When was the last time you walked into the gym and said, “Okay, it’s foot day! Let’s get to work?”
Most of us aren’t too excited about building strong, healthy feet, probably not until we encounter pain. But why not? After all, it’s only every single step that we need those lower appendages to work well. Unless you don’t have feet, unless you walk on your hands, or maybe unless you live on a planet without gravity, then there’s no question you need a pair of mobile, stable, well-functioning feet.
And if we encounter foot trouble then we want to put in an orthotic, buy shoes with arch support, or do something other than make the feet stronger. Why is it that we don’t think to treat the feet like the rest of the body? Why don’t we see the need to work the feet like all the other muscles and body parts we have? I suggest that rather than resort to external aids we should work the feet in a wide variety of ways. Here are a few ways to do just that.
I don’t promise that any of these exercises will fix a specific injury. If anything hurts then back off. See a physical therapist, chiropractor, or podiatrist for a full diagnosis and treatment strategy.
Big toe adduction/abduction
There’s no fancy name for this exercise. You can experiment with all sorts of bands. Please notice that I do this exercise under control. I’m controlling the exercise, the band isn’t controlling me. Allow the big toe to come in far enough that you feel a stretch.
Toe differentiation (aka yoga toe)
Can you do this? You should be able to. It may seem 100% impossible when you first try it. Keep working on it. Most people can figure it out in a day. Takes work and concentration. Take notice of my arch and inner ankle. Notice that the arch doesn’t drop, and my ankle doesn’t dive in as I move my big toe.
Toe grabs on a box
Sounds like one of Vincent van Gogh’s very obscure works. It’s not. I just don’t have a better name for it. It works well though. I learned it from Denver chiropractor extraordinaire Dr. Nick Studholme. You can do this on the top of a flight of steps or over a book.
This is a quick, easy way to engage, stimulate, and strengthen all of the muscles of the lower legs and feet. Try it and see how you feel.
Wolf is among other things, a Fellow of Applied Functional Science (FAFS) by way of the Gray Institute. I also study and apply Gary Gray’s material. I always like to see how other practitioners apply the principles of 3D movement. I love gaining new perspectives on how to create functional exercises, or exercises that most translate to real life. You can see a lot of examples of this at the Adam Wolf, PT, Biomechanical Youtube Channel.
If you ain’t got that sling then you ain’t got that swing.
Something I just learned is that Adam’s dad is Chuck Wolf, another functional exercise and movement professional. Many years ago I was introduced to the concept of Flexibility Highways at one of Chuck’s seminars. These highways aka muscle slings, aka myofascial lines, are networks of muscle and fascia that often work together during real-world, whole-body movements. (“Real-life” movements are in contrast to many of the artificially isolated movements that we see in gyms, especially those performed on machines.) One example is the posterior oblique sling as used in a golf swing. Another example is the anterior oblique sling used when throwing.
The anterior X sling is a big part of throwing, batting, golfing, running, punching and all sorts of things.
The fascial sling system was an interesting concept to me at the time but it has sort of faded from my thinking in recent years. Now, reading Adam’s book and watching his videos has brought those flexibility highways or slings to the front of my mind. These sling concepts are informing both the mobility work I’m doing with clients as well as my exercise selection. In working along and within these sling systems I feel like I’m capturing just about all of the movement we humans are capable of. Check out the following videos from Adam Wolf where he discusses how you can move better by following these fascial lines.
In Part I of this series, I discussed what hip adduction is and why it’s crucial for good movement, balance and sports performance. In this post I’ll give some ways to self-assess your hip adduction and increase your hip adduction mobility, stability and power.
There are many ways to investigate and train hip adduction. I do not propose to cure what ails you with any of these exercises. If you’re in real pain then you need to see a physician.
(I realize now in watching the videos that I use the term “frontal plane” more than I say “hip adduction.” Please consider the terms interchangeable for the purpose of this post.)
Check your ability to move into hip adduction. Check both right and left sides. How do they compare?
Now check your stability. Can you control your hip adduction?
Try this mobility matrix to gain more hip adduction. You may need more on both sides. The great thing about this matrix is that you’re not only address the hip but you’ll also be mobilizing other joints in concert with the hip.
This movement series is a more aggressive way to challenge hip adduction while at the same time getting an upper body workout.
The next three exercises are a few ways to challenge and develop hip adduction mobility, stability and power. These can be used for athletic training purposes or simply as fun ways to tweak familiar exercises. All sorts of implements can be used:
My wife, our friend, and I recently completed a big hike, known as the Four-Pass Loop in Colorado’s Maroon Bells Wilderness. That part of Colorado is a truly world-class mountain wilderness. Mention “Colorado,” and most people will conjure images of this place in their minds. The scenery is as dramatically breathtaking as as anywhere on this planet. We were surrounded by massive 14,000 ft. peaks, high alpine forest, natural mountain lakes, and waterfalls. It’s difficult to describe how spectacular this trip was. I highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for outdoor adventure. Just be prepared. This trek was not a casual, easy jaunt.
Crater Lake and the Maroon Bells looming behind.
The hike covered about 28 miles (Mileage varies depending on where you enter the loop.) and crossed four high-mountains passes each one above 12,000 feet. We took 2 nights and about 2.5 days of travel to get the job done.
Snowmass Peak and exquisite Snowmass Lake. Trail Rider Pass is way up to the left.
We carried about 30 lbs. of gear and food on our backs. The pack weight plus the elevation and the frequently very technical rocky, rooty terrain made this trip especially challenging. I’m happy to say that while it was by no means an easy task, I felt good, strong and entirely up to the event. I was pleased with my conditioning for the trip. Here are some notes our my preparation.
Specific hike training: Hike!
As I’ve said before in this blog, the best way to prepare for a specific event is to do the event. In this case, we planned to hike anywhere from 6-10 miles per day, over high mountain terrain, with heavy packs. Thus our training consisted of several long hikes with loaded packs. In addition to weekend hikes, we spent several weeks wearing our packs during daily walks with our dog. The idea being that we needed all the time we could get wearing loaded packs. We might’ve looked odd walking the streets in big backpacks, but oh well. Let that be someone else’s concern.
To be clear and emphatic: The best training for hiking, is hiking.
This is me doing my best impression of a hiker on Buckskin Pass.
I’ve been running and cycling for most of the year. I believe both activities have helped provide me with the type of cardiovascular ability to sustain multi-hour hiking at high altitude.
Going back to the idea of specificity, trail running is a close relative of hiking and is a clear choice of exercise for hike preparation. Trail running seems especially effective at preparing not only my heart and lungs but also my feet and ankles for the demands of extending hiking. Walking and running over uneven ground requires the feet and ankles to move through a galaxy of angles and it’s a great way to fortify those lowly and under-appreciated appendages.
The muscles of hiking and weight training
Marching uphill is especially demanding of hip extension and the requisite muscles, particularly the glutes and hamstrings. In contrast, hiking downhill requires strength and endurance of the quads and control of the pelvis by way of the hip abductors. Lost balance and a nasty fall may be the price for poor pelvic control.
With these ideas in mind, I’ve spent much of the spring and summer doing exercises such as lunges, split-squats and step-ups. Those exercises seem very effective for addressing the demands of hiking.
I particularly like what I call offset lunges, split-squats and step-ups. These are done by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell on one side of the body, thus creating an asymetrical, offsetting effect which presents different demands than a typical squat or deadlift.
If we look at real life—particularly hiking—it’s rare that we’re balanced evenly on two legs while working against a load that’s distributed in a symmetrical way on us or against us. So I believe that exercises in which one leg is doing more/different work than the other while the forces of gravity are applied in asymmetric ways are very valuable. (Not that more conventional, symmetrical exercises aren’t of value.) Here are some of those exercises:
I also started deadlifting several weeks prior to the hike. Even with a properly fitted pack, there is a lot of weight and work going through the back and hips. I knew I’d be putting on and taking off a heavy pack and I thought a deadlift would help prepare for that task.
Upon review, I believe a back squat or a good-morning might be superior to the deadlift in that each of those exercises put weight on the back, thus resembling a loaded pack on the back. (See, symmetrical exercises are good too!)
I’m contemplating running the 4 Pass Loop. Others do it (Read some accounts here, here, here, among others.) and though it’ll be a fairly massive bite to take, I think it’s in the realm of possibility for me. I was very happy with the speed with which I was able to move during the hike. I’m thinking of what it would be like with a lot less gear, lighter shoes, etc. I think it’s feasible. So I ordered my first running vest and I’m contemplating what I’ll need to pack into it. The big run might happen next year…
All human movement can be described in three dimensions. We move in the saggital plane (front/back), frontal plain (side-to-side), and the transverse plane (rotation.) Certain movements are one-plane dominant: Distance running is mostly a saggital plane movement. Swinging a baseball bat is mostly a transverse plane movement. Ice skating and rollerblading feature a lot of frontal plane movement. Still, each of these movements also contain elements of the other two planes.
(Beyond moving in these planes, we also must stabilize our limbs against forces that are trying to move us in each of these planes.)
In my observation, a lot of people lack movement skills in one or more of these planes. Many times it seems clients lack adequate transverse plane movement, especially in the hips where the femurs attach to the pelvis. (We describe transverse plane hip movement as internal and external rotation.) If we lack good transverse plane hip movement then we may have trouble with all sorts of activities from walking to running to skiing to golfing. Poor transverse hip mobility may result in back pain, knee pain or even shoulder or neck pain. Restricted transverse plane movement may also negatively impact sports performance.
I’ve found that restrictions in the transverse plane are often hidden. , Many people may feel tight hamstrings, tight pecs, or tight neck and upper back muscles, but rarely do I hear encounter a client who’s aware of something that doesn’t move well in the transverse plane. It seems a lot of us are walking around with no clue that we lack adequate rotation in any of our joints.
Why might an individual lack internal or external rotation? It could be any number of reasons. I believe our modern, seated, immobile lifestyle is probably a major contributor. Other reasons could be an anteverted or retroverted femur. These are structural issues of the femur that can’t be changed. Some sort of past injury could also be a culprit. All three issues could be at play.
I rest my case that hip internal and external rotation is important.
Here’s a video discussing hip internal rotation, why it’s important, and how to achieve it. Live it up kids!
The toes, feet and ankles get no respect. I’m not sure a lot of people walk into the gym and say, “Okay, today is foot and ankle day! Gonna work those parts hard and make ’em strong!” We throw shoes on them and ignore them. Think about this though: It’s only every single step that we need those obscure parts to work correctly.
If we look at the body as a kinetic chain then we start to see that the feet and ankles don’t live in isolation. Movement or lack there of at the feet and ankles may create problems all the way up through the legs, hips, spine and shoulders. If an athlete doesn’t have sufficient motion at the ankles then he or she may not perform at his or her best.
Similarly, limited foot and ankle motion may be a contributor to pain. I’m not just talking about foot pain either. Again, if we consider the interconnectedness of all the joints and limbs of the body then it may not surprise us that faulty foot/ankle movement could contribute to back knee pain, hip pain, back pain — even shoulder or neck pain!
Dorsiflexion: There’s no substitution for it!
In my observing both my clients and myself, I see a lot of us don’t quite have optimal dorsiflexion. It’s easy to overlook but as I’ve argued, it’s very important. I know in my case, my various plantar fasciitis/Achilles tendon issues have improved as I’ve worked on my dorsiflexion. (Strictly speaking, I don’t know if limited dorsiflexion was a cause or effect of my foot and Achilles pain. That said, working on improving dorsiflexion
has coincided with those problems fading out.)
Dorsiflexion is more than just forward and back motion. There is always a 3D aspect to movement and we want to consider that. Also, We have a couple of different muscles (well… more than a couple but we’re considering mainly just two) that cross at the ankle. The following drills emphasize both the gastrocnemius muscle (the straight-leg drills) and the soleus muscle (the bent knee drills.)
The big running season is over and now the snow is falling. It’s almost time to put the sticks on the feet and slide down a mountain! Fun on top of fun! It might be a good idea to prepare myself as best as I can before I get out there. Here are some thoughts on how I might do that. Maybe they’ll help inform your own ski conditioning strategy.
Exercises should look a lot like skiing.
Some sort of squat should probably be employed, but a conventional barbell front or back squat may not be adequate. I discuss more of my thinking on this here and here.
Tri-plane movement must be considered. For example:
Look at those joint angles. That is no mere squat.
My hips will go back and forth between flexion + internal rotation + abduction on the downhill leg then more flexion + relative externall rotation + adduction on the uphill leg. The hip, knee and ankle joints must move well and the corresponding muscles must lengthen and contract repeatedly.
In addition to that hip movement, my thoracic spine should stay aimed downhill so I’ll be doing a lot of rotation through the trunk. Like the leg muscles, my trunk muscles must be able to manage the repeated loading that will happen.
I need adequate range of motion and control of that range as I move downslope.
Energy system conditioning
Good movement is massively important to good skiing. Adequate stamina is also a major consideration. I want to be able to last for a while and be able to have fun all day. If I fatigue too soon then it’s likely my movement skills will be compromised and I could get injured.
I have a good base of general endurance but I need to make it a bit more specific to skiing. A typical ski run involves powerful turning and management of variable terrain, sometimes for several minutes. Then I rest on the chair lift for several minutes and do it again. This cycle may repeat itself for several hours. Also, alpine skiing involves a lot more knee flexion/extension compared to running. My quads typically bear the brunt of all that knee movement so I’ll need to condition them appropriately. How will I do that?
My plan is to put together several exercises that will target the muscles and movement patterns that are vital to skiing and I intend to them at a pace and for a duration that affects the appropriate energy systems. Here are some examples:
My most recent workout put together some conventional strength exercises and put them together with some ski-specific exercises in a super-set. It went like this:
barbell clean + front squat: 1+5 (did as many reps as possible on the last set); two warm-up sets
pull-ups: 7 reps
1-leg pivots aka balance reaches x 10/10 reps to each side; An example:
Repeat 3-5 times as fast as possible.
Bench Press: 5 x 3 sets (did as many as possible on the last set); two warm-up sets
Various 3D jumps with the ViPR x 20 reps; Here’s an example of one version of the exercise using a sandbag instead of a ViPR:
Repeat 3-5 times as fast as possible
cross court sprints on the basketball court x 4
odd-angle medicine ball squats; something like this:
Foot/heel/Achilles issues have given me trouble over the years. The same issues are the scourge of many a runner. Plantar Fasciitis, Achilles tendon pain and metatarsalgia are a few of the problems one can experience as a result of faulty foot and lower-leg mechanics.
The causes of these injuries are often multi-faceted and thus are the solution(s). It seems that weakness of the foot muscles may be a prominent issue. One idea on the mechanism of plantar fasciitis is that the intrinsic foot muscles do a poor job of controlling forces going through the foot. If the stresses of running and walking aren’t distributed adequately then we may overstress the plantar fascia and that may trigger pain. We then need to find a way to unload the stressed tissues. (Please note that this may or may not be what causes plantar fasciitis. There are a lot of questions on how this and other lower-limb pain develops. This study discusses the poor understanding of plantar fasciitis and the difficulty in measuring foot mechanics.) If weak and underperforming foot muscles are part of the problem then how do we bring them back on line?
Lots of muscles and joints in those feet.
Among many strategies to address foot pain is an exercise known as the short-foot exercise or foot doming. As the name implies, this exercise has you using the intrinsic foot muscles to create a dome by pulling the metatarsal heads (balls of the toes) toward the heel, which shortens the length of the foot.
The short-foot or foot dome exercise.
More than anything this is a brain exercise. Chances are that when you first try this exercise you won’t do it very well. You’ll struggle, steam may come out of your ears and you’ll get frustrated. Don’t be a baby and give up immediately though. This is a new skill and it takes focused attention and time to develop skills. Keep at it. It likely won’t take you very long to figure it out. For me, the challenge of mastering this exercise is nothing compared to the frustration of being sidelined by foot pain.
Also, try the exercise on your non-hurting foot. If you’re like me, you’ll find that it’s easier to do which again may be an indicator that the source of your pain are muscles that aren’t doing their job correctly.
You may experience cramping. That’s fine. It means you’re doing the exercise correctly. You can either relax the foot muscles and try again or do what I’ve done and hold the short foot until the cramping passes. It hurts a bit but I’ve found the pain to pass quickly.
The muscles involved in this exercise aren’t given to being big and strong. We need them to work a lot for a long time, so we need to condition their endurance. Therefore we need to hold the short foot position for time and we need to do the exercise often throughout the day. The good thing is you need no equipment to do this and you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to take off your shoes either.
I think this video does a good job of describing the exercise:
The last couple of blog posts have shown some hip mobility drills. As the title implies this is about the shoulders and T-spine. There is a lot of motion available in this area and this collection of drills does a fairly good job of getting to a lot of that motion. This is not the be-all-end-all of shoulder/spine mobility work. There are plenty of other shoulder and spine drills in the world That said, these movements have helped me move and feel better and I think they’ve done the same for several of my clients. Here it is:
If the T-spine can’t move well then it’s likely that the shoulders won’t move well either. This is a good place to start to get things moving. This yoga exercise usually feels very good, rarely induces pain and it’s easy to do. First I do the original version that has the spine flexing and extending in the saggital plane. I follow that by a side-flexion type of cat/camel. (And to add authenticity, I included an actual cat. Couldn’t get my hands on a camel though.)
3D shoulder mobility
As you can see, all of these are done prone. You can put your arms on a wall and do them standing. There’s also quite a bit of ab work that happens while doing these so you may need to rest between drills.
I’m a fan of mobility. I put a premium on my clients and I having a large “movement database.” I’m not just talking about flexibility mind you. On that note, I like Dr. Andreo Spina’s words on mobility vs flexibility:
“By my definition, mobility and stability are intimately related. Mobility, which is often confused with ‘flexibility,’ can be defined simply as the ability to move or to be moved freely and easily. Another way to think of it is the ability to actively achieve range of motion. Flexibility by contrast is the ability to passively achieve range of motion. It is therefore possible to be very flexible, however have limited mobility. The former implies that you can passively achieve a particular range, while the latter implies neurological control of a particular range as it is being actively attained.”
I’m also very interested in the concept of movement variability. What is “movement variability?” Todd Hargrove of Bettermovement.org discusses it as such:
“Good movement is not just about harmonious interaction or coordination between the different parts of the body. It is most fundamentally about how the system interacts with the environment, particularly in response to unexpected changes. In other words, good movement implies a quality of adaptability and responsiveness to a changing environment.
One can imagine building a humanoid robot that can walk with flawless symmetry and grace. But if the robot cannot adapt its gait pattern to accommodate changes in the terrain, it will fall each time it steps on a rock, and its movement skill is essentially useless. True movement intelligence therefore doesn’t exist so much in the movements themselves, but in their interaction with the environment.
The graceful stride of the deer isn’t useful unless it can be modulated to jump a log and avoid a wolf. A soccer player who can execute technically brilliant ball handling skills in solo practice does not face the real test until she performs those moves in a game situation against an opponent who is trying to steal the ball.
We would not say that someone is fluent in a language if they have only one way to communicate a particular thought, regardless of how perfect that particular communication is. Similarly, one is not fluent in the language of movement unless he can accomplish the same goal in many different ways.”
Why do I mention movement variability? My last blog post was about hip mobility and in it were several different hip mobility drills. This post is also about hip mobility and it features a bunch of different drills. Which ones are best? Who knows? With regard to movement variability, I think it’s probably a good idea to do a lot of different mobility drills and frequently experience novel movement.
Recently I discovered GMB.io. (Yes you read that right.) I’m not sure what GMB stands for but I have enjoyed looking through their content which is very much mobility-centric. Their 8-exercise hip mobility sequence (below) is great! I’ve been using myself and with my clients. Lately I’ve been alternating between this series and the series in the prior post.