Strong & Supple Feet: How To Build Your Foundation For Balanced Posture
For many people, postural imbalance begins in the feet. Some muscles and tendons of the feet are weak and over-stretched, while other areas are locked short, tight and stiff.
Since feet provide the foundation for standing, walking and running, any imbalances in them can affect how the skeleton stacks and moves atop them. This impacts everything from our gait to the knees and hips, as well as the low back and even the shoulders.
Foot Structure, Simplified
The feet are complex in structure, with 26 bones and 33 joints in each foot. To simplify this complexity, we’ll break each foot down into three regions: the hindfoot, the midfoot and the forefoot.
Loosely, the hindfoot is the area of the heel, the midfoot is the arch/instep region, and the forefoot is the ball of the foot and the toes.
For the foot to be balanced and stable, the hindfoot and forefoot need to be anchored down, specifically at four points: the inner and outer edges of the ball of the foot, and the inner and outer edges of the the heel. A common imbalance is bearing weight on the outer edges of the feet, leaving the inner edges less anchored. (Take a look at the wear on your shoe tread to figure out what your habit may be.)
Distributed across the sole of each foot are three arches made of soft tissue. Across the front, roughly at the back edge of the ball of the foot, is the transverse arch. From the inner ball of the foot to the front edge of the heel is the medial arch. Along the outer edge of the sole of the foot, again from ball to heel, runs the lateral arch.
These arches form a roughly triangular shape that domes up in the center and provides the springiness necessary to propel us in walking, running and jumping. Those with weak and tight lower legs and feet may find this area collapses down and lacks the support needed for everyday use.
Three Ways To Stretch Your Feet
Tightness in the soles of the feet can contribute to dropped arches, but can also pull on the back line of the legs, all the way up to the low back and along the spine.
This “posterior chain” is simply a line of connective tissue and muscles anchored at the undersides of the heel bones at one end, and wrapping around the top of the skull at the other.
While it’s a catch phrase right now, mostly because of the need to strengthen it (and I highly recommend you do to build stable hips and support for your spine), the posterior chain also benefits from stretching.
For the feet, opening up the space between the toes and stretching their undersides can alleviate pull on the back body.
From hands and knees
- curl your toes under so they’re on toe pads, not toenails
- start to lean your hips back to sit on your heels
- if the intensity is too much, keep your hands in front of your knees on the ground for support (hands in the lap will be a much stronger stretch)
- if your hips hover above your heels, consider placing a blanket between them and your bum
If this is too much weight on your feet, or your knees can’t bend this deeply, start on hands and knees, then:
- step one foot back to a straight leg, foot on the floor, for One-Legged Plank pose
- walk your toes forward a little so you can strongly flex your ankle (as pictured in the foot in the foreground below)
- push through your heel until you feel your calf muscle stretch
- repeat on the other side
Lastly, you can stretch the entire posterior chain from either a seated or standing posture. Try it seated…
Take a seat on the floor:
- stretch one or both legs straight
- flex at your hips, so your spine tips forward over your legs
- grab onto your foot (or loop a yoga belt or towel over it if you can’t reach)
- push your heel into the ground and micro-bend your knee
- try to keep the sole of your foot perpendicular to the line of your leg, as if all four corners of your foot could evenly press against a wall
- hold for about a minute before releasing
Strengthening Your Feet
Foot strength has much to do with activating the arches. While working with the toes goes a long way towards waking up the feet, there is also a connection to the lower leg, specifically at the outer ankle and shin.
For overall activation of all three arches and the outer ankles:
- stand in Mountain pose
- lift and spread all ten toes, holding for about 30 seconds
- notice how your ankles engage and the arches of you feet lift up when you do
- see if you can keep that muscular action as you stretch your toes back out and down
To strengthen the inner arches of your feet:
- stand in a forward fold with your feet hip width apart
- make a tiny, soft bend in your knees
- use your fingers to press your big toes down, then lift and spread the other eight toes
- focus on really spreading your little toes
- see if you can let go with your hands and do the work in your feet alone
- notice what is working along the inner edges of the soles of your feet
To strengthen the outer arches of your feet:
- repeat as above, but press your little toes down and lift the big toes and the middle three toes on each foot
- notice what is working in the soles of your outer feet
- then release your toes and relax
To strengthen the transverse arch, which runs across the back side of the ball of the foot:
- stand in a forward fold with your feet hip width apart
- make a soft micro-bend in your knees
- use your fingers to press your big toes and your little toes down at the same time
- then lift and spread the other six toes
- see if you can let go with your hands but keep the feet the same
- notice the engagement across the underside of the ball of your foot
Start to incorporate these stretches and strength practices into your yoga. Maybe the rest of you body will begin to feel more supported and relaxed, from the ground up. If you feel like it, drop me a note and let me know how it’s going!