Gaining good motor control and strength in relation to the ball of the foot and the big toe (AKA the great toe) might seem like a trivial matter but it could be the missing link you’re looking for to take your squatting or running performance to the next level. This article will help you make some considerations for your big toe that could change the way you exercise.
What’s so great about your big toe?
During squats, it’s a good idea to try to distribute your weight in equal proportions through your heel, the outside edge of the foot and the ball of the foot (at the base of the big toe). This ensures your weight is distributed in the most mechanically efficient and stable way, through the mid-foot. It also ensures that when you apply external rotation from the glutes, transmitting through the legs all the way to these parallel and planted feet, your toes are less likely to slip out since an even amount of traction is present between each part of your foot and the floor.
For most people, the key weakness in this equation is getting enough force through the ball of the foot; their heels and outer edge of the foot will often be heavily loaded, but you will frequently see so little pressure going through the ball of the foot that it lifts up into the air during the squat. The common results of this problem are uneven pressure through the foot and out-turning of the toes, hampering the ability to achieve effective external rotation from the hips, weakening the power that can be transmitted through them.
Gaining good motor control to the ball of the foot fixes this problem, with the ball of the foot acting as an anchor to stop slippage.
During walking and running, it is more effective to be able to finish each push back to the ground with a forceful “toe-off” coming from the ball of the foot and big toe, than it is to push off from the smaller outer toes. If you are somebody who develops painful callouses on the ball of the outermost little toe, it’s very possible that you are someone who does not toe-off properly with good control of the ball of the foot.
How to gain control of the great toe
The best method of taking control of your toe is to take a very simple exercise, calf raises, and employ a special emphasis on placing most of the force through the ball of the foot. To do this custom exercise, take a small step, like a 2” thick wooden board, and place it on solid flooring near a wall or something else upright that you can hold on to to keep your balance. Then place your toes up far enough onto the board so that the ball of the foot is completely on the board. The feet should be kept straight and kept at hip width apart or slightly closer, and your heels will rest on the floor. The exercise can also be performed one-legged to make it harder.
The simple exercise is to raise your heels up as high as you can by plantar flexing (pointing your toes down) at your ankle as fully as possible; but the trick is to generate as much of the pressure through the ball of the foot. Before your heels have even left the floor, try to visualise gradually building more and more pressure through the ball of the foot until the force increases enough to overcome gravity and start your heels moving up. You will notice the contraction is felt more strongly to the medial (inner) head of the gastrocnemius, when using this emphasis. This head of the calves is often relatively weaker in most people. This emphasis is also effective at strengthening the foot, helping to provide you with a strong arch.
Two other points to note are:
- Wear shoes: If performed barefoot, you may find placing most of the emphasis on the ball of the foot can be quite uncomfortable against a solid board
- Don’t use too high a board: Many people feel the need to attempt to get a very large stretch when they do calf raises, but they often end up dropping their heels beyond their true dorsi-flexion range of motion, ending up swivelling their heels in such that the foot is not held properly straight.