This article was originally published in British Strength Magazine. You can subscribe for free at www.britishstrengthmagazine.com
Over the last 10 or so years there has been a huge rise in both the awareness and popularity of barefoot training. This has gained most interest in functional training and running groups as people seek to go back to as close to nature as possible, so I thought it may be interesting to have a look and evaluate whether this may be something that applies to lifters also.
The foot was described by Leonardo Da Vinci as 'a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art' and is possibly the most unappreciated part of the skeleton that you have. This may be because it's quite complex and certainly not sexy (outside of certain circles). A foot has 33 joints, which incidentally is the same number as your back, and this equates each foots potential movements and positions within itself (ie not factoring in 'outside' of foot positions) to 8.68x1036 (or 868 followed by thirty-four 0's). Don't forget to double that number as (almost) everyone has 2 feet and you start to realise the importance of the foot and how it can easily have an affect on every other joint position in your body, which obviously in turn affects your connective tissue. The foot has three arches: the medial (the inside), the lateral (the outside) and the transverse (your first and fifth metatarsal heads should bear the majority of the weight and the 2nd, 3rd & 4th mets should be slightly raised). The integrity of these arches is maintained by the intrinsic foot musculature and a number of muscles that help to control the movements of the ankle also. When these muscles do not get the stimulation required to maintain integrity they start to struggle and switch off leading to 'collapsed' arches and other parts of the body start to suffer and have to compensate.
American biomechanist Katy Bowman sums up the role of the foot brilliantly in this excerpt from her book Move Your DNA:
'The more your foot can move and deform over a surface, the less the ankle is forced to do the work of the foot... The more the walking surface is cluttered with natural debris (sand, rocks, leaves, slates, roots, holes, pebbles, etc.), the more your feet, knees, hips, pelvis, and whole-body musculature have to work... Every unique combination of grade and surface results in a particular physical stimulation. When you compare the endless number of joint contortions and muscle contractions necessary for walking over natural terrain to the single, repetitive pattern we use walking through a mall, it is clear, quantitatively, that the physical outcomes created by our current walking habits should be thought of as repetitive-use injuries.'
Our world is almost entirely comprised of flat surfaces: pavements, tarmac, manicured grass landscapes and so on, and this flat world serves to disengage or under stimulate the intrinsic muscles of the foot as well as having a detrimental knock on effect to the extrinsic muscles that also aid ankle control. We also spend very little time in bare feet (or just socks) choosing instead to wear poorly designed footwear that is designed to look good, or incorrectly fitting shoes that are meant to give us support. Don't forget our foot evolved to be able to support itself!
If you that have spent any time in developing countries you may have noticed the almost complete lack of 'flat feet', this brilliantly highlights Katy Bowman's viewpoint that flat feet are a 'disease of habit' as these individuals spend far more time walking on variable surfaces and often without shoes, or certainly without shoes that provide 'support'. Flat feet are not genetic, they don't just happen, they occur because of the lack of stimulation that you give them, or because an old injury makes you move in a way that switches certain things off. They, like everything else, respond to the stimulation they are given.
Our feet provide our only contact with the ground and have the capacity to provide a lot of feedback about the world that we are standing on and aid our proprioception and balance. Whenever we cover our feet this limits the amount of incoming sensory information and the longer that we get used to wearing shoes our feet effectively become desensitised. In fact there are a number of people that believe the desensitisation of feet is a major contributing factor to the number of falls an elderly person may have. As age starts to diminish the capability of the eyes and ears, (which in turn has a knock on detrimental effect to the vestibular-occular systems capability to help with balance), more emphasis is placed on the proprioceptive properties of the foot to provide information about the external environment. If the feet have been desensitised through years of wearing shoes and walking on flat surfaces they will be incapable of helping provide the sensory short fall which in turn leads to actual falls. A great example of how covering our feet interrupts the flow of sensory information is to search on YouTube for 'dogs in shoes' and just look what happens. Due to the decrease in sensory data coming in from our feet when we cover them we heighten awareness through other structures that have proprioception such as joints and ligaments, to try and make up the sensory information shortfall, and the more cushioning or padding that a shoes has creates an even bigger deprivation. This cushioning also creates a time delay in the response of the body to whatever it is that you are standing on and may need to adapt to as body waits for enough information to come in to make a judgement on how to react.
So, the flat surfaces that we walk on, the shoes that we wear and the general lack of different stimuli are responsible for our weak and improperly functioning feet. So what should we do it to remedy it? One option that is often given, or sold, is to use orthotics, these can be tailor made to put your foot into a 'neutral' position from which to function. However, while orthotics put your foot into a good position when you are standing they actually prevent your foot from being able to move how it should when you move. (They create a block that prevents the foot pronating properly by preventing your medial arch dropping and thus lengthening the muscles which serve to supinate the foot which causes further deactivation). So not great in day to day life but they could actually be a consider worthy intervention when you are lifting as your feet are static. They do however only help you work round a problem and not solve it.
The bodies muscles work as systems to pass force generated onto the next muscles and create global movement and this chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The feet arguably act as the start point for all of these systems in a lift as they are the only things that are grounded (bench is a little different). So if you are able to squat 200kg would it not also be reasonable to expect your feet to be able to help control and stabilise that weight? Therefore it would appear to be beneficial to spend a bit of time training your feet to be able to cope with the stress that squatting and deadlifting big weights puts on them, or doing some of your training in bare feet. Now if on reading this you suddenly decide to try barefoot training you will likely see your working weights drop as your body is not adapted to training in bare feet, and realistically if you compete you have to wear shoes so it makes sense to do all your maximal work in as near a competition environment as possible. So the easiest way to start integrating some foot work into your training is to warm up for your lifts in bare feet or socks and then put shoes on as you go heavier – just like you may do with straps when squatting, this will allow the body to start adapting to the additional stresses. Start walking around in bare feet or socks at home, if you have a garden go and walk around it in bare feet so your feet have to respond to the different surfaces that you walk on. You will undoubtedly notice that if you walk around in bare feet you have to modify how you walk slightly so that you don't heel strike as hard and this inevitably changes the way your whole body moves. Depending on your discipline you may easily be able to perform some of your training barefoot straight away in your warm ups and your assistance lifts.
A paper published in 2004 in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science reported that implementation of an 8 week intrinsic foot muscle strength program led to improvements in 50m sprint times, 1 leg jump distance, vertical jumping and foot arch integrity. They focused specifically on isolating the intrinsic foot muscles (those that don't cross the ankle), as unfortunately a lot of exercise prescription for foot strengthening seems to focus more on the extrinsic muscles leaving the intrinsic muscles neglected – sometimes isolation exercises are the best worst option.
Additionally there are lots of specific exercises that you can do for your feet and ankles which will start building strength and promoting better function that are easy things to do in between sets.
In addition to performing warm ups and accessory movements in bare feet there are a couple of specific exercises that you can do to 'wake up' your dormant foot musculature. As the study mentioned above highlighted it is advisable, where possible, to do these exercises with your ankle plantarflexed (pointed toes) so that you place more of an emphasis on the foot muscles and not the muscles that also cross the ankle.
1. Janda Short Foot exercise (just YouTube it)
Foot flat on the floor and squeeze your entire foot so that your foot shortens. You should notice that as you this your medial arch raises up. Don't squeeze too hard or really try and force it – instead try to encourage. Intention of movement plays a big part.
2. Toe gripping on towel or on ball
Pretty self explanatory – you can practice picking up things with your toes, moving them and putting them down again.
3. Toe lifts
Also pretty self explanatory.
4. Toe abduction (toe spreading)
This may take a bit of practice to get in to. Resting your foot on the floor without much weight through the ball of your foot spread the toes out sideways – you can use a bit of additional pressure through the forefoot to aid this.
5.Alternate walking on outside of foot, inside of foot, ball of foot and heel for ~5 metres at a time.