Saturday, May 16, 2009

How fit are your feet?

I think I know why I've been breaking new ground in my lifting lately. It's because I've been working very hard on my feet.

(Organic, sustainable crack in my coconut water is another possibility, of course, but I really don't think it's that.)

I admit, the connection is non-obvious. I mean, when I deadlift it's not like I'm picking up the barbell with my feet, right? That would be interesting and weirdly impressive, and there's probably a clip on Youtube of some CrossFitter doing exactly that, probably with a ring handstand or some such thing thrown in. But it has nothing to do with anything I'm likely ever to attempt in this lifetime. Okay, this decade. As the song goes, never say never. At any rate, it has nothing to do with what I was doing at the gym yesterday, which was just your basic deadlift.

Let's take a second to review exactly what's happening when you deadlift. It's a hip extension, meaning that the muscles that are--or should be--doing most of the work are your glutes, which functionally are responsible for extending the hips so you can do fun things like pick heavy stuff (laundry, kids, Dino the 22-lb monster kitty) up from the floor without throwing your back out. Other muscles do come into play, of course, but they're meant to play a secondary role. The back extensors, for instance, are involved, but only as stabilizers for the spine. That, at least, is how it's supposed to work. In practice, one of the classic things that goes wrong with a deadlift is that people try to do the lift with their spinal erectors, which invariably leads to injury if what they're deadlifting is heavier than what those teeny-tiny stabilizing muscles can handle, which it probably is. If you want to lift serious weight without hurting yourself, you need to be using your glutes, which are the largest muscles in the body and the ones capable of generating the most power.

At this point you're probably saying, okay, fine, but what in the name of Goddess does any of this have to do with my feet? If I want to lift more weight wouldn't it make more sense to be working on my booty instead?

The answer to that question is a resounding "maybe." It all depends on why your glutes aren't engaging properly when you lift. Remember a couple days ago when I was rambling on about pistol squats? There's a phrase I used, "kinetic chain," that's basically a shorthand way of conveying the idea that our voluntary muscles--the ones responsible for movement and stabilization as well--are interconnected and work together. Consequently a dysfunction in any one muscle inevitably will have repercussions throughout the body.

Say you've got collapsed arches and flat feet. Weak muscles on the underside of the feet are going to destabilize your ankles and cause them to cave inward. Over time this will cause the muscles on the outside of the calves--the peroneals-- to become short and tight, and the muscles on the inside of the calves--the medial gastrocnemius--to become lengthened and weak. This puts you at risk for ankle strains and sprains, and if--when--you sustain such an injury the problem will become worse You may also experience inflammation of the ligaments and tendons in the ankle joint, as tends to happen when a joint is destabilized by weakness in the surrounding muscles.

And that's only the beginning. Above the peroneals and medial gastroc you have the knee joint, which is likely to be pulled inward if the peroneals are too short and the medial gastroc is too long. This in turn is likely to bring about a tightening-up of the muscles responsible for leg adduction and internal rotation of the femur ... and that brings us to the hips. At last! Betcha thought I'd never get there!

As you may recall from my previous post, the muscle that's primarily responsible for inward rotation of the femur is the tensor fascia lata (TFL), which sounds like a foo-foo blended coffee beverage but in fact is a muscle that sits on the side of the hips, in close proximity to the glutes. Therefore when the TFL is short, tight and overactive, the glutes tend to become lengthened, weak, and underactive.

Now, I don't want to oversimplify (yeah, right) and make it sound as though all glute problems originate with the feet, because that would be a lie. Sometimes it works the other way around. You might do something to your back that causes the muscles in the lumbar spine to tighten up, which again would result in weakening of the glutes and other muscles in the vicinity. Assuming your back issues don't cause you to give up on exercise altogether, the next thing to go wrong will likely be your knees, followed by your ankles and feet. You might find yourself experiencing lots of headaches as well, but that's a topic for another post. (Yes, that's a threat.)

Anyway, it doesn't really matter all that much where your problems originate. The real take-away message here is that all your muscle imbalances, even the most obscure and seemingly unrelated, need to be addressed if you want to perform optimally during exercise. It's not enough just to roll out and stretch your TFL and inner thighs. You have to address your weak links from the ground up.

So much for theory. Now we get to the practical part of the post, and I hope you're still with me. First thing I want you to do is take off your shoes if you're wearing them, and spread out your toes. Now press down hard with your big toe. You should feel your arches pull up and engage. Do this early and often, until it becomes automatic. Especially do it during resistance training. If your shoes interfere with your ability to press down and pull up--and they may if they're padded and cushy like most running shoes--get new shoes to wear when you lift. Better yet, lift barefoot if your gym allows it.

I already mentioned the towel-scrunching exercise in my previous post, so I won't describe it again. You can also practice picking towels up with your feet. Pens, pencils and cat toys also work. This might even be a valid use for that cute purple thing that came with your FIRM "kettlebell" workout :) (Sorry, FIRM fans!)

My personal favorite arch-strengthening exercise requires a Theraband. Sit on the floor, back straight and stomach muscles engaged (actually you can slouch and the exercise'll still work, but I'm a trainer and I'm not supposed to say that), and legs stretched out in front of you. Again, you'll want to be barefoot. Wrap the band around the ball of the foot and hold the ends in your hands, choking up on the band just enough to give you some resistance as you go into plantarflexion, which is trainerspeak for pointing your feet. Go slowly and deliberately, first pressing the ball of the foot away while keeping the toes flexed, then pointing the toes. Reverse the motion, flexing the toes and then the feet, to return to your starting position. Do this about 10 times on each foot, and you'll soon find it much easier to activate the muscles on the undersides of your feet so your arches stay pulled up during exercise. You'll see a wonderful difference in the stability of your ankles on single leg exercises, and you'll likely find you can use more weight when you squat and deadlift.

And, of course, it'll help with your pointe work, if that's a concern. That was actually my motivation when I added these exercises to my morning routine, but needless to say I'm thrilled about the other benefits I'm seeing. I've been doing gluteal-activation exercises for years but it's not enough just to fix the obvious weak links in one's kinetic chain. For optimal performance they all need to be addressed.

If you think weak feet may be holding you back, give some of these exercises a try and let me know how it goes.