What does it really mean to activate the feet?
When properly grounded in standing asanas, the feet connect the spine to the flow of energy from the earth. Further, for most movement, neural signalling begins at the feet as the first point of contact and in many ways the steering of the posture. The better the feet and ankles are functioning, the better the innervation and energy through the whole kinetic chain.
Before we get to activating... resetting:
Much of modern footwear (socks included!) encourages our big toes to deviate towards the midlines of our feet, called ‘hallux valgus’, especially when elevated (and even high) heels, transfer more weight to the distal bones of the feet. If this is the case then the simple exercise of lifting and spreading the toes, before letting them relax back down to the floor will help begin to retrain the musculature and reduce stress on connective and bony tissues. However, this won’t be enough to offset the damage…you will also need to start getting those feet out. Your feet are complex, they require complex and varying stimuli to keep them working optimally. Walking on sand is a great way to start, then move onto something a little rougher! This lifting, spreading will be the first step for your feet (if this is an issue for you!), if the feet are already nicely spread then there is no need to continue stretching them indefinitely as like any other body part, over stretched soft tissue looses its elasticity and becomes susceptible to deformation.
We should also be aware of the position of our feet and knees in relation to the hip. Anatomically parallel runs from the heel through the line of the second toe. Weight should be spread through the outside edges of the feet helping to neutralise the position of the ankle. 'Knee valgus’ (again a deviation to the midline) is common if the posterior chain and hips are weak or under facilitated, but can also occur if there is a significant turn out in the feet that you try to correct too quickly. Your body has learned its posture over time, and it will require some time (usually relative) to retrain.
But anyway…back to the feet. Seeing as we are talking foundations lets start at the very bottom. The intrinsic foot musculature (that is to say that musculature solely functioning within the foot that does not cross the ankle) is often skipped, as the popular yoga practice of lifting the toes points to more extrinsic (and often superficial musculature) when discussing the arch, which I will argue is a gross oversight.
The intrinsic foot musculature provides dynamic support for the whole structure of the foot, both when static and in motion, but in particular we are discussing the effects on the medial longitudinal arch which is commonly (and henceforth in this post) referred to more simply as the arch. The (medial longitudinal) arch consists of the calcaneus, talus, navicular, cuboid, there cuneiforms and the first 3 metatarsals. Although often perceived as relatively fixed these bones by virtue of their function require a good level of movement in all directions in order to carry out the tasks of shock absorption and rebounding through the elastic properties of the plantar fascia.
The term 'active feet' is used generally then to refer to engagement of the feet to stimulate both a stable base by engagement of the arch and the reflexive upward movement of prana through the posture.
So, some anatomy:
The intrinsic muscles of the foot are arranged in four layers:
1st layer - abductor hallucis (big toe flexor - often considered the main player in arch support), flexor digitorum brevis & abductor digiti minimi.
2nd layer - quadratus plantae, lumbricals.
3rd layer - adductor hallucis transverse, adductor hallucis oblique, flexor hallucis brevis & flexor digiti minimi brevis.
4th layer - interossei muscles (dorsal and plantar, rest between the metatarsals with additional soft tissue connections and help maintain the arch whilst aiding in flexion & extension, these muscles are particularly responsive to lateral spreading forces)
And an exercise to put your intrinsic foot muscles to the test:
Stand facing the wall, feet & knees shoulder width apart and knees soft, have your hands resting on the wall so that balance doesn’t affect results.
Lifting and spread the toes; this action will use extrinsic musculature to wind the plantar fascia and create a superficial arch.
Lower the toes back down whilst maintaining the arch.
Lift one leg, and hold for 30 seconds at a time. (reset the feet in between sides)
If the arch cannot be maintained, without excessive toe grabbing, then this is a sign that there is inhibited functioning in the stability of the foot with the extrinsic structures overly relied upon.
Didn’t pass the test? Don’t worry!
The “Short Foot Exercise” is the gold standard for strengthening the intrinsic foot musculature.
Stand with the feet and knees shoulder width apart and knees soft.
Narrow the foot and then draw the big toe back towards the heel without the toes gripping the floor. Begin with a ten second hold, for 4-5 repetitions.
As intrinsic muscle control develops then the repetitions and duration should decrease to avoid overtraining the response. However, I believe firmly that this engagement is the central component of ‘active feet’ or Pada Bandha and proper foundations for all postures.
Soft tissue work and mobilisation (especially of the big toe) will greatly increase the efficacy of this move. This exercise can be carried out in a seated position also, but standing creates a greater neurological and proprioceptive response.
Moving up the Chain
As we cross the ankle joint we move into the realm of the extrinsic foot stabilisers.
The peroneals and the tibialis muscles wrap around the arch of the foot and in front of the ankle. These muscles provide stability across the front of the ankle especially when walking on uneven surfaces. The anterior tibialis further forms a sling with the fibularis longus that plays a role in extrinsically supporting the arch and stabilising the tarsals in movement. This sling forms a portion of the myofascial spiral line (as defined by Thomas Myers) that translates upward moving energy through the body (more on this in another post)
The posterior tibialis sits behind the shin, and connects to the inner edges of the arch, the muscle is involved in pointing the foot, and also, turning it inwards. It is the most central of the lower leg musculature and also plays the most central role in proprioceptive stability of the ankle. This muscle works effectively with deep flexors of the foot, and often through soft tissue connections, will activate directly with the intrinsic foot musculature. This stability then occurs from behind the ankle and works with the calf. The calf is comprised of two muscles, the soleus and gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius is the more visible part that ultimately becomes the achilles tendon whilst the soleus sits deeper. A third muscle, the plantaris also sits here, although physically it is a relatively weak muscle, it plays a powerful role in the neurological regulation of tension in achilles tendon. Collectively they support the foot whilst in motion, and stabilise the ankle when the feet are pointed. Feedback form the muscles of the lower leg through autogenic mechanisms (especially the stretch reflex) maintain balance by reflexively measuring ’sway’ or rotation around the ankle joint. The calves are particularly important in standing balancing postures, and any posture where the knee is at risk of moving beyond the ankle (of course we can continue to move up the chain here too!)
To be clear, I am not saying that these muscles do not play an important role in foot and ankle stability, but rather, that they should not be the primary step considered to address a lack of activation in the feet. When focus is shifted overly towards lifting the toes, and does not consider the need to press down through the toe knuckles (and even through the toes themselves) we rely on the extrinsic musculature to support the arch. However, this is not by itself a strong arch!
When the tibialis anterior contracts strongly this shortens the top of the foot, which by virtue will create the appearance of an arch, but without its underlying forms of support. Further more, a strong and overly reinforced engagement will reciprocally inhibit the agonist muscles in the calves and soleus which will be problematic in balancing postures and increasingly in wider life as the patterns we train are carried off the mat. The final argument for avoiding this strong engagement of the flexors is that strain on the flexor retinaculum will affect the more delicate structures underneath, which include the tibial artery which supplies the blood flow necessary for optimal metabolic functioning in the foot. We have to also consider whether training foot and ankle stability by strong lifting and holding of the feet is translatable to foot and ankle stability in daily life.
When we engage the intrinsic musculature first, which stabilises the arch, toes joints, plantar fascia and braces the posterior chain, then the extrinsic musculature of the foot can engage correctly in their supplementary role. The focus then is not on training a few specific muscles that ‘activate the foot’, but returning to a global experience of using the entire lower leg to create stability in standing postures.
To conclude, when thinking about activating the feet start with the intrinsic musculature of the foot…the bodies truest foundations.
Fascial Release for Structural Balance. Earls and Myers. 2010.
The proprioceptive and agonist roles of gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibias anterior muscles in maintaining human upright posture. Giulio, Maganaris, Baltzopouylos & Loram. Journal of Physiology, 2009.
The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle and function. O McKeon, Hertel, Bramble & Davis. Journal of Sports Medicine, 2014.
Intrinsic pedal musculature support of the medial longitudinal arch: an electromyography study. Fiolkowski, Brunt, Bishop, Whoo & Horodyski. The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery, 2003.
Effect of plantar intrinsic muscles training on medial longitudinal arch morphology and dynamic function. Mulligan & Cook. Manual Therapy, 2013.