23 Sep 4 Exercises To Improve Foot Strength
The function of the foot is extremely important to the overall musculoskeletal function of the body. The foot is the base of support for most everyday activities. Like a game of Jenga, if the base is not solid, the entire structure will lean, wobble, and eventually collapse. If the musculature of the foot is not properly functioning, many structures both locally and globally will be affected. The intrinsic muscles of the feet become deconditioned over time due to ill-fitting shoes, tight socks, and even some orthotics. Due to cramped spaces and the inability of the joint to function in its natural range of motion, our brains lose the neurological connection to the muscles of our feet, causing compensations. Luckily, neuroplasticity (the ability for our brains to change the neural circuits to our bodies) dictates that it is possible to improve and even reverse chronic instability of the foot, and thus joint pathologies and pain. This article will show you exercises to improve foot strength!
Common injuries of the foot
Plantar Fasciitis is usually characterized by foot and heel pain that is worse in the morning or following exercise. This phenomenon occurs when the musculature that attaches to the fascia at the bottom of the foot is overstressed and not balanced by the surrounding foot musculature.
Claw toes, Hammer toes, and Hallux Valgus (bunions)
Claw toes, Hammer toes, and Hallux Valgus are deformities of the foot that don’t necessarily come with symptoms. These deformities are caused by muscular imbalances in the foot, which usually happens over time due to ill-fitting shoes. These deformities can lead to unstable foot and local or global injuries over time.
Check your feet: claw toes are characterized by an extended metatarsophalangeal joint, and flexed proximal and distal interphalangeal joints. A reason for this deformity could be due to a weakness in the extensor digitorum musculature and other surrounding intrinsic foot muscles. A study by Garth and Miller  concluded that runners with shin splints may have overuse of the flexor digitorum longus muscle which is associated with mild claw toe deformity.
Check your feet: Hammer toes are characterized by extension of the metatarsophalangeal and distal interphalangeal joints and flexion of the proximal interphalangeal joint. A reason for this deformity could be weakness in the extensor digitorum brevis muscle and other surrounding intrinsic foot muscles.
Check your feet: Hallux valgus is characterized by a deviation of the big toe toward the second toe. This deformity gives mechanical advantage for the flexor hallucis longus, which can encourage compensation and increase the deformity further. This deformity can be due to a weakness of the abductor hallucis muscle. Check your ankle dorsiflexion and big toe extension, limitations here can cause you to walk with your feet out, further exacerbating this issue.
These deformities can be caused by a weakened foot which can have a cascading effect. Take the example of a runner with claw toes and shin splints. This runner experiences chronic irritation of the shin muscles due to compensation for weak intrinsic foot musculature. This inflammation around the shin could cause dysfunction to the musculature surrounding the knee. When the muscles surrounding the knee aren’t strong, passive structures like bone and cartilage can become compromised and damaged, causing injury and pain. This cascade of inflammation and pain, then compensation, then structural damage can continue all the way up the chain.
Exercises to improve foot strength
Here are 4 great bang for your buck exercises!
Forewarning: many times these exercises are difficult to perform due to the loss of neurologic connection to the muscles. Keep trying and they will improve as the neural circuits to your foot strengthens. If these exercises are too difficult you can use your hands to stabilize the toes that aren’t designed to move, allowing you to better move the desired toe.
4 little toes lift
This exercise targets extensor digitorum brevis and longus
For this exercise keep the big toe driven down into the floor while lifting the other toes up towards the ceiling. Key here is to keep the arch of the foot strong for this exercise, don’t allow the foot to roll in while lifting the small toes up. This may give you a false sense of toe elevation here.
Big toe lift
This exercise targets extensor hallucis brevis and longus
For this exercise raise your big toe while keeping the other toes flat on the floor. Don’t allow the foot to roll out as you perform this, this may give you a false sense of big toe elevation. Also, avoid scrunching the little toes as you perform this. The more you practice this the better you will get at isolating the big toe and the greater the range of motion you will be able to go through.
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Big toe abduction
This exercise targets abductor hallucis
This exercise is probably the most challenging of the bunch. While keeping the little toes relaxed, bring the big toe in towards the midline of your body and back. Avoid allowing the foot from collapsing in or pronating, isolate this motion to the big toe!
This exercise targets quadratus plantae, and other intrinsic flexors. What you want to focus on is bringing the base of the big toe and heel together, this is achieved by arching the foot! Don’t curl the toes to achieve this, keep the toes flat on the floor, the motion should be coming from the arch of your foot. This is the fourth and final of the exercises to improve foot strength!
Hope you enjoyed the 4 exercises to improve foot strength. Try these out and let us know what you think!
Incorporate more barefoot activities
In addition to exercises to improve foot strength- If you are interested in increasing the stability of the foot, McKeon, Hertel, and Bramble  suggest incorporating barefoot activities into your routine. This could be as simple as going to a yoga class, walking around the house barefoot, or even running barefoot. The body of evidence found significant stability increases in the foot after a four-month barefoot walking and running program. As a PT, I suggest easing into a barefoot routine if you are not used to being barefoot. Start with small bouts of foot training, like walking around the house barefoot, and increase the time and intensity as tolerated. Like any training, if the stimulus is too intense, the body will respond adversely.
Check your shoes
A simple trick to ensure your toe box is the correct width is to remove the insert of your shoe and place your foot on top (do this without socks on). If your foot spills outside the borders of the insert, your shoes are too narrow. Ideally, your foot lines up almost perfectly with the border of the inserts. Too much space between your foot and the border could result in your foot sliding around in your shoe.
About The Author
Shannon graduated with her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Kansas, then received her Specialist certification in Muscle Activation Technique. She owns a cash-pay physical therapy practice called Levo Wellness in Durham, North Carolina. She specializes in improving and resolving joint pain by identifying and correcting muscular imbalances.
Follow Shannon on Instagram @dr.shannon.dpt for more fitness, physical therapy, and yoga hacks and tips.
- Garth, W. P., & Miller, S. T. Evaluation of claw toe deformity, weakness of the foot intrinsics, and posteromedial shin pain. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 17(6), 821–827.
- McKeon PO, Hertel J, Bramble D, et al. The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle functionBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2015;49:290.