Strengthening These Three “Forgotten” Muscle Groups Could Dramatically Improve Your Health

A solid workout should challenge all our muscles, both big and small.

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The average human has about 600 muscles, and we definitely play favorites with them. Many people aspire to have a sculpted rump or chiseled abs, but who among us wants the world’s most pliable wrists or nimble toes? It turns out we should all be striving for this.

Sometimes it’s the most mundane, least obvious, and unsexy muscles that do the most important work. These less apparent muscles help us stay upright and balanced. Thus, a solid workout should challenge all our muscles, both big and small, to maximize strength and mobility. Here are a few forgotten regions that could use some love — and how to strengthen them.

Strengthen your ankles

While our lower body contains some of the largest, strongest muscles, the small muscles can make a huge difference.

“It is dramatic, what the effect of small muscles can do,” Benno Nigg, professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, tells Inverse.

Your ankle is a joint connecting your lower leg to your foot with a network of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, nerves, and blood vessels. When the muscles traversing the ankle aren’t strong enough, other muscles and tendons start to overcompensate. Nigg says the Achilles tendon is most likely to take on more than it can handle, which can lead to injury. To keep these crisscrossing tendons and muscles strong, he recommends balancing on one leg on a soft, uneven surface or on a wobble board.

The ankle could also be the key to fixing pain in other places. “If you have knee pain, it may well be a good idea to strengthen the small muscles around the ankle joint,” he says. That can help realign the force moving through the hip and knee.

Pay attention to your toes

Surprisingly, our toes are crucial to help us function. Weak muscles in the toes could lead to tripping, abnormal gait, unsteadiness, and increased falls, Samantha Landau, a podiatrist at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, tells Inverse.

“Our big toe can function differently or separately [from] our lesser toes, which often function as a unit,” Ryan Minara, podiatrist and Assistant Professor of Orthopedics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York tells Inverse.

The big toe, also known as the hallux, is important for pushing off from a walk, run, or jump. The first joint called the metatarsal-phalangeal joint (where the big toe hits the foot), is “extremely important” to help move the big toe down. He says that the body developed two egg-shaped bones called sesamoids that slide forward and stabilize the area when we push off. Dancers, sprinters, and linemen are especially prone to injury here.

Minara recommends what he calls the alphabet exercise. “Pretend your big toe is the tip of a pen, and trace the letters of the alphabet in the air,” he writes. He emphasizes that you should use your foot and ankle, rather than your whole leg, to put the foot through its entire range of motion.

Don’t ignore your pelvic floor

Last but not least, our pelvic floor muscles ought to receive attention every day. The pelvic floor, according to Chicago-based physical therapist Sarah Haag, “is almost like a trampoline.” It’s the set of muscles that go from the pubic bone to the tailbone. They’re made up of the coccygeus muscle, which would be our “tail-wagging” muscle if we still had tails, and the levator ani, which comprises the puborectalis — crucial for bowel function — the pubococcygeus, and the iliococcygeus.

This internal trampoline is crucial to posture, core strength, stability when walking or standing on one leg, and also bowel, bladder, and sexual function. For instance, if you stop peeing midstream, that’s a pelvic floor contraction. While everyone, regardless of anatomy, has the same pelvic floor muscles, they have different effects on different bodies. In people with vaginas, if the pelvic floor muscles are too tight, then sexual penetration will be difficult. For those with penises, Haag says, there’s mounting evidence that practicing pelvic floor exercises, also known as Kegels, can help with erectile dysfunction. Kegels help to strengthen the pelvic floor in people with vaginas, too. In either case, an orgasm is one mighty pelvic floor contraction.

The best news is that Kegels can be done in plain sight. “I want to create pelvic floor ninjas,” Haag tells Inverse. While the pelvic floor has only two modes — contracted and relaxed — there’s still a variety of exercises to be done. You can clench, complete one breath cycle, and relax; you can tense progressively tighter over three squeezes; you can even try vaginal weights (but no porous materials like jade eggs, Haag says).

Hundreds of other muscles vie for your attention, too, as they all contribute to your daily capabilities. Haag reminds everyone to check in on their pelvic floor muscles, but her words apply to all parts of the body. “If you're feeling healthy and strong, don't spend too much time perseverating,” she says. “Just give it a high five, like, ‘Hey, good job down there.’”

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