Feet, stability and articulation.

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Feet, stability and articulation.

Post by Javier »

I was asked a question by the lovely Natalia Villa Comet about stability and foot dragging in the aging person. Since it is such an interesting question, and a problem that starts way earlier and is incredibly common, I decided to post the answer, pics and videos of some exercises in the forum.

This will help as much an older person with balance as it will help everyone putting their underwear on standing, especially that wicked second leg… :)

As we grow older our joints get stiffer. The foot is full of joints and all of them loose mobility. Shoes and lack of exercise don't help. Even some exercise forms do not help loosen and/or strengthen the feet, since the foot does very little, or is constrained by shoes, boots or the sport/exercise simply does not involve the foot so much.

As the toes stop bending it greatly reduces the ankle range of motion. In fact, if you want to imitate a very elderly and stiff person walking, just walk without bending your toes at all. Really, try it, like now. Stop reading this and go and walk about without bending your toes. Was it fun? Did your ankle and knee like it?

You will notice:
- The ankle and knee Range Of Motion (ROM) are greatly reduced.
- Your stride shrinks to half -or less- of what your stride should be (With stride I mean the width of your step)
- You are much more likely to drag your feet -your knees are not picking up. When you drag your feet you are more likely to trip.

Toes get so stiff that they fail to also play their part in being an integral part of the base of the body: we lose balance. Not the ability -that is on your skull- but the possibility to physically balance on the feet, especially when standing on one foot. This is especially bad if you have hammer toes.

Again, get up and try this: gripping your toes like if you had hammer toes lift one foot on the air and try balancing on one leg. Switch legs. Then, try again, alternating legs but flattening your toes this time. Do you feel the difference?

Remember: some people have hammer toes and they are pretty young too, is not just something that occurs in middle age and it affects many men as well… usually it runs on the family, and because having hammer toes limits the ankle and knee ROM these individuals usually also have short Achilles tendons and crampy calves, which, again, doesn't help with their balance and makes their stride even shorter specially the part of the stride when a leg is behind: it is almost non existent in many individuals.

As they age the combination of the stiffness of the legs and the short stride make people walk without going from one leg to the other: they always have a foot on the ground, the point where they are switching from one leg to the other doesn't exist. They literally never balance on one leg or balance while shifting the weight from one leg to the other. The brain gets very lazy because these people are not using their balancing ability so it gets sloppy and unreliable. Having said that it is very easy to re-engage the ability by simply making the person balance more often while working on the suppleness of the lower limbs (and the swinging of the arms… which we will cover on another moment) In a way they resemble slightly someone walking with flippers or skies with the added difficulty of not bending the knees to pick the foot up.

The moment of the stride where one leg is behind the hip is almost non-existent: this means that the thigh and the front part of the hip never stretch, they only contract, creating long-term lumbar tension and hip flexor contractures... that's for starters... but I digress, back to the feet:

In the picture the pose with the red circle (what is called the 'contact' pose in animation) shows the moment that I am describing. Eadweard Muybridge pictures do help here:

Eadward-Muybridge-1.jpg (115.69 KiB) Viewed 1176 times

Another example to clearly see the moment when we switch from one leg to the other, where there is no main leg supporting the body. That shows how very intricate walking is and why is incredibly difficult to teach a robot to do it: that moment where we are not in any foot. We are so cool. You can also see in both pictures how much articulation is needed in the foot (ankle and toes)

Eadward-Muybridge-2.jpg (335.8 KiB) Viewed 1176 times

When either the toes -or the ankle, for that matter- become stiff and don't move and bend properly we loose the proper 'rhythm and sequence' in walking because the knee and the hip don't move well either (of course, the problem could also start with the hip or the knees but now we are looking at the problem starting with the toes and somewhat, the ankle too)

Hammer toes are the compound version: the toes are not only stiff, they can't even lie flat. Usually they are declared 'chronic' but I have had many successes with people with hammer toes, some even totally recover. People with hammer toes usually don't have their weight aligned and are technically 'falling' a little back which means they need to engage to stay upright. Even if it is not an obvious contraction, it piles up creating tension.

Age and dedication to exercise are obviously going to make a difference, but the exercises to help them both, stiff toes and hammer toes, are supper simple, easy, light and benefit the whole body since any improvement in the foot creates release and gives the individual the calmness that comes with being able to stand and balance without having to 'hold' and keep the body unnecessarily busy, wasting energy engaging muscles that should be working less -or simply working to keep one in balance instead of working just keep you from not falling.

In Pilates all alignment starts with the feet and learning the direction of the head/skull. Not with the torso or back, and definitely not with the stomach/core. While the question was asked around an older individual, anytime spent working on the feet pays back tenfold. No other body part offers such a range and amount of benefits.

Basically we need to improve the movement of the foot: easy, we just move it a little more, more often. Really, that is all. After all, the first piece of equipment was the foot corrector and the reformer was also created to correct feet (before it had straps) and the Footwork is still where we start.

As we improve the range of motion of the toes the ankle won't have to 'flex' as much and as unnaturally: walking, running and jumping are immediately benefited. Many knee and hip problems stem from 'clog' feet.

As the toes loosen and become longer they not only make balancing very easy (especially on one leg) but they also collaborate to it rather than impede it.

When we walk the back foot must be able to 'press' and pass the weight onto the other leg, so it must be flexible and strong enough: we must also aim forwards as we walk and swing the arms to assist, otherwise is heavier for the legs and the joints -hips and knees- which get overused by continuously walking 'grinding' rather than being supple. The lack of 'aim' also places pressure in the spine… it is all about movement. Not muscles or joints. If we would walk well, we would need way less exercise. If you look at the picture with the red circle is an impossible pose: front heel is not yet down and the back foot is well behind. As a pose, it would be very hard to do, but as a movement is totally natural.

Needless to say that any sport would benefit from having feet that can articulate more: anything that articulates better, moves better. Anything that moves better is getting looser and stronger. And best of all, is not preventing other parts from moving, or making them move badly.

Continues in the next post.

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Re: Feet and Articulation.

Post by Javier »

The sitting exercises are done best at the height of the Reformer, especially the ones with the pole. The knees are flexed at about 90 degrees. If you do them on the Table use a box.

The numbering is not the order. You can do them in any order. I usually teach number 1, 2 and 3, and then ask them to do it at home. Imitate with your hands the movement that you want your feet to do: it is much easier to teach one part if you recognize it somewhere else in your body.

Exercise 1
Foot drag.
Basically an exercise to stretch and lengthen the toes. You place your foot forwards and drag it back while pressing the back of the toes to the floor.
You can do it sitting or standing. It works really well in the shower -wet floor helps, singing doesn't always work.
I personally prefer it standing. You can hold onto something if it allows you to do it better, slower, trying to get the back of the toes along the floor a little better every time.

Don't press too hard, it should be pretty pleasant.

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Exercise 2 (No video)
Just like the Reformer but standing. Do it leaning slightly forwards. More than you need for balance.
- Come up in both feet to start (like you took the carriage out) and then lower one heel and bend the other knee.
- Come back up to the highest point that you can.
- Keep switching legs…

Emphasize really bending the knee and the toes.
When you do it standing you can feel the toes better than the round bar of the Footbar and you can decide how much weight you place on each foot at a time.

Exercise 3
Bending toes and knee.
Stand with your feet staggered. Not too much.
- In a smooth motion adn in unison, bend the back knee, lift the ankle and bend your toes. Shift your weight onto the front leg as you push the toes against the floor.
- Return, repeat, return, repeat…
- If you want to, start picking the toes up and bending the knee a little more.

Eventually you will have a nice smooth and coordinated motion. Don't force the timing, it will come along as the joints loosen. This is the missing part in the walk cycle of many people.

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Continues in the next post...

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Re: Feet and Articulation.

Post by Javier »

When a foot is stiff, is usually also weak -what doesn't move doesn't exercise…- and what keeping it together is the stiffness. At the beginning is very hard to loosen the foot because of it: you would need very strong muscles to be able to bend such a stiff foot. Also, like always when dealing with stiffness, since the lack of movement has prevented the muscles to work we musn't just stretch and loosen the joints: we start with strength so any flexibility we may achieve will have support.

This exercises are to encourage, wake up and use the muscles of the foot. Mainly the intrinsic muscles: the ones in the foot, not the ones running across the ankle into the lower leg.

This are short, mostly pretty unused muscles, which are prone to cramping at the beginning… so enjoy… :)
Don’t have the feet under your knees: the exercises will be almost impossible then…
If you do the movements with your hands too, it will help you at the beginning to get the movement. It will take a while until the muscles are strong enough to move the joint and not crump and for the joints to loosen up. Stick to it easily. Just do them. No fuss, no picking, just perseverance. The movement will improve the movements.

- "Nuckles lift: we are going to lift the 'knuckle line' of the foot -the joint between the metatarsals and the phalanges, what would be the knuckles of the foot. Try not to 'bend' or 'crunch' the toes. Just aim for a small movement. If you move to much you end up curling your toes, encouraging the bending on the toes (just phalanges) than on the 'knuckle' line. And that is the next exercise any way. Place your hand on your thigh and lift your knuckles without curling your fingers. Imitate with your foot.
- "Pick up": Same as before but you continue the movement and pick your toes up. Eventually picking all the foot up. Quite like the exercise of picking marbles…
- "1/2 Towel": Same as before and then, at the top of the movement, curl your toes up and then separate them. Like the towel exercise but without towel and the reversed half -you can do it but the reverse is hard without a towel to slide. Emphasis on spreading the toes apart at the top.

And you can repeat the "Nuckles" again: the 2nd time is usually easier.

- "Curls" Curl your toes inwards -inversion- really trying to bring the little toe in. Reverse -eversion- really trying to lift the little toe up.
- "Press together' This one takes a while to be able to do it at your command, have patience. Basically press the toes against each other. Try not to curl them up or bend them down just against each other: like pressing a card between. This strengthens the muscles between the toes. Usually weak in people who have bunions or those with fallen arches: the toes are too far apart from each other. Clients who master this can start wearing narrower shoes since the foot streamlines, it stops looking like flat tires… Again, it helps if you do it with your hand too, especially in this exercise.

You can do many more than I do in the video. And you can finish with the "Nuckles" again: the 2nd time is usually easier.

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Re: Feet and Articulation.

Post by Javier »

Sitting. Take a pole. Preferably a thicker one. Foot rollers work but only do both feet together if it is wide enough.
Part 1:
- Curl your foot over the pole, toes pointing down, and roll the pole along the sole of your foot. Try to really go from toes to heel.
- Then to intensify the feeling, curl your toes up: it will expose the muscles of your feet more so it will feel more intensive, even uncomfortable -or quite pleasant… you know who you are… dancers… who did you think I meant?

You can switch between or one set of each. You can also do it longer than the video.

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Part 2:
Continuing from Part 1. Place the pole under your arches. Notice the feet are NOT under the knees, you will get a cramp on the tibial muscles if your feet are too much under. Have the pole a little in front of you.
- Alternating feet, lift and lower your toes trying to get to the floor… a sort of typing with your feet.
- Move the pole further forwards under your feet -place it under the line of the bunions more or less- and repeat the alternating motion. It is impossible to touch the floor -unless you have mega long toes, you poor thing…
- Eventually you can try to 'grab' the pole a few times. Skip this if you have hammer toes or cramp easily.
- Let the pole roll away and bring the feet under your knees: lifting your heels in an easy, loose way, bend the toes at the line between the metatarsals and the phalanges. Try to make it a loose movement. Don't 'point' the ankle strongly or you will start cramping on your calves… we want to encourage the movement at the toes.

You can repeat it more times than I did on the video. Don't be too picky. Move and do it often. It will improve itself: don't interfere…

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There are more exercises but these cover quite a bit of the foot. Eventually, the normal exercises should keep the ability. All the pointing will keep them strong (NO softly pointed feet anywhere, unless you are one of those anally retentive trainers who softens things…) as indicated incessantly by Joseph.

Also, as homework, you can suggest that the clients do stand, now and then, balancing on one leg. I tell them to do it, for example, as they brush their teeth, alternating every few seconds, is annoying but it improves very fast because we all actually know how to do it. Is just a matter of doing it a little more often.

Exercises like the Knee Stretches or the Up Stretch are very different -and much easier to understand and, thus, perform- when you can 'fold' at the toes. Once you develop that ability, the exercises will help you keep it.
Exercises like the Tendon Stretch are much easier when the arches are stronger and don't roll in, especially when taking one leg off.
Balancing is infinitely easier when your arches are strong and your foot can be flat in the floor without crunching the toes.

For the older client the sense that they are more stable and less likely to fall is priceless. They can squeeze their stomach but that won't keep them up if the feet are out of shape and stiff. Basically they will contract their stomach while they fall.
In all honesty, people come more 'out of shape' on their feet than on their stomachs. They can't use them, bend them, balance on them, and they cramp all the time. Compared with their c**e, their feet are a mess. And yet, they are way easier to work, and provide a wider range of benefits.

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Re: Feet, stability and articulation.

Post by AlainG »

Thank you Javier for the didactic post.
I´ve appreciated very much the explanations and the videos for these feet exercises.

I realize now that it´s so easy to underestimate the importance of the mobility condition of the feet.
As an example, recently, I was demonstrating to a friend, and training partner, the evolution of my shadow boxing.
While trying to transmit to him the key points of that particular movement, at first, I was unable to detect what was precisely the problem for him. His whole posture was rather unstable, and thus lacking springiness and ground force reaction.
Then it became obvious that all of that unstability was simply because he could NOT flex his toes at a right angle on the ground.
So, he could not plant firmly his foot with the heel vertically off the ground.
And because of that, he could NOT fully twist his torso around an axis going through that leg.

But then, to my surprise, he could not fully correct the angle of flexion for applying that optimal foot positioning.
Hence, no possible efficiency in this particular movement.
As so, no other corrective strategy would have been efficient enough to gain a correct, efficient and reliable posture for that purpose (shadow boxing).
First, mobility and resiliency have to be regained from the feet up.
Then, other synergies can apply in accordance.
But I´m not sure, despite that "ahah moment" for both of us, that he has realized the importance of his feet condition for the direction of his own training. It appears almost too simple to focus on the feet for building skills.
We will discover in the near future...

For me, from that particular functional problem, Pilates has made even more sense in its corrective approach.
Now, after reading your post with the videos, even more clear the importance of the feet.

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