THERE ARE BICEPS BLASTS and core crushers, and everyone in the gym knows you never skip #legday. But what have you been up to lately for . . . Your feet?
With that question you have now been introduced to the foot fetish of the fitness world. From barefoot shoes to devices that restore movement between your toes to foot-specific workouts, your feet are increasingly the center of attention.
Trainers realize that your feet are crucial for both strength and speed gains. Strong feet play a key role in everything you do while standing, helping you every step of the way and providing a solid foundation for all exercises. Turning your feet into powerhouses requires rethinking how you train, a process that begins with five questions.
Why should I do foot workouts?
Your foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons, and building those muscles can have serious benefits. “Your feet definitely need exercise,” says biomechanics researcher and running expert Jay Dicharry, MPT, “just like any other body part.”
Except that the consequences of not taking care of your feet are worse than those of, say, skipping bicep curls. Your feet are the foundation of your body; everything builds on that. “If you can’t feel the position you’re in, your foot can collapse or slide out, and then the knee and hip follow, and then you squeeze your lower back,” says Dicharry. The goal is to learn how to push your big toe down for more stability.
Do I have to lift barefoot?
Lifting without shoes allows you to be more aware of your foot position, says Aaron Horschig, DPT, who regularly posts on his Instagram account, @squat_university, about working out barefoot. During most exercises, you want to apply pressure to the floor with your big toe, little toe, and heel, says Horschig. That is not easy to practice in a thick shoe.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to be barefoot when lifting in the gym. Powerlifters swear by the classic Chuck Taylors, in part because they lack the chunky heels of some sneakers. And shoes like the Bearfoot Ursus simulate the feeling of being barefoot, without letting the world see your dogs.
Should I run barefoot?
Not exactly. But it’s time to rethink your running shoes and your running workouts. Many traditional running shoes have extra thick soles that cushion the impact of your foot. Unfortunately, all that hassle keeps you from reaching your true speed. You generate power as you run by pushing your foot into the ground with each step, but thick-soled shoes dull some of that aura.
What’s more, they can actually do harm: Shoes with more cushioned midsoles led to greater ankle joint stiffness, according to a 2015 University of Calgary study. This may increase the risk of injury. But there’s no need to slog barefoot for ten miles. Instead, do your warmups barefoot, says running coach Jes Woods, training your feet to touch the ground with every step. Then put on your kicks for your run. You get the best of both worlds: you wake up the foot muscles during your warm-up while enjoying the protection of shoes when you go out.
Should I change shoes and “free my toes”?
Hang around fitness Instagram enough and you’ll be wondering, thanks to a new wave of “toe spacers.” If you’ve spent too much time wearing shoes, chances are your toes are compressed. And no, that’s not good. Remember that footprint your parents brought home when you were born? Your toes were then the widest part of your foot. When they are far apart, they give you a strong and stable base. “When the toes are knocked together,” says Horschig, “it decreases your ability to maintain balance and increases instability.”
That’s another reason to go barefoot, at least around the house. Or find a pair of toe spacers: Start by wearing them for at least 30 minutes a day. That can strengthen your big toe to make you faster and more athletic. “The big toe is the last part of the foot to leave the ground,” says trainer en MH contributing editor Milo Bryant, CSCS “If it’s strong and flexible, it can store more energy and make your movements more explosive.”
How does all this foot focus change my training?
Do not worry; there is still time for arm day. Just work on 1 of the following 2 exercises every day; do 3 sets of each.
- The first is toe yoga. Press your little toes into the ground and lift your big toe. Then press your big toe into the ground and lift your other toes. Do 10 reps to sharpen coordination.
- The second challenges your balance. Stand on 1 leg, barefoot, with a weight of any kind (a backpack will work) in 1 hand. Pass the weight back and forth quickly from hand to hand; doing this quickly will improve the stability of your ankle.
- Want to push things further? Add some light agility exercises twice a week. (Think jumping up and down from a short step for 30 seconds per leg.) You’re building big toes and shaping your calves, too.
Be a foot soldier with this gear
Do you want to improve your foot condition even more? This equipment can help.
These toe spacers work when you are barefoot – and can be worn comfortably during athletic activities in shoes with a wide enough toe cap.
Sand dune steppe
This step mimics the feel of sand. Jump, lift and move on it to challenge your feet (and ankles) from all angles.
Jay Dicharry developed this unstable board to synchronize your hips and core with your feet for better balance, stability and power.
Designed by deadlift legend Chris Duffin, these minimalist shoes are perfect for any powerlifting workout.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Men’s Health, titled “FEET OF STRENGTH”.
Lindsay Berra is a former MLB reporter and ESPN the Magazine writer who specializes in fitness. She is the granddaughter of the late MLB great Yogi Berra.