There are only 26 small bones in your feet that carry the weight of your entire body. It’s easy to take them for granted. Feet are vital to walking and running. However, you may not think to train and strengthen your feet in the same way you’d approach other body parts. Ignoring your foot muscles can lead to weakness and lack of flexibility, which may result in injuries or pains. Our experts explain why exercises to strengthen feet are crucial for overall health. They’ve provided some examples to get you started today.
You need flexible feet for shock absorption during physical activity.
“Maintaining flexibility, especially as we age, is important,” says Ken Jung, M.D., a foot and ankle surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “Flexible joints and muscles are better equipped to absorb the stresses of daily activities, especially exercise, recreational sports, or working out. The feet and ankles are no different. Supple joints allow better shock absorption with high-impact or strenuous activities.”
According to physical therapist Diana Garrett, having solid strength and control of your foot and ankle helps reduce the stress of your body weight during walking, running, and other impact activities. If your foot and ankle aren’t able to sufficiently absorb that shock, then it’s likely you’ll experience increased strain throughout your knee and/or hip.
“Our foot health is important to our entire body and health because we use feet every day and in every way,” adds personal trainer KJ Landis. “From morning until night, whether we are at leisure, work, or exercising, we engage our feet.” Landis also says that the fat pads on the bottom of your feet get thinner with age, no matter the size or shape of your body. This makes it even more important to protect and cushion your feet properly by wearing the right shoes or lining your sneakers with extra padding.
Weak feet may create ankle, knee, and hip problems down the road.
“Your feet are your first contact point with the ground. If they are weak or inflexible, your ground contact can’t be optimal. That only leads to more problems higher up the chain—especially in your ankles, knees, or hips,” says Tyler Spraul, certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Whether it’s running form or exercise technique (squats, lunges, etc.), any foot issue is going to cause you to compensate for the problem in some way, and that usually means a loss of mobility or strength in those other areas. This can lead to joint problems and low-back issues as well.”
A great way to learn proper form is with Aaptiv classes. We’ve got classes across multiple categories for every level.
A 2017 study backs this theory, noting an association between foot pain and knee or hip pain. Pilates instructor Lesley Logan says this is why she’s so passionate about foot health and strength. “So many people hyperextend their knees and rest their bodyweight on the outside of their feet. All of this causes them to sink into their lower back. If we keep our feet healthy, we are less likely to endure injury, knee issues, and back issues.”
Chiropractor Dr. Jordan Myers adds, “To effectively improve the range of motion and health of your feet, you need to perform stretches that not only stretch the foot but also the ankle, Achilles, calf, shin, hamstrings, and glutes. They are all connected, and poor range of motion in one area can have a significant effect on the others.”
Specific exercises support stability, promote flexibility, and improve range of motion.
On a similar note, Dr. Myers says issues such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, ankle sprains, and foot fractures don’t magically appear overnight. They’re usually tied to some sort of weakness, muscle imbalance, or poor range of motion in a foot or ankle. Personal trainer Monica Lam-Feist states that plantar heel pain is one of the most common foot complaints. Certain stretches—such as this one noted in a 2006 study—can help reduce pain.
Plantar Heel Stretch
For plantar heel pain, here’s one stretch you can do anywhere, says Lam-Feist. Place one foot over the opposite thigh, and grab your toes with one hand. Then, slowly bend your toes back toward your shin. You should feel the stretch along the bottom of your foot and heel. Hold for ten seconds while gently massaging the arch of your foot with the other hand and then repeat on the other side, working up to ten times on each side.
Or, try a calf stretch from Dr. Jung, with a similar option echoed by Lam-Feist. Face a wall or supportive surface, and put your feet hip-width apart. Take about one step back with the leg that needs stretching. Turn your back foot approximately 45 degrees, so your toes are pointing toward the front heel. Keep your back heel on the ground and your knee locked. Bend your front knee forward, and hold for 30 seconds with steady pressure and a stretch in the back calf.
Achilles tendon stretch
“The Achilles tendon goes from your calf all the way down to your heel,” Lam-Feist says. “By stretching your Achilles, you are keeping it flexible, and you can prevent leg, ankle, and foot pain. Facing a wall, have your hands outstretched, and place your palms on the wall. Step one foot behind the other, keeping your knees straight. Then, keeping your feet flat on the floor, lean forward into your hips. You’ll start to feel your Achilles tendon stretching. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat twice on each side.”
Another thing you can do? Focus on your foot intrinsics, which are the muscles that help provide stability to your foot. Garrett says these can get tight if you wear snug shoes or high heels, or you “grip the ground” to maintain balance. She recommends stretching your toes for a few minutes at the end of every day.
Your toes aren’t the only thing you should be stretching every day. Focus on keeping your full body loose and limber with Aaptiv stretch classes.
If you’re not entirely sure how to stretch your toes, Alice Holland, D.P.T., of Stride Strong Physical Therapy, suggests toe flutters. “Splay your toes and feet out on the floor while sitting,” she says. “While keeping toes two to five down, pick up your big toe. Hold for one second. Then switch—your big toe stays down, and you raise toes two to five. Repeat 20 times. It takes some coordination at first, but this strengthens the muscles and control of the foot muscles.”
Want more? Here are seven additional exercises to strengthen feet.
For those who want to stretch their feet even more, explore foot-specific exercises such as the ones below. You can add one a day to your usual workout routine or combine a few into a short series to strengthen feet and promote foot health.
Gentle Foot and Ankle Stretch
- “Start out on your hands and knees, then put your big toe and the front of one foot on the ground behind you, so you’re on hands and one foot. From there, rock back and try to reach your heel to the ground. Once you reach the end range there, push forward with your toe until your ankle is fully extended. Repeat for five to eight reps on each side for a solid foot and ankle stretch to get your feet firing ahead of a workout.” —Spraul
Foot “Doming” Stretch
- “This exercise is very subtle but very hard for people who live in shoes (almost all of us). Keeping your feet on the ground, lift your middle arch up without twisting your ankle or scrunching your toes. Imagine it like doing an abdominal crunch for the foot, but the abdominals are the center of [the] sole of your foot. The height raised need not be high—just a movement will suffice.” —Dr. Holland
Towel Grab Exercise
- “Sitting in a chair on the floor (hardwood or tile floor), place a dish towel on the floor. Put your heels on the floor and toes on the beginning edge of the towel. With both feet, simultaneously ‘grab’ the towel with your toes and ‘pull’ the towel toward your heels. Do not lift your heels. Flare your toes, and grab the towel again to pull with your toes. Continue to grab and pull until the dish towel is rolled up under your feet. Then, using your toes, unroll the towel.” —Logan
Seated Point and Flex
- “When seated, stretch your feet by lying down and putting your feet in the air. Point and flex slowly, about ten times, and hold the point and flex as long as you can. This works the arch and top of the foot.” —Landis
Standing Toe Circuit
- “Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then pull your toes up so you’re standing on the balls and heels of your feet. Touch big toe to the ground, then back up to start. Touch your other four toes to the ground while keeping your big toe up. Touch each toe down to the ground, one at a time, in a series. Squeeze the ground with all toes for a three-second hold, then release. Perform each of these three to five times.” —Spraul
Foot Flexibility Stretch
- “This is what ballet dancers do a lot to get more flexibility. Grab your forefoot with one hand and your ankle area with the other hand. Twist your foot like you’re wringing a towel. Only go so far as you feel a stretch, no pain! Twist the other way. Some pops might happen in the joints, and so long as this is not painful, you should be OK.” —Dr. Holland
Standing Heel Lifts
- “Standing with your heels together and your toes slightly apart, press all ten toes into the floor to lift your heels. Stop before you separate your heels, lock into your ankles, or roll off any of your toes. Squeeze your heels and lower them to the floor. Notice if any of your toes lifted or if your weight shifted when you lowered your heels. Repeat going up and down without ‘falling.’ You should not feel this lock up in your calves but instead feed up into your inner thighs and seat. The muscles of your feet should be able to maintain even balance across your toe box and work the arch of your feet.” —Logan
Now that you know how to strengthen your feet, work on strengthening muscles throughout your body with Aaptiv strength training workouts.