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Becoming a Toe Ninja
You should be able to lift each of your toes individually. You’re wired for it. Being able to lift your toes one at a time is a basic human ability.
But for most people, it’s a struggle to even lift the big toe on its own.
Why should you care? A few reasons. First, when you can’t use a muscle, even a tiny little one, that muscle will wither away. The cells starve, and the area becomes vulnerable to disease and injury. How vulnerable? Some 75% of North Americans will have foot problems at some point in their lives. The majority are women (because of our poor shoe choices) and the pain usually begins in our 40’s, 50’s and 60’s (because our bodies did a heroic job of compensating for the microdamage until then). Plus, foot problems aren’t always foot problems – often, they’re back and hip and knee problems that are created because our gait is so unfunctional. You can go the orthotics and surgery and gradual immobilization route, or you can put in some time and dedication – it’s all completely fixable.
Practicing this toe lift exercise is a major step to regaining functional foot strength. Here’s how to become a toe-lifting ninja:
Level One: Sit down (ideally on a bolster instead of a chair). It’s usually easiest to do one foot at a time. Start with just lifting and lowering the big toe. Once you nail that (it took me about a month, but my feet were in bad shape – lots of people get this no problemo the first time) then you can try lifting the four other toes while the big toe stays down. Then practice on the second foot.
If this is a struggle for you and your other toes lift while you’re working on the big toe (or vice versa), you can use your hand to gently hold down the rebel toes while you practice lifting the one you want up.
Level One Point Five: Same thing, standing up.
Level Two: Sitting down, one foot at a time. Now we’re getting sequential. Lift the big toe. Leaving it up, lift the second toe, then the third, and so on until all your toes are up. Make sure it’s one toe at a time – they like to clump together. You can use the hand trick here, too, if needed. Then, lower each toe in turn – littlest to biggest. When you’ve practiced a few times, switch feet.
Level Two Point Five: Same thing, standing up.
Level Three: This one is black belt – lift and lower each toe on its own. Only the big toe up, then big toe down. Only the second toe up, then it goes down before you attempt toe #3. And so on.
Although this exercise isn’t at all like something we would have done naturally while moving back in hunter gatherer times, it will help restore strength and mobility to the forefoot.
It’s super hard – it’s taken me about two years to get to where I am – but oddly rewarding, and you can practice it any time you’re not wearing shoes which is, I hope, a lot.
Add it to the rotation with your unsquishing and mobilizations for the ultimate intrinsic foot muscle workout – this should set you up nicely for some good barefoot & minimal shoe time this summer. I might add that this is another one you can do while you stand to work. No excuses!!
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body - and she's always happy to chat about it. When she's not teaching, you'll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.