When you think about working out and what set of muscles you’re going to train today, what comes to mind? Back and shoulders? Legs? Arms? Core? How about the one body region that is arguably the uniquest of them all since it’s the only body part that consistently makes contact with the ground—the foot? The foot and ankle “complex”—referred to as such due to their strongly linked, interdependent relationship—supports your entire body weight and is the platform for almost all movement.
“Your foot is amazingly complex with 26 bones, more than a dozen muscles, and countless nerve endings” says Brian Kinslow, PT, DPT, owner of Evolve Flagstaff. “It serves both as a flexible shock absorber for every step, a strong lever to propel you forward when walking or running, and is a rich source of sensory information that informs the brain about where the body is in space.”
Research shows that during running, the foot and ankle complex bears up to three to five times your body weight. During jumping, the amount of force varies depending on landing style (e.g. two legs vs. one) and jump height, but generally, you’re looking at a minimum of four to five times your body weight. In either case, assuming a weight of 150 pounds, that’s a minimum of 450 pounds of force through your foot and ankle!
If that wasn’t demand enough, the foot and ankle complex navigates force and movement in every direction, whether that’s straight forward and back (sagittal plane), side to side (frontal plane), rotational (transverse plane), or a combination thereof. During any and all of these moments, the foot and ankle are absorbing force while bearing weight, and as you step off, they’re unloading that force and stabilizing the foot and ankle in the air.
Why it’s important to strengthen your foot and ankle complex
Considering the amount of force that goes through the feet and ankles, the type and angles of force they deal with, and the fact that we use them a lot (every step), it’s no surprise that foot and ankle injuries are among the most prevalent injuries in the general, active population.
Further, the foot and ankle complex impacts the rest of the leg. When your foot hits the ground, a shockwave of force travels into it and upwards. The better the foot and ankle can absorb force, the less of that shockwave travels into the shins, knees, and higher.
Each of these factors contributes to the unique biomechanics of the foot and ankle complex. For example, the foot is separated into three regions—the forefoot (think ball of the foot), midfoot (from the front of the ankle bone to the start of the ball of the foot), and rearfoot (from behind the ankle bone to the heel), each with separate and unique mechanics, function, and purpose.
For these reasons, foot anke ankle health is a key part of overall physical health. For Dr. Kinslow, “foot and ankle health is an essential part of orthopedic health. It’s something we should take into consideration with the majority of patients and clients, even if they don’t have foot or ankle pain. So don’t neglect your feet and ankles!”
If you haven’t thought about “training” the foot and ankle like the rest of the body, don’t worry, as you’re very likely in the majority. To rectify that, here are five research-proven exercises—with progressions as well—to improve foot and ankle strength and function.
5 foundational foot and ankle exercises
1. Foot and ankle eversion with band
Sit barefoot on the ground with your legs extended straight in front of you. Loop the end of a long resistance band around the ball of your left foot. Let it pass beneath the bottom of your right foot (as if you were standing on it), then hold both ends in your right hand. Flex your left toes toward your face as your rotate them outward, then point them down as you rotate them inward. That’s one rep. Start with two sets of 15 repetitions per foot, and build up in increments of five until you get to three sets of 25 reps. At that point, make the exercise harder by slowing down and taking a count of five to come back to the starting point each time.
2. Toe curls with towel
Sit barefoot in a chair and place a bath towel (folded in half) on the floor in front of you. Put a book or sneaker on the end of the towel opposite you, and place both feet on the end of the towel closest to you. Keeping your feet flat on the floor with the towel underneath, pull the weight closer to you by curling your toes to scrunch up the towel like an accordion. That’s one rep. Start with two sets of 15 repetitions and build up in increments of five until you get to three sets of 25 reps. At that point, make the exercise harder by wrapping a resistance band around your toes and curling against resistance.
3. Seated heel and toe raises
Start sitting in a chair with your bare feet about shoulder-width apart and flat on the floor. Lift both heels off the ground while keeping the balls of your foot on the ground, and then slowly lower your heels back down. Reverse the movement with your toes and forefoot leaving the ground while the heels remains on the floor. That’s one rep. Start with two sets of 15 repetitions in a seated position and build up in increments of five until you get to three sets of 25 reps. At that point, make the exercise harder by doing the same progression while standing. The final progression is advancing to doing this standing, balancing on one leg at a time.
4. Short foot
Start sitting in a chair with your bare feet flat on the floor. Without curling your toes, lift the arches of your feet, while keeping the ball off the foot and heel on the ground. Start with two sets of 15 repetitions in a seated position and build up in increments of five until you get to three sets of 25 reps. At that point, make the exercise harder by doing the same thing while standing. The final progression is advancing to balancing on one leg at a time.
Stand on one leg for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side. Alternate between the two legs for three rounds. Once you can complete that with ease, repeat the progression on a soft surface like a pillow. For advanced balance training, repeat the sequence above and close your eyes!
This program helps build foundational strength, mobility, balance, and feedback into your foot and ankle complex to better deal with the high demands of every day life, activities, and sports. Give it a shot and once you have it down, you can integrate it into your daily warm-up as well. Your feet and ankles will thank you!