Treat your Feet to Feats of Strength!
A quick practice for “Awesome Ankles and Fabulous Feet” you can do in less than 10 minutes!
We use our feet and ankles everyday to stand, walk, run, jump, dance and balance, but when it comes to training they don’t often get the attention they deserve. I know I’ve been guilty of ignoring my ankles and feet in my mobility practice in favor of focusing on the bigger and more popular players on the team, like shoulders and hips… even though I know all the strong stuff I love to do like deadlifts and squats would be improved by better ankle dorsiflexion… and even though I know my ankle dorsiflexion is not at all what it should be. Sigh. Time to be a better student of my own body and take a look at these “body blind spots” and asymmetries with a sense of curiosity!
As I mentioned, I have known for quite some time that my ankle dorsiflexion is limited, especially on the left – a simple half kneeling test reveals that my right knee can reach 3 inches past my toes while keeping my heel down (dorsiflexion) and my left can only reach 2 inches. A good range of motion is generally considered around 4 inches, so clearly I have some work to do. I have also known for quite some time that while I can perform a single leg squat (pistol) on both legs while holding a weight as a counter balance, I usually end up on my butt if I try to perform an unweighted pistol on the left.
Now, there could be dozens of reasons why I struggle to single leg squat on the left, but if we take a “ground up” approach to troubleshooting this problem (which is almost always the way to go), it’s pretty obvious that my restricted ankle dorsiflexion is a great place to start. I knew I needed to spend some time with an “Awesome Ankles and Fabulous Feet” practice, and I wanted to get really specific about exactly where things felt limited in my left ankle and foot in a deep squat. Taking an unweighted deep squat on both feet and pausing at the bottom, my attention was immediately drawn to the top outside edge of my shin just under my left knee, and the arch on the inside of my left foot. These areas felt tight and like they were not working optimally.
A quick anatomy review showed me which muscle I would be feeling in both of those locations: the tibialis anterior. The name itself lets us know exactly where to find this muscle – on the anterior (front) part of the tibia (the larger of the two shin bones). The tibialis anterior is a large, superficial muscle that is easily identified at its origin on the lateral surface of the tibia. If you find the top of your tibia under your knee, and then move just to the outside edge (laterally) you have found your tibialis anterior. From there, the muscle moves down the front of the shin toward the medial (inside) edge of the foot where it becomes a thick, tendinous cord that inserts at the cuneiform and base of the first metatarsal (bones in the arch of your foot). The tibialis anterior is one of the muscles responsible for (you guessed it!) dorsiflexing the ankles, and inverting the foot.
(OK, my drawing skills are a bit challenged here, but if you really want to check out what this muscle looks like, just google “tibialis anterior” and you’ll find plenty of images.)
Knowing precisely where to focus my efforts, I knew the following Yoga Tune Up® sequence would be just the right thing:
Roll it out – Spend a couple of minutes rolling the bottom of each foot with a single Therapy Ball, and another couple of minutes rolling the shins using two Therapy Balls in their tote and a yoga block. Check out this video to see how to roll.
Sitting Seiza with a Strap – Take a yoga strap, wrap it around both ankles and use the strap to draw them together. Sit on top of the bound ankles in dorsiflexion for one minute (or 5 to 10 deep breaths), then switch to sitting in plantarflexion (on the tops of the feet) for one minute (or 5 to 10 deep breaths). Keep the spine in neutral and try to stack your skull, ribcage and pelvis over your ankles. If the base of your big toes press together painfully, or if you have bunions, you can place a soft towel in between the feet. If the knees feel pain in this position you could try placing a folded blanket in between your knees. If the pressure in the ankles is so much that you cannot breathe abdominal thoracic breaths, shift some of your weight forward to take some of the pressure off. Check out this video to see Sitting Seiza.
Cobbler’s Pose with Interlaced Toes – Sit in Cobbler’s Pose (also known as Bound Angle or Baddhakonasana) with the soles of the feet together. Interlace your individual toes just like you would interlace your fingers. Actively squeeze the toes into each other and breathe for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Then for some real fun, switch which toes are on top and try it again! If you have trouble sitting upright and keeping the spine in neutral, try placing a yoga block, blanket or bolster underneath the pelvis.
Staff Pose Ankle Circles and Inversion/Eversion – Sit in Staff Pose with the legs straight out in front of you, and the spine in neutral so that the head, chest and hips are joint-stacked. Keep the ankles pinned together so that they move as a singular unit (like the bottom fin of a mermaid’s tail!) and circle them 5 to 10 times to the right, and then 5 to 10 times to the left. Keep the knees straight and try to focus your movements only on the ankle joint. Next, keep the ankles pinned together in your mermaid fin, and actively dorsiflex your ankles to bring your feet up toward your knees. Alternate 5 to 10 times inverting your feet to bring the soles of the feet towards each other, and everting your feet to bring the tops of the feet toward each other. Keep the ankles dorsiflexed and the big toes pointing up to the sky. Check out this video.
Barbie Doll Foot – Sitting in Staff Pose, glue the ankles together, dorsiflex the ankles, and extend the toes back toward the knees. Then, plantar flex the ankles while keeping the toes extended toward the knees (this is the Barbie Doll Foot). Next flex the toes, bringing the foot into full plantar flexion. Finally, keep the toes flexed (curled under) as you bring the ankles back into dorsiflexion, making a “foot fist”. Extend the toes, and start over in full dorsiflexion, repeating this cycle 5 to 10 times before reversing it. Check out this video.
After trying this sequence the first time, the rolling alone gave me another half inch of dorsiflexion on each side. The exercises gave me even more so that by the time the sequence was completed I had 3.75 inches of dorsiflexion in my right ankle (from my initial 3 inches) and I had 3.25 inches of dorsiflexion in my left ankle (from the initial 2). Wow!! After a few days of practicing this sequence, I’m pleased to say my pistol on the left is much improved as well! I can actually get to the bottom position with out sitting down!
Once you know the sequence it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to complete. And your “Awesome Ankles and Fabulous Feet” may just help you perform a new feat of strength to impress your friends at your next dinner party, or set a new squat record at your next powerlifting meet, or climb Machu Picchu in record time!
Strength & Love,