, they are often the first to be forgotten about in daily life and strength. Without strong feet, we cannot have strong bodies.