The intrinsic foot muscles (aka plantar arch muscles) are a group of muscles that originate at the heel bone and attach to the toes. Operating in conjunction with the toe bones to provide a basis of strength, flexibility, and balance, these muscles are integral for optimal foot health. So what exercises can you do to strengthen them? And what can that do for your overall musculoskeletal health?
The first step in strengthening these muscles is to ensure proper toe bone alignment. Aligning the toes in the position that nature intended (i.e., in line with their corresponding metatarsal bones) is a critical first step, as performing exercises with misaligned toes only works to strengthen the misalignment. Correct Toes toe spacers and men’s and women’s foot-healthy footwear can go a long way in promoting proper foot and toe alignment. If your toes are misaligned, or if you’re dealing with any other foot injuries, we wouldn’t recommend performing the following exercises until you’re further down the path of rehabilitation.
The Short Foot Exercise: This is an isometric exercise that can help restore natural arch support and strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles. Placing your foot flat on the ground, keep your toes straight and splayed as wide as possible while gradually increasing the amount of space under the sole of your foot, especially under your medial longitudinal arch (i.e., the arch that runs from your heel to the base of your big toe, on the inside edge of your foot). As you contract the muscles on the bottom of your foot to create your “short foot,” resist the temptation to curl your toes.
The Hacky Sack Grab: This exercise can be done several different ways to target the different intrinsic foot muscles. Using a small ball (or hacky sack), place it beneath your toes on the ground, and while keeping your heel level, squeeze and pull the ball back (toward your heel) without moving your heel. Repeat this action with all of your toes, just your big toe, or with your smaller toes (depending on the size of the ball) to strengthen the muscles on the underside of your foot. If you don’t have a hacky sack or massage ball at your disposal, you can grab virtually anything of appropriate size with your toes!
Both of the above exercises—plus additional notes about their benefits—are demonstrated in this video.
These exercises are simple, yet vital, as they help restore the proper tension and balance between the toe and foot flexor and extensor muscles. Wearing conventional shoes for prolonged periods can cause the foot and toe flexor muscles (i.e., the muscles acting on the bottom of the foot) to become weak and elongated, while the extensor muscles (i.e., the muscles acting on the top of the foot) become strong and short. By strengthening the weak muscles and stretching the tight muscles, these exercises help restore proper balance in the foot and lower leg.
Other benefits of the intrinsic foot muscle exercises described above may include:
- Improved lower leg stability
- Improved foot arch strength
- Improved ability to absorb impact during gait
- Improved balance and weight distribution across the foot
Strengthening your intrinsic foot muscles is an important part of achieving optimal foot health and function!