People hammer away in the weight room to hit the large muscles of the body, but forget that every rep of every set is anchored by the same small muscles and structures: the feet. Strong, functional feet are a huge factor for lifting success. If yours aren’t in good condition, it can mean weaker lifts, chronic pain, or even an acute injury. Here are three simple tips to build your feet.
Create a Stable Base
For any standing movement, you want a supportive base, and in general that means standing with feet hip-width apart and evenly balancing your weight between forefoot and heel. (Many people roll onto the balls of their feet, unevenly distributing weight; while this may not seem like a big deal, it can cause alignment issues among the joints above the foot, and bigger imbalance problems down the road.) Make sure to train major movements in minimalist shoes — New Balance Minimus, Vibram Five Fingers, or even Chuck Taylors — or socks if your gym allows it. Sneakers with thick, cushioned soles, like what you’ll find on most cross-trainers and running shoes, create an unstable standing surface that can exacerbate imbalance issues.
Release Tight Tissues
“Fallen arches” and plantar fasciitis are common reasons for foot pain. But even if your feet never hurt, you may still have tight tissues. The plantar fascia (located on the sole of the foot) connects to the Achilles tendon and the fascia covering the calf muscles. When it’s tight or weak, it can have a lasting effect on the strength and range of motion of the ankle and surrounding muscles. To address this, grab a golf ball or lacrosse ball, and spend some time each day firmly rolling the foot on top of the ball. Spread the toes and roll in circular patterns in both directions. It’s not a comfortable feeling, but it’s going to make the tissue more supple and malleable. Don’t stop there. Grab a dense foam roller or softball and roll the calf and shin muscles, too. Make a habit of spending five minutes per day working on the tissue quality of your lower legs and feet, and you’ll see a change in your performance.
If a muscle is tight, the usual culprit is a weak muscle that directly opposes it. So for achy feet and tight calves, that means strengthening the muscles on the front of the shin. It makes sense when you think about it: Plantar flexion happens anytime we stand on our tiptoes, take a walking stride, or jump for a rebound on the basketball court. Dorsiflexion, however, is a little-practiced skill that pulls the toes up toward the knee and works the tibialis muscles on the front of the shin. This foot motion doesn't get nearly as much love in everyday life, or in the weight room. Here’s one way to light it up. Before a workout, take five minutes to do the following drills:
- Walk on heels, toes facing forward: 20 meters x 2 sets
- Walk on heels, toes facing outward: 20 meters x 2 sets
- Walk on heels, toes facing inward: 20 meters x 2 sets
Be sure to take small strides and focus on raising the toes as high as you can. After a minute, you should feel the burn in your shin muscles.