“Think of the magic of the foot, comparatively small, upon which your whole weight rests. It’s a miracle and dance is a celebration of that miracle.” Martha Graham
Isn’t it fascinating that 26 small bones are able to carry the body weight of a human being? Often taken for granted, the coordination and integrated strength of the human foot has evolved to allow miracles in movement.
As a Functional Podiatrist and health and fitness professional, I have dedicated my career to helping others find beauty in movement through the science of barefoot stimulation and foot core integration. Daily foot strengthening is one of the most effective means for preventing foot pain and for ensuring optimal energy transfer with each step.
What follows are several foot-strengthening exercises targeted toward building the foot’s “core.” But first, a quick review of some key concepts related to the feet:
1. Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Muscles
The foot and ankle feature two classifications of muscles: extrinsic and intrinsic. The extrinsic foot muscles originate outside of the foot, but insert within the foot (Figure 1). There are 12 (and sometimes 13) extrinsic muscles of the foot, which can be divided into compartments of the lower leg. It is their coordinated muscle contractions that create tension and stiffness during dynamic movement.
Conversely, the intrinsic foot muscles both originate and insert within the foot (Figure 2). There are 12 intrinsic muscles, two on the top of the foot and 10 in the plantar aspect of the foot. Like the extrinsic muscles, the intrinsic muscles are grouped into compartments, which allows for the dissipation of impact forces and foot stability.
When it comes to foot-focused exercises, anything that creates movement of the ankle, subtalar joint or toes is an extrinsic exercise, while exercises that focus on stiffness and tension target the intrinsic muscles.
A calf raise, for example, is an extrinsic exercise because there is movement at both the ankle and toes. Conversely, the short foot exercise (described below) is an intrinsic exercise that focuses on foot-tension. Functionally it is important to strengthen both groups of muscles, as both groups are involved in an exercise or movement, and the order of their involvement is important. This is referred to as intermuscular coordination and is the secret to optimal foot function and foot-core stabilization.
2. Local vs. Global Stabilizers of the Core
The body’s core can be broken down into two