The Easiest Foot and Ankle Fix: Bridge The Gap
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Foot and Ankle Training is perhaps the single most neglected component of strength and performance as well as health and wellness. If the feet and ankles aren’t functioning properly (which most individual’s are not) then all components of movement performance, strength, and fitness, are compromised as activation begins with the feet and ankles. Simply put if the feet and ankles are out of synch it will be impossible to perform any lower body exercise correctly. In other words you’ll be squatting, hinging, lunging, jumping, running, and even walking with faulty mechanics which leads to a number of dysfunctional movements and potential injuries throughout the kinetic chain.
Although there are a number of drills, protocols, exercises, and techniques I use to correct these issues (all of which are laid out in my Ultimate Foot and Ankle Manual), one technique I’ve recently been using more and more on my athletes is something I refer to as “Bridge The Gap” or “BTG” technique. Simply place two boxes or steps 4-8 inches from each other (depending on foot size), stand on them so your arches are unsupported and perform any number of single leg drills and lower body movements.
Originally I saw the basic single leg stand applied to this concept by the Foot Collective company. However after experimenting and tinkering with it I soon realized that this was an invaluable technique that could be applied to literally any and all lower body exercises.
Additionally, this protocol has numerous benefits for improving lower body mechanics, foot and ankle function, and overall muscle function. Here’s what I mean
Single Leg Movements
Here are 6 examples of single leg exercises using the “bridge the gap” protocol as shown by my national level figure athlete Leslie Petch, NFL athletes Julian Williams and Marquell Beckwith, MLB pro baseball players Austin Meadows, and bodybuilder Ben Lai.
As a strength coach and trainer, a majority of the foot and ankle issues I witness particularly among higher level athletes falls into the category of flat feet, fallen arches, ankle pronation, valgus ankle collapse, and poor toe gripping mechanics. The “bridge the gap” protocol addresses this head on as the individual is forced to produce an arch in their foot and grip the daylights out of the front box with their toes since they’ll have absolutely no arch support whatsoever. Anything less and they’ll immediately lose balance. This also has a direct impact on eliminating ankle pronation, valgus ankle collapse, and flat foot syndrome. However, these drills are equally effective for eliminating ankle supination and addressing overly high arches (although this is much less common) as the athlete will be forced to find a neutral foot position to hold a single leg movement.
In fact when first attempting these, most athletes will struggle to perform just even a basic a single leg stand as these are surprisingly difficult. However once they adapt and progress they’ll eventually be able to perform light or bodyweight single leg exercises such as single leg squats, single leg hinges, single leg swaps, lunges, split squats, Bulgarian squats and more.
Each of these is surprisingly intense and while the total load used will be very minimal, the degree of overall muscle tension, metabolic stress, and overall burn in the entire lower body musculature is surprisingly high. That’s because the greater the level of foot and ankle activation, the greater the neural signaling up the kinetic chain. This ultimately produces incredibly high levels of intramuscular tension in the lower body as well as stability and motor control due to enhanced intramuscular tightness and co-contraction. I’ve also noticed heightened levels of core stabilization and spinal rigidity in my athletes when performing these (a result of attempting to stabilize the body and activate the foot and ankle complex), which further adds to the motor control and proprioceptive elements of the exercises. As an added bonus the lifter is forced to perform each movement with a slow and controlled eccentric isometric protocol as a means of maintaining control. Read more about eccentric isometrics here.
Although the single leg BTG variations highlighted above provide numerous benefits, applying the “bridge the gap” protocol to bilateral movements has a surprisingly positive impact on exercises such as squats, hinges, bent over rows, deadlifts, standing overhead presses, and other standing exercises. One reason for this is that the athlete is required to activate the daylights out of their entire foot and ankle complex which in turn has a tremendous impact on squats and hinges. Here I’m demonstrating several variations alongside two of my awesome figure and physique athletes Leslie Petch and Ben Lai.
For instance during the squat many individuals tend to either fall into valgus collapse and/or ankle pronation with fallen arches or they will excessively supinate and externally rotate their feet (oftentimes a by product of faulty cueing perpetuated by the fitness industry as a result of trying to over-correct valgus collapse). In reality proper movement always comes down to finding the optimal balance of various joint positions by maximizing joint centration and body alignment. Simply put we don’t want to exhibit a valgus collapse or produce excessive knee and hip spread as each of these presents its own unique issues over time that can lead to injuries, inflammation, and joint issues not to mention energy leaks and compromised force production.
The “bridge the gap” protocol particularly when combined with eccentric isometrics literally helps to self-correct these issues, provided the lifter goes barefoot or uses very minimalist shoes. That’s because any excessive valgus or varus collapse places extreme tension and pressure on the inner or outer regions of the foot respectively, making it quite uncomfortable. To produce a force vector that goes straight through the foot without any lateral or medial deviations requires the athlete to demonstrate perfect alignment and joint centration when performing any standing movement. This is true of both unilateral or bilateral movements. Additionally this does wonders for eliminating excessive squat depth as the athlete will inevitably terminate their ROM somewhere between 90 degrees and parallel – a byproduct of proper foot and ankle activation. Read more about proper squat form and depth here.
Glute Bridges and Hip Thrusts
Here I have NFL athletes and GSP sponsored pros Julian Williams and Marquell Beckwith demonstrating a single leg hip thrust with the “bridge the gap” protocol as a means of enhancing foot and ankle activation which inevitably increases posterior chain activation.
While it may not seem like an important element, proper foot and ankle alignment/activation is perhaps the single most critical yet neglected component of properly executed glute exercises. Unfortunately most individuals simply rely on pushing into their shoes with little if any attention given to the foot and ankle complex during these movements or any other exercises for that matter. Read more about proper glute bridge mechanics here.
In reality proper foot and ankle mechanics during glute isolation exercises involves keeping the foot completely straight or even slightly inwardly rotated (2-5 degrees inward) similar to proper foot strike when running. I also instruct athletes to screw their feet into the floor by keeping a neutral ankle position and pressing the base of their big toes into the floor. Fortunately by using the “bridge the gap” protocol, the athlete is essentially forced to apply these optimal cues in order to keep their arch from collapsing.
Now, I’ve not yet performed an EMG comparison examining hip thrusters and glute bridges with or without proper foot and ankle activation. However, from practical experience I’ve observed some phenomenal and almost unbelievable occurrences when implementing proper foot and ankle mechanics on posterior chain movements. In fact, I would go as far as saying that proper foot and ankle mechanics/activation during glute bridges is equally, if not more important, than any other cue when it comes to posterior chain activation.
I’ve literally seen dozens of scenarios where athletes who report little if any activation in their posterior chain, suddenly feel as though their glutes or hamstrings are about to explode simply from correcting their foot and ankle mechanics. In addition, they commonly report that the level of “burn” and lactic acid/hydrogen ion buildup is almost unbearable. This phenomenon likely occurs largely because activation begins with the feet and ankles. When the feet and ankles are doing their job this enhances signaling up the kinetic chain particularly throughout the hips.
In fact, I would go as far as saying that its impossible to maximize posterior chain activation without addressing foot and ankle alignment. Additionally, even the slightest bit of external rotation (toe flare) can minimize the effectiveness of the exercise on the glutes and hamstrings. When in doubt, it’s always better for the toes to be too inwardly rotated than too externally rotated, as more inward rotation helps create additional torque into the floor. Again this “bridge the gap protocol” helps reinforce these elements.
Read more about mastering your foot and ankle mechanics here.
Bridge The Gap Box Jumps
Want to improve your jumping mechanics? Try using the “Bridge The Gap” (BTG) protocol on box jumps as I have several NFL and CFL athletes and GSP sponsored pros doing here including Julian Williams, Greg Reid, Marquell Beckwith, and Brandon Bartlett.
One of the most common issues I see in athletes when jumping is energy leaks & instability in their hips, knees, and ankles (i.e. valgus collapse) which can almost always be linked back directly or indirectly to their feet. Additionally many athletes will demonstrate foot & ankle misalignment when jumping which significantly compromises jump performance. Teach the athlete how to properly activate their feet and the issues begin to improve almost immediately. The BTG box jumps my athletes show here helps to insure that the entire foot and ankle complex is maximally engaged before jumping. As a result it ingrains optimal alignment and firing patterns up the kinetic chain.
Yes you obviously won’t be as powerful during the jumps during this specific drill however the goal is to clean up jumping mechanics and eliminate energy leaks/weak links in the kinetic chain. Once the athlete grooves these new-found firing patterns into their CNS they’ll inevitably be able to jump with greater power and height since all of the force will be transmitted perfectly vertically into the ground rather than having wasted energy and misdirected force vectors. This also means fewer lower body injuries.
As an added bonus this also improves landing mechanics even though the lifter is simply landing on a traditional box. That’s because the intense/enhanced activation patterns achieved on the jump phase acts as a primer by preparing the body to use the same activation and firing patterns during the subsequent landing phase. You’ll also notice the use of the deconstructed eccentric isometric box jump protocol as it helps clean up additional jumping and landing mechanics as well. Read more about the deconstructed box jump method here.