Let’s do an experiment. Place both your feet flat on the ground (sitting or standing, either is fine). Now, simply pick up your toes.
What do you feel happening to the arches of your feet when you do this?
Most folks will feel the arches perk up a bit, and that’s great! That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. For this reason, many fitness instructors, physical therapists, yogis and coaches will use toe lifting cues and exercises to “strengthen the arch,” because if there’s one thing that absolutely terrifies body workers it’s flat feet.
But here’s the rub: our little toe lift exercise might give the appearance of a more arch-y arch, but it may not actually be helpful in getting the arch of the foot to do what it’s designed to do, when it’s supposed to do it.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s do another experiment. Get up and take 10 steps in a normal walking stride. While you are doing this, try to identify the moment during your gait when your toes lift like they do in the first experiment, above.
This should divide you into one of two groups. The first group will be able to identify a toe lift when they’ve finished the Swing phase of their stride. (This is the moment when you’re about to place your swinging foot back down on the floor in front of you.)
If you are a member that group, I have good news and bad news:
The bad news is, you very likely have knee pain, back pain, or both, as well as a long history of ankle sprains and maybe some plantar fasciitis. All of those things suck, and you have my sincere sympathies.
The good news is, now we know why! And it might be easier to fix than you think. To find out how, let’s look at the other group of people. These are the folks who tried the second toe experiment, looking for that toe lift during their stride. The result? They couldn’t find it.
This is because, strictly speaking, toe lift doesn’t exist for this group, at least not in the form we’ve discussed so far.
Let’s go back to our stride chart. Take a look at the period called “pre-swing,” at the beginning of the Limb Advancement phase:
What are those toes doing? Let’s see that in a real foot, shall we?
Huh. Flip that around and it kinda looks like . . .
The toe lift we described at the beginning of this article, which makes the arch more arch-y by shortening the toe extensors, isn’t designed to move your toes relative to your foot; instead, those structures are in place for the moment in stride when your foot is moving relative to your toes.
So, what does this mean? Well, for starters, it means that toe lift exercises don’t actually have anything to do with the function of your toes. It also means that, for a big chunk of the population, toe lifting may actually be contributing to instability in the foot instead of reducing it.
When your foot flexes over your toes during pre-swing, you’ll notice that all your toes get to stay connected with the floor. Your foot likes this, and so does your brain, because your toes and toe extensors are sensors designed to deliver information about speed and direction to the other joints along the kinetic chain.
When you do a traditional toe lift, the toe extensors contract, but your toes disconnect from the floor. This combination destabilizes the foot, forcing you to compensate, probably in your knee.
So, if not toe lifts, what should we be doing to exercise the arch of the foot and reduce dependence on compensations elsewhere in the body?
You need to spend more time with the skin of your foot in contact with the floor. Shoes, arch supports, orthotics, and even socks diminish your sensitivity to your environment. Of course, there’s a reason why we wear all those things: Safety, style, support. You don’t need to throw your shoes out, but start to experiment with safe, controlled environments where you can strip away the layers between your foot and the floor.
And lastly, here’s a little exercise you can do to replace toe lifts!