When we talk about working out, we talk about muscles: how to build and rest them, how to feed them, and how to avoid injury. This makes sense since muscles seem to be the body parts most amenable to change. You lift, you eat, you sleep — and they grow.
But is that focus too narrow an approach to strength building? What about other body parts that can’t be strengthened traditionally — that don’t grow in size like a bicep — but are involved in our lifts and need our attention?
What about feet?
Feet are different and complicated while strengthening them and getting them mobile can seem outside the realm of powerlifting. But while some programs outright ignore foot health, or take it as a given, it’s crucial that lifters actively strengthen their feet. Their health is critical for functional strength and training success.
Every body part is elaborate, of course, but feet are especially difficult. Comprising of 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 ligaments and muscles, they are a sophisticated blend of different functions and needs. Minding the tendons, the fibrous connective tissues which connect muscle to bone, is especially important for foot health.
Luckily, feet can be strengthened — less by traditional rep schemes that might work on the glutes or quads, but by other methods. Foot-specific yoga classes (Yoga with Adriene offers good ones) and exercises, like heel sits or myofascial releases, can help with mobility, blood flow, and strength. The Achilles tendon, which connects the calf muscle to the heel — essentially a bridge between the foot and body — should also get strengthened, and calf-specific exercises help.
But in lifting, few programs concentrate on feet — and concentrate even less on tendons or bones.
Why foot strength is important
Just because many strength training programs ignore feet, or take their health as a given, doesn’t mean lifters should.
Bones become denser after weight training and, like tendons, get strengthened when lifters perform partial reps — exercises with limited range of motion. Because tendons are avascular — they have little blood flow — they require very high reps (think in the hundreds) and eccentric workouts to become more resilient.
This can take time, but it’s worth it: building up stronger tendons increases performance and makes you “harder to kill,” a creepy Crossfit-type term for being in shape.
Football is an illustrative example of the gulf between foot and muscle health. Few athletes seem harder to kill than NFL players, but their feet aren’t collectively strong. In fact, they’re in terrible health. NFL athletes tear their ACL and MCL ligaments at very high rates, and in recent years their cohort has seen an increase in midfoot sprains and dislocations.
A 2009 study on Achilles injuries among NFL players shows that just over three-fifths of players returned to their jobs, after an average of 11 months, with their post-injury performance dipping significantly over a three-year period.
This brings up some questions. Injuries can’t be avoided, but they shouldn’t occur at such high rates. And as athletes have gotten stronger and faster, things have gotten worse.
“It’s hard to fix feet in the weight room,” said one anonymous NFL trainer to Lower Extremity Review, a website covering medical developments on that part of the body. Advances in turf technology combined with players becoming faster and stronger (above the calf) create what the writer calls “forces acting on the foot and ankle complex [that] are simply too high to survive.”
It seems that the most talented athletes’ feet and tendons are much less resilient than the rest of their bodies. To be sure, most foot injuries occur in male athletes between ages 20 and 30, but they’re also on the rise in children, especially those playing organized sports.
As for workaday lifters, we learn from the best. So it’s a cause for concern. Either we’re not training our feet hard enough — or we’re training them wrong.
How to take foot health seriously
Isolating what’s wrong is less a difficult task than a big one. The path to respectable foot health is manifold and veers as close to the holistic hippie wellness space as it does to the gym. Lifters would be well served scheduling reflexology sessions — the application of pressure on part of the foot to fix a problem somewhere else on the body — along with yoga and heel sits. Acupuncture might work, as might Reiki.
Some workouts can improve foot strength and mobility as a side-effect. Deadlifting barefoot in powerlifting, while not exactly required, is encouraged. If it’s good enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s good enough for us.
But there’s science behind it as well. Keeping barefoot on a lift improves proprioception, or bodily awareness, and strengthens neuromuscular pathways between the foot and the body. Barefoot lifters get a better foot feel between themselves and the ground: they’re more stable. Simply put, it’s more natural.
And while foot strength and health are incidental in powerlifting, it’s integral in Olympic weightlifting — a sport that boasts very few foot injuries.
Olympic lifts — the snatch and the clean and jerk — are difficult skills that require mobility, rigidity, and proprioception. Lifts only succeed at the infinitesimal angle where the barbell’s directly above a lifter’s center of gravity. And so lifters need both strength and a near yogi-like bodily mobility. (Try squatting with a broomstick over your head to feel the angles yourself.) Feet need to be as mobile as shoulders so lifters can squat perfectly vertical and not lose their balance.
Foot strength and mobility develop through lifts and through training. Vertical, high bar squats done in stacked-heel weightlifting shoes push the knees forward and ankles ahead, improving ankle mobility, or dorsiflexion. (Dorsiflexion is measured with a wall test: knee against it, heel down. If your foot goes up, your ankles are too inflexible. Exercises like squat shifts and ankle stretches help.)
Feet also get strengthened during pulls, which are like deadlifts, only different, and become more resilient when lifters stomp on the platform — the “clack” going under the bar — in the same way jumping rope helps.
The sport’s emphasis on foot strength and mobility may explain why its lifters seem to be injury-free. Weightlifting scholar and former top U.S. lifter Bud Charniga has noted how much more resilient lifters’ ankles and feet are than football and basketball players. In stacked-heel shoes without ankle support, dropping barbells on their legs, lifters’ ankles almost never need tape. Their Achilles don’t explode, and their ACLs don’t need surgery.
To be sure, the sport is no panacea of health — knee, shoulder, and elbow injuries are common — but feet and ankles are seemingly immune. There’s a jarring gulf between a lifter walking off a twisted ankle on a 400-lb. lift and a basketball player losing a season when they plant their foot wrong. And the explanation might lie on the platform.
Why do foot and ankle injuries happen
Unlike most sports, Olympic lifting has no forward momentum: The barbell stays close to the lifter, and the lifter stays over the bar, and if anything, goes backward, counteracting its momentum so the lift can succeed. Lifters’ toes point out — not always, but often — to keep them anchored in place.
But this anchored foot placement can cause bad movement patterns in athletes who need forward momentum — who run on the field. And as athletes in sports like football and baseball increasingly lean on Olympic-type lifts to get stronger — think of the history of football and the power clean — there are some who think that this training might be the culprit.
And one athletic trainer, Ricky Stanzi, a former NFL pro, effectively argues as much. Training Olympic lifts with heels in can cue that movement on the field, which can negatively affect runners. Duck-footed running doesn’t sync as well with glutes and legs — it’s slower —and can lead, according to Stanzi, to what he refers to as a spate of “non-contact, unexplained injuries”: the ACL and MCL tears that seem to characterize pro sports
“Our feet can’t grow like biceps, but they can become stronger.”
Stanzi explains ACL tear rates with a translated lifting cue: athletes planting an ankle on the ground during gameplay, which he terms as a repetitive stress injury. Extending the tendon stresses that connective tissue, and over time can make the tendon pop, and shred ACLs. When athletes run or pivot this way, the ground hangs them up, and injuries happen.
The case is compelling, if a bit touch and go. Stanzi’s thesis — athletes whose footwork syncs with their locomotion, run faster, and are injured less — is advanced in a series of incredibly dense, difficult-to-parse Instagram posts and YouTube videos. One shows all-timers Ed Reed and Simone Biles running (separately); in another, a young child, whose movement patterns haven’t yet been wrecked by sitting, swings a racket. In both cases, the players keep their weight on the outside edges of their feet, point their toes slightly in, and bow their knees out. Those that follow these cues look mobile and light. It’s a strong if granular case that the least taxing movement on a forward-moving body is the most efficient.
To be sure, there are many factors at play. It’s tricky to draw a direct line between anchored foot placement and ACL tears, or to see what athletes are doing off the field, or to isolate what detail about Reed makes him immune to repetitive stress injuries. It could be his gait or any number of factors. But there is something to it: Stanzi’s evidence seems to add up.
The big takeaway — The way our feet interact with the ground affects us more than we think. In sprinting, gravitational forces influence speed more than leg movement — and so it follows that sloppy approaches into the ground could lead to serious injury and that inefficient ones can slow athletes down. (Indeed, artificial playing surfaces like AstroTurf have been shown to spike injury rates.)
Stanzi’s outside foot, high-ankle cues jibe with what many sprint trainers say. Anecdotally, I’ve seen a serious benefit: landing on the outside balls of my feet cues my legs and glutes better when I sprint and makes long hikes feel more forceful.
Re-learning how to stand and walk demands skepticism, to be sure. But so does the high rate of foot injury in athletics. Most trainers can’t explain foot injuries or safeguard against them. Elite training debates can be kept at arm’s length: we probably aren’t pivoting as hard as an NFL cornerback, and we’re not as strong as one either. But we shouldn’t ignore the progress here either.
What’s important for workaday lifters is that we train our feet like we do any part of our body. We can’t let them get far behind our calf and our quad muscles or become less resilient. How we strengthen them is up for debate: barefoot deadlifts, five-minute heel sits, yogas and bow holds, and whatever else.
Our feet can’t grow like biceps, but they can become stronger. And they can definitely get hurt if we ignore them.
Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.