Let's face it: You never train your feet or ankles. That's not necessarily your fault, since the vast majority of training programs don't include foot or ankle exercises—except maybe some Calf Raises.
Perhaps a few of you do your warm-up or a few exercises like Deadlifts barefoot. That's great, but it's nowhere near enough, according to Dr. Joel Seedman, strength coach and owner of Advanced Human Performance.
In Seedman's Foot and Ankle Manual (yes, the man has devoted an entire manual to these too-often overlooked body parts), he drives home the importance of feet and ankles for everyone from athletes to bodybuilders. Seedman explains that your feet and ankles are your base of support, and they dictate how your entire body moves. A foot or ankle issue can even result in weak upper-body muscles or neck pain.
Seedman uses the Squat to illustrate the problems weak feet and ankles can cause.
"Squatting with weak feet and ankles contributes to faulty hip and knee mechanics, which indirectly affects the position of the spine," he states. "Consequently, this poor spinal alignment is often associated with low-back pain, neck impingement, shoulder injuries and inhibition/weakness of the upper extremities, which together impede hypertrophy (muscle growth), strength gains and good health."
Put simply, weak feet and ankles throw you out of the proper position on a lift or movement, making it next to impossible to use correct form and the right muscles. This all but guarantees you won't get the full strength, power or size benefits from an exercise. And you'll be at an increased risk of injury.
In sports like football and basketball, strong ankles and feet are essential to handle the extreme forces from sprinting, jumping, landing and changing directions. Otherwise, your risk of spraining an ankle skyrockets, as does the pain you'll feel in your knees and other joints.
And there's more bad news: With weak feet or ankles, you won't be able to transfer the power from your hips and legs into the ground. That means you'll be less explosive, slower when you sprint, and less able to jump high.
That's why Seedman believes foot and ankle strength should be one of the first things taught to an athlete, even before they learn a basic movement like the Squat. The first step, he says, is to do some simple tests to get a baseline.
Testing Your Feet and Ankles
A simple test can tell you if your feet and ankles are weak or aren't working properly. Stand barefoot with your feet hip-width apart and have a friend take a picture of the back of your ankles. Then compare it to this picture:
If your ankles are aligned vertically, they're in decent shape. If your foot rolls inward (pronation) or outward (supination), you have a problem.
Correcting Your Feet and Ankles
Seedman's Foot and Ankle Training Manual provides 13 foot and ankle workouts that he has personally developed with athletes who train at his facility.
In just one workout, he was able to make a major improvement in a client's feet and ankles, which you can see in the image below.
The workouts take 10 to 15 minutes to complete and can be performed before a traditional strength workout. Seedman also includes a variety of plans for folks who want to take on a full foot and ankle training program to address major issues, or who need a simple and time-efficient maintenance plan.
I've been lucky enough to try several of Seedman's workouts and have seen immediate results. After a few weeks, a lingering pain that I had in my upper foot/ankle disappeared. I now feel more confident when I do heavy Squats and Deadlifts, because my feet are properly gripping the ground.
In addition to adding foot and ankle training to your workouts, there are three things that everyone should do to keep their lower limbs and feet healthy.
Activate Your Feet During Lifts
"Rather than having the feet sit on the floor like two limp pancakes, the goal should be to incorporate active foot mechanics [when you lift]," Seedman says. "Grip the floor aggressively with the feet, having more stress toward the outside of the foot. Activate your toes, especially the big toe. Imagine that the foot is screwing into the floor rather than passively resting on it."
Wear Minimalist Shoes
You should be barefoot or wear minimalist shoes for least 50 percent of your training, practice and skill work, Seedman says. Minimalist shoes offer enough support to protect your feet and provide traction, but not so much support that they screw up your body's biomechanics.
There are four attributes that make a shoe "minimalist":
A wide toe box that allows you to spread your toes.
Flexibility that allows your feet to bend.
Zero drop from heel to toe, so your foot is flat.
Minimal cushion and ankle support.
Learn Proper Foot Mechanics
You need to learn to stand with your feet and ankles in the proper position. This may seem simple, but Seedman says that it's "frustrating and uncomfortable" for many people. Here's how to do it:
Step 1: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, pointing straight ahead.
Step 2: Push your feet outward without lifting them off the floor. They'll move into a slightly supinated position. (If you are naturally supinated, you don't need to do this.) With your weight now shifted to the outsides of your feet, press your big toes into the floor.
Step 3: Spread your toes apart as far as you can. Adjust your toes with your hands if needed.
Hold this position for 30-60 seconds. At first, it may become extremely challenging after 20-30 seconds.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock