Waking up and actively working on intrinsic foot strengthening is the first step to solving foot/ankle pain and flat feet. Step two integrates the active arch into daily life.
In this article, we’re going to talk about a muscle group and an area of the body that doesn’t get nearly enough love.
That’s the feet and the intrinsic foot muscles (the muscles on the bottom of your feet.)
There are four layers of intrinsic foot muscles, so there’s a lot of little muscles that perform various functions.
We don’t often train them. What’s worse, we stick our feet in shoes all day, and because of the cushioning and the arch support, these muscles go to sleep. They get weak, and then they don’t perform the functions that they’re designed to do.
If you want to follow along with a video, check out 6 Intrinsic Foot Muscle Strengthening Exercises (Fix Pain & Flat Feet) on YouTube.
Intrinsic Foot Muscles – What Do They Do?
The intrinsic foot muscles create something that I call the active arch.
You’ve heard of the foot arch, usually in commercials for shoes with arch support. Your foot muscles can actively get into that position.
On the bottom of the foot, there are three main arches. There’s the one that we all think of, which is the one in the middle of the foot. It’s called the medial longitudinal arch.
There’s one on the lateral foot (the outer edge) that’s similar. It’s the lateral longitudinal arch.
Then there is one more underneath the metatarsals. The metatarsals are right underneath each of the toes where the ball of the foot is. It spans across all five toes. That area is the transverse arch.
All three of these are supported by and can be created by the intrinsic foot muscles.
That’s what we’re going to learn how to do today.
Problems Stemming From Foot Muscle Atrophy
Now, there are a number of problems that can come from intrinsic foot muscle weakness or atrophy.
- Plantar fasciitis
- Achilles tendonitis
- Calf strains
- Shin splints
- Tibialis posterior tendonitis
- Anterior knee pain
- Quad tendonitis
- Patellar tendonitis
- Chondromalacia patella
Those are just some of the common ones.
Even into the knee, there’s a lot of problems where the root cause can be at the foot because every single time we step, run, skate, jump, if our feet are not functioning well, they’re not supporting and absorbing forces. Those forces have to go up, and the knee is the next in line to absorb those forces.
There’s a lot of issues that can stem from the feet. Whenever I deal with knee problems and I see a knee problem, I always look at the feet first and recommend intrinsic foot strengthening to improve what’s going on down there.
Benefits of Good Intrinsic Foot Muscle Function
Some other benefits of good intrinsic foot muscle function is balance.
So single leg balance. If your feet are flat and the muscles are dead, we don’t get the proprioception, that information, from the muscles that sell us what we should do to achieve whatever it is we want to do. Whether that’s balance or adjusting our movement when running, or even adapting to terrain if you’re on a hike.
Weak feet make you lose that proprioceptive function from the muscles.
The other really important thing, especially for athletes, is movement efficiency. If we don’t have this active arch, we don’t take advantage of the elastic spring from the foot. If we’re not taking advantage of that, then we have to create the energy actively through muscular contraction.
When we have good active arches and good intrinsic muscle function, we get that elastic energy, which is essentially free energy. That helps us move and it helps us conserve energy. So our conditioning in our fitness and our recovery in between repeated bouts of exercise and play is better.
Those are a lot of benefits that come from good intrinsic foot muscle function.
You might have seen some flat feet exercises before, like towel curls, calf raises, dorsiflexion, and foot stretches. These are all targeted towards the feet when people present with foot problems, like plantar fasciitis.
But there are a few things missing.
One is good activation of the foot muscles. We’re going to go through that with the Short and Skinny Foot Exercise. Two (this is a big one) is the functional integration of intrinsic foot muscle function into movement patterns that we use in everyday life. That practice will transfer to the gym and into sports.
We’re going to go through functional integration since it’s such a big missing piece.
Intrinsic Foot Strengthening Exercises
We always start off with addressing tissue quality. That includes tissue pliability — dealing with scar tissue, adhesions, immobile fascia, and unpliable fascia. We like to do that with active self-myofascial release.
Then we’ll move on to strengthening and lengthening muscles and tissue before finishing with movement pattern integration.
Exercise 1: Active Self-Myofascial Release – Plantar Fascia
For the plantar fascia, you’ll need a massage ball or a lacrosse ball. It’s very simple.
- Start off with the ball underneath the toes and metatarsals.
- Curl your toes around the ball and apply some pressure
- Roll the ball towards the heel as you extend and stretch the toes
Do 1 – 2 minutes per side.
As you’re extending the toes, you’re stretching the plantar fascia. You’re stretching muscles on the bottom of the foot and that’s going to better help to release any of the tissue quality issues that may be there.
Just go around making sure you’re doing all the different areas of the foot. You can go systematically, but you don’t have to.
The more pressure you can apply without causing any sharp or sudden pains, any tingling, or anything weird, the better.
The active component there of extending the toes also helps to begin incorporating muscle activation and strengthening. We’re killing two birds with one stone. It’s efficient, and it’ll get the job done well.
Exercise 2: Foot Joint Mobilization Technique
Next up, we’re going to improve tissue quality through mobilizing the joints.
For this technique, there are a few different elements to it. One is the toes. You want to lengthen the toes. Really stretch and spread them out. Wiggle them around and make sure they can move. Spend a little bit of time there, maybe 10 or 20 seconds on each area.
Next, is the metatarsals. Again, those are the bones right underneath each toe. You want to wiggle in between each one.
So if I’m going to mobilize between the big toe and the next toe, I’m going to grab the big toe metatarsal in one hand and the four other metatarsals in the other and then just wiggle back and forth (like playing piano keys). I do that a few times, maybe 5 – 10 times.
Go down the line. Get those little piggies moving. Get them to the market so they can avoid the slaughter.
So you wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. Actually, if they’re going to the market, they’re going to get slaughtered. Don’t go to the market piggies!
Alright, so wiggle those out. Mobilize the metatarsals.
The next part is something I call foot wringing.
You grab the forefoot around the metatarsals, and the midfoot, right around the middle of the arch.
Just wring it out like a towel. So wring it out and mobilize the joints there again.
Everything you’re doing a few times, 5 – 10 times over 10 – 20 seconds.
Finally, we’re going to mobilize the heel. Also known as the calcaneus.
Grab the midfoot and the heel. Then just rock it back and forth. Move it around. Glide it around.
Now, if you’re really stiff, go to a good strong physio to deal with your feet and mobilize all these joints. You know, a couple of sessions would be good, and the important thing is to follow up each mobilization session with the PT, with the following activation exerises.
Exercise 3: The Short & Skinny Foot
Now that everything is mobile, the plantar fascia, all the joints in the foot, we can start to activate. We can better activate those muscles and build that foot arch strength.
The way that we do that is with the Short and Skinny Foot exercise. This is an exercise I’ve shown in numerous places.
There are two components. One is you make the foot short.
You make the foot short by planting the heel and then pulling the metatarsals toward the heel, using your foot muscles. For this, do not curl the toes.
As you’re pulling the metatarsals towards the heel, you can see that arch being created, and you can see the foot get a little bit shorter.
The key thing is not to flex the toes. Do not use the toes at all. Pull the metatarsals to get the deep intrinsic foot muscles working since those are often the sleepy ones.
If you use the toes instead of the metatarsals or curl the toes, you’re going to get the superficial intrinsic muscles working. Typically, they’re already strong. They’re not the ones that have gone to sleep.
Remember I said there are four layers of muscles down there? Think of metatarsals pulling them towards the heel.
The other element is making the foot skinny.
You’ll spread out your toes. Do it actively if you can. If not, then practice by pulling them apart and your brain will start to remember how to control the muscles that do it.
In the meantime, when you do this exercise just spread the toes out a little. Then you’re going to make the foot skinny across the transverse arch. Remember that’s the arch created by your metatarsals.
Again, don’t flex the toes.
Do one 1 – 2 sets of 5 reps with 5 – 10 second holds.
Once you get that active arch going, you’re achieved basic activation.
That being said, it takes time. If your feet are really dead it might feel like you’re not doing anything at all. That’s totally normal. It takes time to wake those muscles up. Just keep practicing.
Doing one foot at a time helps. Look at your foot and think “activate.”
Seeing the anatomy pictures and diagrams of the muscles can help you better visualize what’s happening. When you visualize it happening it helps your body to actually make it so.
Focus on it. Don’t let your mind get distracted because you’re building that mind to muscle connection.
That’s the short and skinny foot. From there, we’re going to start to integrate this intrinsic foot muscle function into movement patterns that we need in everyday life and sport.
Exercise 4: Active Arch Exploration
The first way I like to do that is with something that I call Active Arch Exploration. For this, you can fire up that active arch. So do the short and skinny foot once it’s on then we’re going to add some weight and put more weight over top of that foot and it’s exploration.
- Plant one foot
- Engage the short & skinny foot
- Put your weight on that foot (you can touch the other to the ground for balance as you apply pressure at different angles)
- Move around getting different angles on the ankle as you keep weight on the foot
We’re going to do this for 1 minute. What I want you to do is make sure that your arch stays active the whole time as you move around.
You can move around just a little bit. Do some little lunges or squats. Test out ankle dorsiflexion, driving the knee forward. Test out pushing back. Try different movements, doing stuff on one foot.
The more you move around, the harder it’s going to get. Do 1 minute. We’re trying to build some endurance.
When you start off, you might fatigue after 20 or 30 seconds. Start there and then build up to a minute. Do 2 – 3 sets. That’s going to help you start to feel okay as different pressure goes on different movements – starting to bend the knees, starting to bend the hips. You’re going to feel what it’s like to keep those intrinsic foot muscles on.
So that’s Active Arch Exploration. That’s how we could start to get into those movement patterns, which are basically the fundamental movement patterns.
Exercise 5: Fundamental Movement Patterns
There’s tons of variations on the fundamental movement patterns – the lunge, the hinge, the squat, or any type of Romanian deadlift (RDL) type pattern. You could do any variation that you want, but I’ll show you a few.
The Split Squat
There’s the split squat, where you’re stationary, and you’ve got the active arch on your front foot via the short and skinny foot.
- Anchor the front foot
- Engage the active arch
- Plant the metatarsals behind you
- Lower your back knee toward the ground, keeping your feet in place
- Raise back up, keep good spinal posture the whole time
Do 2 – 3 sets of 8 – 12 reps.
Start off doing everything with just body weight. That lets you work through that range of motion. Then you can load it up.
There’s that one, and then there’s the reverse lunge.
The Reverse Lunge
I like the reverse lunge because it incorporates one leg balance. It also has you quickly activate that active arch so when you’re stepping, you can alternate.
- Stand straight and tall
- Create an active arch on the foot that will remain planted
- Step back with your other foot while lowering your knee to the ground
- Step back into place
- Switch feet
Do 2 – 3 sets of 8 – 12 reps.
We’re starting to get that speed of activation, which is important.
Think of running. You’re not going to be able to think about doing the short and skinny foot for each step of the run or activate both arches all the time, it’s one and then the other. This just helps to transfer so that you can increase the speed of activation of those muscles because that’s another component of fitness and of training that we need to be aware of.
So that’s the reverse lunge. There’s one more that I really like. It’s the reverse lunge and twist.
The Reverse Lunge and Twist
So this one, because you’re twisting back, it’s going to want to drive your knee out to the side. Keeping that active arch helps train that rotational stability through the lower limb. So now keep planted down as you do the lunge and twist.
- Set up for a reverse lunge, except hold your arms in front of you, palms together
- Twist your body, following your palms over your front knee as you do a reverse lunge
- Bring your arms back to center as you stand up
Do 2 – 3 sets of 8 – 12 reps.
One thing when you get into these different movements and different planes of motion is you want to maintain even pressure through the bottom of the foot – through the metatarsals, through the heels, medial and lateral.
You’re not rolling over on one side or the other and you’re not having all your pressure on the heels or the toes. You want to have even pressure through that active arch because when you do that, you can go in any direction easily. Whereas if you’re rolled over, let’s say all of your weight is on the outside of your foot, you can potentially roll your ankle. You’re starting at a mechanical disadvantage and you’re in a vulnerable position.
Keep the weight centered. That allows you to go in any which way that you want or you need to go.
Simple hinges. if you don’t know how to hinge, that’s something that you should learn.
- Neutral spine
- Flex at the hips
- Bend forward, neutral spine
- Knees should bend a little
Do 2 – 3 sets of 8 – 12 reps.
Keep your anterior pelvic tilt, as Dr. B calls it. I call it the hip pocket. Maintaining the active arch.
One thing you’ll find here is especially if you’ve done this in the gym a lot, is you want to put all your weight to your heels and you lose it because your metatarsals essentially come up off the ground. You unweight them essentially.
Keep your weight even and go a little slower to maintain even pressure between heel and metatarsals. That’s how you’re going to train and integrate that active arch into a deadlift type pattern.
Finally, the squat.
- Feet shoulder width apart
- Keep your arms stretched out front for balance
- Drop your hips behind you, slowly under control
- Keep neutral spine
- Straighten up
Squats are the other fundamental movement pattern with that active arch. Keeping it on, getting down. This is another one where people tend to shift weight towards the heels. It’s a little bit different than what they’re used to.
Go slower. Then you can re-pattern this and just have a new pattern available to you.
Again, all of these exercises you can load them up with weights, but start with just body weight. Do 2 – 3 sets of 8 – 12 reps.
When trying to integrate new movement patterns, keep the exercises bodyweight only for 2 – 4 weeks before you think about loading. If you’ve got good form and you can maintain the active arch throughout your sets and reps, then start to add load.
There’s no rush here. You want to build good patterns because if we add load quickly, before we have built endurance, before we have built the ability to hold that active arch for a full set, then you’re just going to regress into your old, habitual movement patterns. You’re not going to be able to integrate that fully.
In case I haven’t said it enough, go slow. Ramp it up. Train yourself for where you are with that specific target. Then slowly progress from there.
You are not going to see that progress if you’re squatting 300 pounds and you’ve got no foot function. You’re not going to start squatting 300 pounds and expect that active arch to be maintained throughout that full set. So start slow, ramp up from there. There’s lots of time.
So those are the fundamental movement patterns.
Exercise 6: Active Arch X
There’s one more that I really like. That’s what I call the Active Arch X.
For this technique, you’ve got that active arch here, so the short and skinny foot. Then we basically just reach the foot out in an X pattern, trying to reach as far as you can.
- Balance on one foot
- Reach your foot forward and out, then return to center
- Reach your foot forward and across, then return to center
- Reach your foot behind and out, then return to center
- Reach your foot behind and across, then return to center
An X is one cycle on that side. Do 2 – 3 cycles per side for 2 – 3 sets.
Pay attention to the angle of your shin.
Maintain even left to right pressure and heel to toe pressure on the foot.
The farther you go, the more challenging it’s going to be to maintain that active arch.
How Much & How Often Should I Do the Exercises?
When you’re trying to activate something, do it every day. You can do it multiple times a day. So active self-myofascial release for joint mobilization and the short and skinny foot.
The more you do it and the more often you do it, the faster you’re going to get it once you’ve got the activation down.
You’ve got some basic endurance, then you can start to work on that intrinsic foot strengthening and when you’re building strength, you don’t do it every day. Do it 2 – 3 days a week if you’re doing multiple sets. That’s going to be more than enough load and volume to get a strength response, which requires recovery.
If you’re not spending the time recovering, you go into what’s called overtraining where you aren’t giving yourself a chance to rebuild. Whenever you work out, you break stuff down. Then when you sleep and you eat, you’re recovering and your strength goes up. Keep following that pattern.
So 2 – 3 times a week should be good and you will build that strength with an active arch which is going to give you that stable lower limb. Now it’s very functional. It gives you balance, good movement efficiency, and that’s going to help to keep you moving freely and without pain for the rest of your life and help you to do the things that you love to do. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we love to do.
That’s what I got for you today. Hopefully you enjoyed it, found it beneficial, and put it to work. We also have some more article that may help address specific pains:
- Strained Achilles Tendon
- Proper Healing of Plantar Fasciitis
- Do’s & Don’ts of Shin Splint Stretches
- Pes Planus & Orthotics
Check out the Lower Limb Control course because that walks you through this kind of thinking and these kinds of exercises in a more step-by-step fashion that’s easy to follow and implement.
Keep moving. Peace.
Being a cyclist I’ve always had strong legs so I was amazed after going through the program how strong my legs are now from my feet to my glutes. And my feet feel very grounded when I stand. The pain in my left knee is basically gone. The pain is greatly reduced and I can do most of the activities that I want to do.” – Kim
Being a cyclist I’ve always had strong legs so I was amazed after going through the program how strong my legs are now from my feet to my glutes. And my feet feel very grounded when I stand. The pain in my left knee is basically gone. The pain is greatly reduced and I can do most of the activities that I want to do.”