The Four Best Foot Strengthening Exercises

Authors: Christopher Ioannou | Updated on: January 4, 2024
Intrinsic foot strength

To ensure that our feet are robust and functional, we must master four crucial skills. In this post, I am going to delve into these skills and provide you with a specific exercise to improve each one.

Learn to Splay the toes

Spreading your toes forms a stable three-point base, much like a tripod.

Toe Splay Creates a Tripod Like Base of Support

Proper toe splay also aligns the foot bones, allowing the intrinsic muscles connected to the toes to support a strong arch.

Observe the example below.

On the left, cramped toes lead to a bunion-prone position and a collapsed arch.

On the right, splayed toes naturally support and restore the arch.

The difference proper toe alignment makes is remarkable.

Proper Toe Splay Increases Foot Arch Height

Unsurprisingly, research has established a connection between toe misalignment issues, such as bunions, and flat feet [1], [2].

But the advantages of toe splay extend beyond just maintaining a healthy foot arch.

In his book 'Born to Walk,' James Earl explores the intriguing connection between the toes and quadriceps muscles. Without adequate toe splay, the small muscles in the toes can't generate enough tension to properly activate the quadriceps during walking and running.

Deactivated Foot Muscles Causes Quad Deactivation

The connection between the glutes and the big toe tells a similar tale.

Proper alignment of the big toe ensures that the foot can fully extend during the push-off phase of walking. This toe extension acts as a trigger for hip extension, aiding in the optimal activation of the glutes.

Great Toe Extension Increases Hip Extension

Isn't this fascinating?

Both the quadriceps and glutes, the powerhouses of the lower body, depend on the feet for optimal functionality during walking and running.

Let's dive into the first exercise: the "Active Toe Spread Out Exercise." As implied by its name, your objective is to spread your toes outward as far as you can.

Toe Spread out Exercise

While it may seem simple, this exercise is supported by research as an effective method to engage the intrinsic foot muscles [3], [4], [5].

Fun fact: Newborns instinctively perform this exercise to kickstart their foot strength.

Here are two images of my daughters practicing this move during their first few weeks after birth.

Toe Splay in Newborn Babies

The best part?

Since the feet aren't bearing weight in this position, you can safely do this exercise as often as you'd like, even while lying down.

Active Toe Splay Exercise

Now, some of you might find it challenging to spread your toes, as if they're glued together. This is a common issue, often resulting from prolonged use of narrow, restrictive footwear which don’t provide room for the toes to splay.

Pointed Toe Box Shoes Pull the Toes out of Alignment (hallux Valgus)

The adage "use it or lose it" certainly rings true in this context.

If you encounter this issue, your initial course of action should be to transition to less restrictive footwear.

We typically recommend barefoot shoes, designed to conform to the natural shape of your feet.

Wide Barefoot Style Shoes Allow the Toes to Splay

For additional support, silicone spacers can be beneficial.

These devices can aid in retraining your toes to spread out. Interestingly, one study found that the combination of these spacers and wide shoes resulted in the most significant improvement in toe alignment [6].

Wearing Silicone Spacers With Barefoot Shoes

You can explore all the barefoot shoe brands we have reviewed here, and find our recommended silicone spacers here.

Balance on one leg

Moving on to the second essential barefoot skill: balancing on one foot.

It's a fascinating fact that when we're in motion, we're predominantly relying on one foot at a time.

Take walking, for instance: about 60-70% of the time, we're balancing on a single foot. And when it comes to running, that figure jumps to a full 100% [7].

Single Leg Stance Time While Walking and Running

Pause for a moment and think about this:

Our tall and wide bodies, often moving swiftly over varied terrain, are supported primarily by just one foot.

It's clear then that to excel in these activities, our foot strength and stability need to be nothing short of rock-solid.

So, how can we enhance this ability?

The solution is found in the straightforward exercise of single-leg balance.

A 2004 study revealed that a six-week single-leg balancing program significantly increased the arch height among 11 participants [8].

The researchers employed two types of single-leg balances:

  1. Static balancing for one minute

  1. Heel raises with a six-second ascent and descent

This regimen was carried out multiple times per week.

Static Single Leg Balances and Heel Raises

Here's a simplified version of the six-week single-leg balancing protocol that can be followed:

Week 1-2:

Perform three sets of one-minute single-leg balance on each leg, three times per week.

Week 3-4:

Execute three sets of 40-second single-leg heel raises, three times per week.

Week 5-6:

Carry out three sets of 60-second single-leg heel raises, three times per week.

Absorb impact forces (Controlled pronation)

Once single-limb balance is mastered, the next skill to acquire is effective impact force management.

This skill is particularly crucial when considering running.

During a run, the impact forces from the ground can escalate to 3-4 times your body weight due to the interplay of gravity and the dynamics of the gait cycle [9], [10].

Now, let's engage in a fun and enlightening calculation.

Consider a hypothetical individual weighing 70kg running a 5km distance. With an average stride length of 1.5 meters, they would take approximately 3,333 strides to complete the run.

When you multiply the number of steps (strides times 2) by the force of each impact, it turns out that this person experiences a cumulative force equivalent to around 1,867 tonnes during that 5km run.

This calculation underscores the immense forces our feet must manage during running.

Calculation of the Accumulative Impact Force From a 5km Run

Therefore, it's evident why efficiently absorbing these impact forces is crucial. If we fail to do so, our risk of injury significantly increases.

With statistics indicating a 79% chance of a recreational runner sustaining a running related injury within a year of continuous running, it's clear that many of us could improve our ability to handle impact forces [11].

So, what's the solution?

We need to train our foot's shock-absorbing capacity through the action of pronation – which is the controlled flattening of the foot arch.

To assist with this, we've developed a handy exercise designed to enhance this ability:

Become a sturdy base (Supinate)

Finally, let's address the final element: creating a sturdy base for every movement. This involves forming a prominent arch through supination, which serves as a counterbalance to the impact-absorbing pronation we discussed earlier.

Pronated, Neutral and Supinated Foot

The same hardware, yet two completely different functions— a testament to the remarkable engineering of our feet!

The simplest way to build up the foot arch is to exercise barefoot. A fascinating study showed that just four months of gradually increasing your barefoot exercise time can enhance your arches by an impressive 4.7 mm [12].

Foot Arch Development Through Barefoot Exercise

The key word here? Gradual.

You wouldn't dive into a 5km run on the treadmill or a 2-hour weightlifting session barefoot on your first day.

Perhaps start with a barefoot warm-up, then switch to shoes for the remainder of your session.

As your feet adapt, you can slowly increase your barefoot training volume.

Even transitioning into barefoot shoes can be beneficial.

A recent study revealed that casually wearing minimalist footwear for 6 months can lead to almost a 60% increase in foot strength [13].

But I won't just leave you with that.

There are specific exercises designed to refine the unique ability to supinate the feet into the solid base required for movement.

One of these exercises is a gem we've developed for our Strong Feet Course. We call it the single-leg supinated heel-raise.

Ready for a sneak peek? Let's check it out.

And thats the fourth and final exercise to develop strong feet.

Enroll in our full program with the Strong Feet Course, and receive all our free content straight to your inbox with our Barefoot Press Newsletter.

Christopher Ioannou

BSc (Hons) Sports & Exercise Science

Founder of Barefoot Strength

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