Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to 5 amazing speakers at the Barefoot training seminar up in San Francisco. Dr. Emily Splichal, DPM of EBFA (Evidence Based Fitness Academy) was very passionate about getting people OUT of their orthotics and back to basics when it comes to the proper activation of our feet and core.

Footwear and Its Impact on Feet

Numerous studies conducted throughout the world indicate that footwear actually causes the majority of our foot, leg, and back problems. In fact, in countries where shoes are not worn, only 3% of these problems occur compared to shoe-wearing populations. Studies also indicate that children’s feet are negatively affected by conventional footwear by the age of six. The restrictive environments created by conventional footwear designs prohibit optimal biomechanical function of the foot, which leads to a weaker structure, associated discomfort, and a host of painful symptoms. Many footwear companies promote designs with various supportive features in an attempt to improve comfort and performance.

Unfortunately, this creates a never-ending cycle where the foot becomes progressively weaker and more dependent on the added support. Conventional insoles and shoe inserts work in much the same manner as supportive footwear; they provide additional cushioning, support, or bracing for the foot, contributing to a weaker structure. Which ultimately limits our ability to move as HUMAN.

Day 1….

This was an 8 hour course in the program called “Animal Flow”. Animal Flow is an innovative fitness program that combines quadrupedal and ground-based movement with elements from various bodyweight-training disciplines to create a fun, challenging workout emphasizing multi-planar, fluid movement. Taking us back to our Primal Movement days.

Primal-style workouts are one of the hottest new fitness trends—and with good reason! Exercises that use the environment to inspire “natural” movement are not only more fun than traditional strength moves, but they also challenge your entire body at once. And when you work everything from head to toe, you burn major calories.

Days 2 & 3….

These days were dedicated to the speakers and what they had offer in regards to barefoot training and why our feet are not just bricks attached to our legs.

These neurological pathways soon become the joint stability and coordination needed to sit upright, resist gravity and ultimately put one foot in front of the other.

The following exercises were taught to me by Dr. Emily Splichal, one of the smartest presenters I have seen. She teaches all of these exercises in short foot, so first let’s talk about what short foot is.

The foot is the only contact point between the body and the ground which means this complex structure is the neurological gateway between impact forces and stabilization.

Fascial sequencing exists via the Deep Front Line connecting the plantar foot with the deep hip and pelvic floor. Studies have shown that by training the foot to core sequencing you can begin to establish feet forward, pre-activation sequences to enable faster foot to core stability.

Thousands of small nerve proprioceptors on the bottom of the foot detect the vibrations of impact forces making the bare foot the gateway to understanding how hard we are striking the ground and how quickly our foot to core sequencing needs to occur

The simplest way to train the foot to core sequencing is an exercise called short foot. This exercise attempts to strengthen and activate the intrinsic muscles of the foot and leg, especially one of the most important or most influential intrinsic muscles called the abductor hallucis (a muscle of your big toe). You can do this exercise with two feet on the ground or both. Obviously it will be more of a challenge if you’re only in a single leg stance.

Originating on the plantar medial aspect of the calcaneus and inserting into the base of the proximal phalynx of the great toe, this plantar intrinsic muscle:

– abducts the hallux

– creates an inversion moment to the subtalar joint

– supports or lifts the navicular bone (Small bone on the middle inside of the foot)

– stimulates the Deep Front fascial line (Top of Big toe to neck)

– drives co-activation of the deep lateral rotators (Hips)

To perform the short foot exercise:

  • Spread your toes and firmly place them on the ground.
  • Draw the ball of your big toe toward your heel without letting it or your heel come off the ground. Make sure you’re not curling your toes, flexing them in to the floor, or trying to grip the floor with your toes though. Toes should all be flat, while you perform this drawing motion.
  • Hold isometrically for ten seconds. This will start to activate those intrinsic muscles.

Dr. Splichal encourages this exercise to be done 5-8 times per foot. This short foot exercise is not only the first activation exercise you should do while training barefoot, but it is also what you should do while completing the following exercises.

Short Foot Exercises

Single Leg Short Foot

This exercise is straightforward. Stand on one leg. Make sure you have a slight bend in your knee and hip and that you are actively squeezing your glutes. Do the short foot exercise, holding for ten seconds each leg.

Single Leg Deadlift in Short Foot

Progressing from the single leg short foot, in this exercise you will simply hinge forward at the hips (remember your knee and hips should be bent) to perform a bodyweight single leg deadlift while maintaining short foot. Aim for 5-10 reps per side, stopping if you get any foot cramping.

Single Leg Squat

Same as above, but this time you will simply perform a body weight single leg squat while maintaining short foot. Again, aiming for 5-10 reps per leg and stop for any cramping.

Simple, But Challenging

These exercises may seem simple. You may say, “I do single leg deadlifts and squats all of the time and have no problem!” But by incorporating short foot and actively engaging your glutes, you will really feel those small muscles in your foot working. This is why I warn of potential cramping. These muscles aren’t used to working so hard, so they may fatigue quickly. If this happens, grab a golf ball and do some myofascial release (roll out the bottom of your feet) for 2-3 minutes per side.

Toe-Spread Exercise

Short foot exercises are a great way to activate this muscle, but a recent 2013 study by Kim et al. questions the benefit of short foot – and actually explores the benefit of perhaps another exercise. The exercise in question is referred to as toe-spread.

In the study Kim et al. demonstrated through EMG analysis that when performing the toe spread exercise there was almost 45% greater muscle recruitment of the abductor hallucis.

So does this mean that toe spread trumps short foot when it comes to intrinsic muscle exercises? Not necessarily!

Kim et al. found that the ability to perform a toe-spread exercise was limited in those subjects with a bunion due to the altered position of the abductor hallucis tendon. It is important to note that those subjects with a bunion were able to perform short foot and achieve abductor hallucis activation.

This is important to note as many of our clients, patients and athletes may have a bunion deformity and we need to choose the most appropriate exercise to target their foot type and abductor hallucis alignment. It should be noted that in subjects with a bunion, the abductor hallucis can still function as a subtalar joint invertor and supporter of the navicular bone.

Integrating Intrinsic Strengthening

Whether you decide to have your clients and patients do short foot or toe spread, the programming should be the same. I use intrinsic strengthening as the foundation to all my patient rehab and foot strengthening programs. From plantar fasciitis to post-ankle sprain, everyone can benefit from activating their feet.

Step 1 – Activation

When activating a muscle you will want to focus on isometric contractions as these have the greatest motor unit recruitment. Begin by hold short foot or toe spread for 10 seconds. Relax. Repeat 5 – 8 times.

Step 2 – Isolated Strengthening

After waking up the abductor hallucis now you can focus on building strength and endurance in this muscle. Perform 10 – 15 repetitions per side for 3 sets. Your client or athlete may begin to feel the abductor hallucis fatigue or cramp. If this happens do not push through the cramp as it can easily become a planar fasciitis-type pain. Myofascially release the bottom of the foot before proceeding.

Step 3 – Integrated Strengthening

Finally, because our feet and core are so deeply integrated you want to begin to integrate abductor strengthening with deep lateral rotator strength. Throughout the repetitions focus on the deep hip and pelvic floor engagement. To increase the activation of the deep hip and pelvic floor I encourage my clients to do this before their foot exercises on a single leg.

During the first couple of months your body will undergo changes. This is the initial period when the muscles that support the foot are retrained to function in a more natural and healthy manner. As muscle function improves, mobility at the joints increases and the bones realign to more effectively manage increased loads.

Some individuals may experience “new” aches and pains in the muscles and joints as the body adjusts, which is a normal occurrence in most rehabilitation programs. These “new” aches and pains may appear in different locations and at different times during this adjustment period––again, this is normal. However, if these symptoms persist in any one area longer than two weeks or if they increase in intensity, they may be the result of untreated scar tissue or the inability to change BAD motor patterns, which is possibly caused by foot dysfunction related to footwear or prior injury.

As I mentioned before, this doesn’t mean you have to do everything barefoot, it simply means incorporating some strategic and deliberate barefoot exercises in your training session before you throw on your shoes, if you choose to train in shoes.