Many fitness professionals understand how critical healthy, functional feet are to a successful training program. After all, the feet and ankles make up the body’s foundation and act as “shock absorbers” when the body interacts with a surface (Price 2006). Each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 19 muscles, 10 tendons and 107 ligaments, with many articulations in each appendage. With this complex structure, the feet transmit weight from our body to the ground, allow us to balance in static posture, and propel our body forward, back and laterally in dynamic activities (Lillis 2019).
While feet are our base for all movement, it isn’t common practice for many athletes, personal trainers, group fitness participants and average gym members to consider foot function. Why not? Perhaps because education is lacking or because of societal pushback against doffing footwear. Nick St. Louis, an Ottawa-based physiotherapist and founder of The Foot Collective, says this needs to change. “A house will collapse if built on a weak foundation. Many of the problems you see upstream are very much related to the foot,” he says, adding that hip, knee and ankle discomfort or pain often starts in foot dysfunction. Being barefoot allows clients to increase balance, engage muscles, improve mobility, transfer stability from one side to the other, and offer efficient force transfer to the ground (Shaffer 2020). “Trainers who advocate barefoot training have a massive opportunity to go deeper with clients,” says St. Louis.
Foot shape, along with the body’s natural balance-keeping systems, makes humans capable of walking, running, climbing and other activities. Foot structure is similar to hand structure, but because the foot bears more weight, it is stronger and less mobile than the hand (McCracken 1999). The foot consists of three parts: the hindfoot (talus and heel bone), the midfoot (the small bones between the heel and toes) and the forefoot (the toes). The hindfoot absorbs shock and displaces it forward and from side to side. The midfoot also helps dissipate force from side to side, and the forefoot further adapts to the ground and pushes the foot off for the next step during walking (Price 2006).
The role of the arch is to help with adaptation as we walk and to absorb shock, decreasing impact on joints (Howell 2010). Although the middle of the foot is often referred to as the arch, there are actually three arches—two longitudinal arches that span from the heel (calcaneus) to the forefoot and one transverse arch. All three are supported and strengthened by ligaments, fasciae and muscles.
The medial arch is the higher of the two longitudinal arches and plays a major role in shock absorption by transferring ground reaction forces to the arch structure to lessen impact on the foot as it hits the ground. This arch is formed by the calcaneus, talus and navicular; three cuneiforms (medial, intermediate and lateral); and the first three metatarsals (Howell 2010).
The lateral arch lies on the ground in the standing position, creating lateral stability, and supports body weight during running and walking. It is formed by the calcaneus, cuboid, and fourth and fifth metatarsals.
The transverse arch spans what is known as the ball of the foot. It is formed by the cuboid, three cuneiforms and the metatarsal bases. It works in conjunction with the other arches to withstand force, absorb shock and prevent excessive spreading of the foot during weight-bearing movement.
While arch movement and stability are controlled by intrinsic and extrinsic muscles, intrinsic muscles are often ignored.
In an article published in 2015 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, McKeon et al. observe that “interventions for foot-related problems are more often directed at externally supporting the foot rather than training these muscles to function as they are designed.” They also propose that core stability may extend to the foot. “The arch is controlled with both local stabilisers and global movers of the foot, similar to the lumbopelvic core.
“With each footstep, the four layers of intrinsic muscles act to control the degree and velocity of arch deformation. When they are not functioning properly, the foundation becomes unstable and malaligned; and abnormal movement of the foot ensues. This may manifest in foot-related problems.”
The first layer of intrinsic plantar muscles includes the abductor hallucis, flexor digitorum brevis and abductor digiti minimi. These are the most superficial muscles, located immediately beneath the plantar fascia (McKeon et al. 2015). The second layer is made up of the quadratus plantae and lumbricals. The third layer, which comprises the flexor hallucis brevis, adductor hallucis and flexor digiti minimi, plays a role in end toe movement. The fourth layer is between the metatarsals. They are the plantar interossei and dorsal interossei. McKeon et al. conclude that short-foot exercise progressions, which are performed by shortening and raising the medial longitudinal arch, can improve foot function (see “Foot Exercises,” left and below, for examples).
Foot Fitness From the Field
If you’re not assessing the lower kinetic chain, it’s time to start. The kinetic chain refers to “interrelated groups of body segments, connecting joints, and muscles working together to perform movements and the portion of the spine to which they connect” (Sanchez 2019). The lower kinetic chain includes the toes, feet, ankles, legs, hips, pelvis and spine.
St. Louis recommends that clients be evaluated early in the assessment phase. He suggests using a barefoot, one-legged stance, which provides a lot of information and will tell a trainer how much or how little proprioception the client has. “It gives you a pure idea of where someone is in space,” St. Louis says. “If you can’t stand on one leg, how are you going to jump? It lets you know if you are overshooting someone’s capacity.”
Matthew Sonak, owner and coach at EPIC Interval Training Fairfield County in Bridgeport, Connecticut, agrees. He says being barefoot allows clients to maintain proper biomechanics, working the force of the movement into muscles, rather than joints and tendons. “Shoes are a crutch,” Sonak explains. “You don’t get that natural movement. The body is designed perfectly, and we are messing it up.”
Sonak says some people are apprehensive about taking their shoes off for his initial small-group session, but once they experience a class, going barefoot becomes second nature. He admits that being barefoot deters some people from training with him but says his classes are generally well-attended.
Courtney Conley, DC, from GAIT Happens in Golden, Colorado, says an increase in personal trainers attending her courses and workshops makes her optimistic and hopeful that more fitness professionals are paying attention to the importance of foot function in proximal stability. “When you’re training clients, their foot is the foundation for everything that sits above it,” she says. “When the foot gets weak, it can no longer do its job, so something up the chain will have to.”
Athletic shoes will be ditched in group fitness classes only when fitness educators lead the way, says Stacey Lei Krauss, creator of Cardio Yoga™ and The willPower Method®—both barefoot movement experiences. “The barefoot movement must be encouraged by industry leadership for it to stick. Students trust their teachers,” she says. “When smart, forward-thinking fitness influencers explain how and why we should be using our feet, then foot fitness will become an industry norm instead of specialized training. Everyone should be using their feet. This is not fringe thinking.”
One fitness industry influencer promoting natural foot movement is Lawrence Biscontini, MA, 2004 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. During a 2-day international summit online, Biscontini conducted programs barefoot or in minimalist shoes to encourage more recruitment and use of foot muscles. He noted that even those giving lectures were shoeless. Biscontini says the benefits of being barefoot in group fitness is a higher-function train-to-transfer probability that translates outside of class to gait efficiency and recovery, less propensity to fall, more overall foot health, and an increased sense of stability—unless conditions such as neuropathy are present.
Despite advocates working to spread the word about the importance of toe spreading and natural foot movement, most gyms require shoes to be worn at all times, citing sanitary reasons and potentially dangerous contact with equipment. St. Louis, however, counters that feet pose less of a risk for spreading germs than shoes do. Sonak believes his boutique studio is cleaner than many gyms because clients leave “outside elements” on shoes at the door.
As virtual classes grow, says Krauss, the concern about working out on a dirty public floor is removed. “Now we aren’t up against that problem,” she said. “[Participants] ought to be barefoot.” Conley says once she began to understand the importance of foot function and proximal stability, the decision to go barefoot was easy. “Do you want to be on a tripod or ice skates?” she asks. “Feet,” she says, “deserve respect.”