If Your Knees Hurt, There’s a Good Chance it’s Because You’re Doing This Weird Thing with your Toes (VIDEO)

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.

Something like this.
Something like this.

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.

"Kill it! Kill it with fire!" - Every Body Worker Ever
“Kill it! Kill it with fire!”
– Every Body Worker Ever

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 dowhen 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.

It's cool, I'll wait.
It’s cool; I’ll wait.

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.)

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 1.30.58 pm

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:

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 1.48.35 pm

"zoom and enhance!"
Zoom and enhance!”

What are those toes doing? Let’s see that in a real foot, shall we?

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 1.59.32 pm

Huh. Flip that around and it kinda looks like . . .

dun dun DUUUUNNN!
Dun dun DUUUUNNN!

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.

Think of them like little antennae for your feet.
Think of them like little antennae for your feet.

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.

It's like wearing ear muffs to a jazz concert: Yeah, you won't go deaf, but you also won't hear any music.
It’s like wearing ear muffs to a jazz concert. Yeah, you won’t go deaf, but you also won’t hear any music.

And lastly, here’s a little exercise you can do to replace toe lifts!

 

9 thoughts on “If Your Knees Hurt, There’s a Good Chance it’s Because You’re Doing This Weird Thing with your Toes (VIDEO)

  1. So – there’s nothing we can do to change the way we walk to become part of the second group? It’s just all about doing the exercises described in the video?

    1. The exercise from the video—in combination with many other potential correctives—can absolutely change the pattern of the foot during gait. Your musculoskeletal system can get good doing whatever you do with it! If you need more help with this find me on Skype at reembodyme and we can have a chat about it.

      1. Hi Kevin:

        How can I schedule a Skye and how much would you charge for this. There is so much out there about strengthening feet and I have been doing the spread and lifting the toes.

        I have so much trouble with painful, flat feet, overpronation, my big toes hurt and the big toe joint also, as I have been told I have alot of hypermobility of the MTP. One orthopedist literally wants to fuse my feet, but no other doctors agree with her. I really need help. My feet have literally taken the blunt of my walking.

        I wore motion control and then custom made orthotic inside the motion control and I have gotten myself in big trouble.

        I love your video and makes so much sense. My left knee hurts alot as my knees buckle in. Please let me know.

  2. So do I understand correctly that we should not* lift toes at end of swing phase? Think of it more like lifting the forefoot? …as I practice barefoot in the grass I wonder if I should quiet down my toe lift (it’s there!).

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