The Importance of Foot and Ankle Workouts
This article is exclusive to AHP. It represents the uncut, fully extended version of an abbreviated article originally featured on stack.com on 12/3/2015.
Foot and ankle training is one of the most neglected and underrated aspect of sports performance. However, it's critical, as activation for most athletic movements starts with the feet, ankles, and toes.
Ensuring that the feet, ankles and toes are functioning properly is not only important for injury prevention, it also goes a long way toward maximizing speed, mobility, agility, power, force production and explosiveness. Unfortunately, most athletes—including many elite-level performers—have significant deficiencies in the foot and ankle complex. This comes as no surprise, considering that most modern day footwear, from cleats to basic running shoes, promote further dysfunction in the feet and lower-leg area. Many of these products, often touted as the latest and greatest in shoe technology, essentially act as a crutch that allows foot and ankle muscles to shut down.
Over time, as these muscles remain semi-dormant and decrease in strength and size, the body develops compensation patterns to manage the lack of muscular activity in the lower leg and foot area. This, in turn, has a negative impact on muscle function throughout the lower body, hips and core, as well as the upper torso.
Like all skeletal muscles, the musculature that surrounds the feet and ankles was designed not only for movement but also for force absorption. When these muscles don't function as they should, it severly limits the shock absorption capabilities of the lower body. Besides impeding power, speed and agility, these forces are transferred to the joints, tendons, ligaments and surrounding connective tissue. This affects the entire kinetic chain, promoting greater potential for injury from head to toe.
Foot and Ankle Facts
With this in mind, here is an extensive list of 27 foot and ankle facts every athlete should be aware of.
- The feet, ankles and toes need to be trained like any other body part. In fact, I would argue they require more extensive training, considering most people wear shoes that promote dysfunction of their lower extremities.
- If you're unable to perform a majority of your activities (such as strength training, sprinting, jogging, agility drills or even plyometrics) either barefoot or in low-profile minimalist shoes that mimic barefoot conditions, then your feet and ankles are not functioning properly.
- When your feet and ankles are in a state of dysfunction, any movement that requires even a slight degree of foot and ankle support becomes impossible to perform properly. It may look right to the eye, but neuromuscularly, it's wrong.
- No matter how strong, powerful, mobile, agile, fast or explosive you are, correcting foot and ankle deficiencies will improve your capabilities and your performance.
- Addressing foot and ankle deficiencies not only enhances strength and power, but it will also do more for technique and movement mechanics than most forms of corrective exercise and soft tissue work (e.g., foam rolling).
- Many injuries, tweaks and areas of general tightness, particularly in the lower body, are related to faulty ankle and foot mechanics.
- For most activities, the feet and ankles represent the first point of contact for force transmission. When dysfunction is prevalent, it also represents the first point where the body leaks energy. Learning how to stabilize your foot and ankle complex eliminates these energy leaks, enhancing force transmission and power output.
- It's impossible to squat correctly with faulty foot and ankle mechanics. Fix these deficiencies and your technique on the Squat, and on many other lifts, will improve almost immediately.
- Core strength and posture are closely related to foot and ankle activation. Getting better at one typically improves the other.
- When you perform foot and ankle workouts, you'll notice your core and many stabilizers throughout your body firing at a high intensity.
- Similar to faulty postural mechanics and poor spinal alignment, foot and ankle dysfunction accelerates the aging process.
- Just because you play sports or perform consistent physical activity does not mean you have strong ankles or feet. In fact, it probably places you at higher risk for faulty foot mechanics.
- Ruptured Achilles tendons are among the most painful and serious injuries in sports medicine. Although they are often considered somewhat fluky, establishing proper foot and ankle mechanics can greatly reduce the risk of these debilitating injuries.
- Shin splints are related to weakness and dysfunction in the aforementioned muscles. Performing appropriate foot and ankle workouts will address this.
- Even the most severe foot and ankle issues can be resolved with proper foot and ankle training.
- If a majority of your physical activity is performed in traditional shoes and you do little to train your feet and ankles, you most likely possess faulty ankle and foot mechanics.
- Competitive athletes—including but not limited to those who play football, baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer and track & field—should spend a significant portion (at least 50 percent) of their training, practice and skill work in their bare feet or wearing minimalist shoes.
- When it comes to barefoot training, don't go too extreme too soon or you'll set yourself up for injuries. The body has to be prepared for this form of training, as most individuals have spent their entire lives wearing normal shoes. Gradually progress into it. The exercises listed below in this article will help prepare your body so that barefoot or minimalist training can be performed safely.
- Most orthotics are unnecessary and actually serve to further reinforce foot and ankle dysfunction. Correcting these deficiencies eliminates the need for orthotics.
- If your toes overlap and have little spacing between them, you may want to invest in toe spacers or yoga toes. They can help stretch your toes back to their proper position.
- When walking around the house, go barefoot. When possible, be mindful of your foot and ankle mechanics.
- A number of brands produce high-quality barefoot products, including, Pedestal Footwear, Skora, Topo Athletic, Vivo Barefoot, Nike (only the 1.0 model), Merrell, New Balance, Vibram and Inov-8. The less support the shoe provides, the more your own foot and ankle muscles have to function.
- Many injuries sustained by athletes and the general population could be prevented if the feet and ankles were functioning properly.
- Calf training commonly performed by bodybuilders is great for increasing size in the calves. Unfortunately, it does little to address foot and ankle mechanics.
- When thinking about proper foot and ankle mechanics, the "three points of contact rule" is a good starting point. The three points are: (1) the heel; (2) the lateral upper portion of the foot or outer ball of the foot in line with the baby toe; and (3) near the medial portion of the foot toward the base of the big toe.
- The two primary categories of foot and ankle dysfunction are: (1) pronation, in which more stress is placed on the inner portion of the feet, causing the ankles to cave in; and (2) supination, exactly the opposite, in which more stress is placed on the outside of the foot. Although both are undesirable, pronation places athletes at greater risk for injury and is typically more problematic.
- Regardless of the type of foot and ankle dysfunction, the cure is essentially the same: achieve correct foot mechanics through proper activation. The foot and ankle exercises and drills described and demonstrated below help provide that stimulus.
Foot and Ankle Workouts
In the video below, notice how I create the "3 points of contact" and demonstrate ample toe splaying/spreading. These mechanics are something athletes should work on daily.
The single most common foot/ankle dysfunction I see in athletes is pronation (ankles caving inward). Before loading your body with heavy movements, it's imperative to correct this in order to avoid stress to the knees, hips, ankles and low back. In the video below, you'll see one of my football players with extreme pronation (notice his ankles caving inward). I have him address this by forcefully driving his ankles outward while keeping his toes (especially the big toe) in contact with the ground.
Once an athlete has demonstrated the ability to properly position his or her feet, the next step is to perform drills and exercises that involve balance and stability of the lower body. Most of these employ single leg stands and variations thereof. Here's the proper way to perform this simple yet highly effective drill.
Inline Toe-Touch Stride Hold
For some athletes, the Single-Leg Stand may be too difficult, particularly if form is strict and properly aligned. In this case, the Inline Toe-Touch Stride Hold is a perfect regression. Both feet are on the floor (one stacked right in front of the other), making it slightly easier to balance yet still providing adequate activation of the feet and ankles. Performing this on a soft surface with your eyes closed—as my athletes demonstrate below—is actually quite challenging.
BOSU Single-Leg Stands
Once you've mastered the basic Single-Leg Stand (preferably with your eyes closed), progress the drill by using unstable surfaces, such as a BOSU ball.
Whether you have a tendency to pronate or supinate, the Single-Leg Swap will help remedy nearly any foot and ankle weakness. It's also a great core exercise, involving anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion of the spine. You have to resist letting your torso be pulled out of position by the offset load.
Single-Leg Power Hold
Overloading the muscles around the feet and ankles is a great way to improve strength and stability. The Single-Leg Power Hold does just that.
Single-Leg Med Ball Chest Pass
One of my favorite drills is a four-square variation of a Single-Leg Medicine Ball Chest Pass. When you catch the ball from the side, the torque wants to push your ankle further inward, forcing you to counteract this by pushing out, essentially resisting pronation.
Besides being a great anti-pronation drill, it's also an excellent exercise for working on power and stability simultaneously. Here are a few of my NFL and collegiate football players having fun with it.
Lunge or Single-Leg Stand Perturbations
Recent research has demonstrated perturbation training to be highly effective for improving activation in the surrounding musculature and for increasing innervation to the stabilizers. Perturbation training involves having a partner manually tap or move you in an unpredictable fashion, forcing you to work overtime to control and stabilize your movements. It works exceptionally well for foot and ankle training, since it can be applied to Lunge movements as well as Single-Leg Stands.
Single-Leg Hops and Jumps are a more advanced, yet highly effective method for improving foot and ankle function. When performed with eyes closed (as my athletes demonstrate below), they are among the most challenging stabilization exercises you can perform.
Single-Leg Box Jumps, Box Jump-Overs, and various forms of Single-Leg Plyometrics are also excellent options for improving foot and ankle strength. Make sure your body has been properly prepared by progressing from some of the less advanced single-leg movements shown above. Finally, focus on sticking and holding the landing (as my athletes demonstrate below).
When creating new exercises, the only limitation is your imagination. As long as you maintain proper mechanics, technique and alignment, the drills (especially Single-Leg Stands) can be combined with other basic movement patterns such as Overhead Presses, Curls, Shoulder Raises, Shrugs or any other standing exercise.
If you're looking for a true test of full-body stability, this last one will give you a run for your money.