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June 29, 2021 10 min read

Together, there are over 600 muscles in the human body. Not only do they help us move our bodies, but they also help us look good.

So, it makes sense that the flashiest of the muscles—the pecs, quads, and glutes for example—get the most attention. However, all muscles have an important purpose, and keeping them strong is necessary for complete wellness.

Down below we’ll be looking at one of the lesser talked about muscle groups: those found in the foot. Out of the over 600 muscles in the body, 29 are associated with the foot. These are further grouped into two categories, based on what they do.

Needless to say, maintaining healthy feet is one of the best ways to ensure comfort and wellbeing. We use them for everything, so it’s a good idea to keep them in good shape—especially if you’re an athlete. Further below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the five best exercises for intrinsic foot strength that are sure to keep your toes in tip-top shape.

Tendons and muscles of the foot and ankle, including the bones, attachments and retinaculae.

What are Intrinsic Muscles?

Out of the 29 muscles associated with the foot, 10 of these begin outside of the foot and work the ankle joint as well as the foot. These are known as the “global” muscles in the foot. The other 19, however, are called the “intrinsic” muscles of the foot.

As opposed to the global muscles, they only work within the foot itself. Their main purpose is to keep the foot stable and in the proper shape. Healthy intrinsic muscles work with the plantar fascia to influence the posture of the foot and to better transfer energy from your body, into the ground, and vice versa.

For all their importance, they’re criminally underrated in training. As we’ll see below, there are a lot of things that can go wrong when the intrinsic muscles aren’t strong enough.

The Importance of Intrinsic Foot Strength

There are a lot of amazing mechanical things that go on in our body, but the foot is one of the more interesting of them. With multiple degrees of freedom, the foot also has spring-like characteristics to it. This is mostly due to the medial longitudinal arch (MLA), which stores mechanical energy whenever one sprints, or even walks.

Along with the plantar fascia, it’s estimated that somewhere between 8 to 17% of the energy required for a stride is taken from this stored, elastic energy. What’s even more amazing is that this spring-like quality isn’t passive, as was once thought. The reason this is the case is because of the way that the foot adapts to the requirements of running, sprinting, and walking.

The mechanical complexity of the foot is due to all the muscles within it that work to stabilize and efficiently transfer power.

Take, for example, sprinting. It’s been shown that what matters in sprinting isn’t the overall force produced, but rather the horizontal force that’s produced.

Through dorsiflexion, the stronger and more developed the intrinsic muscles, the better angle of power output we can expect. This is partly due to the strength of the flexion of our toe flexors, which intrinsic muscles control. And the greater the angle of power output, the more efficient we can be at sprinting. However, this is only an extremely specific example that doesn’t apply to most people.

In many ways, the flexors of the foot can be compared to the intrinsic muscles of the hand: those that help with fine motor movements such as writing. Although the foot doesn’t need any fine motor movements, the intrinsic muscles need to be strong for proper control of the foot (supination and pronation), supporting the arch of the foot, balance, and stability, and for its lever/spring-like qualities through flexor muscles.

There are plenty of other reasons to maintain the intrinsic muscles—mostly due to the negative things that can develop if ignored.

What Happens without Intrinsic Foot Strength

Plantar fasciitis is one of the negative things that can occur if there’s a muscular imbalance in the feet. It usually means foot pain and heel pain that’s significantly worse in the morning, or after working out. How long until it’s good as new? Sometimes as long as 8 to 10 months. Seeing a physical therapist is definitely recommended.

The fascia is the connective tissue that runs on the bottom of the foot, and so it’s understandably placed under a lot of stress throughout the day. Deformities of the foot can also occur due to muscular imbalances and excessive stress. These are easy to tell, and the names kind of give them away as well: claw toes and hammer toes.

Another more common deformity is hallux valgus (or bunions), where the big toe turns in towards the second toe, rather than going straight out. Although developing muscle strength in the foot core system is beneficial, physical therapy is the best option.

The Basics of Feet Strengthening Exercises

As we learn more about the feet and the human body in general, best practices tend to change as well. Especially when it comes to the feet, there’s still some confusion as to which movements engage the intrinsic muscles more, and which movements engage the extrinsic muscles in the lower leg (such as the calf muscles and flexor hallucis longus).

A classic foot exercise is the marble game, where you place marbles (or pencils) on the floor and try to pick them up with your toes, placing them in a container. Another variation of this exercise is towel curls, where you place your toes on a towel and attempt to pick it up by curling them.

Although these exercises have been popular, they’ve also been shown to use a lot of extrinsic foot muscles, at least when compared to other activities. The five exercises outlined below try to maximize the amount of intrinsic muscle involvement while minimizing muscle use that originates from outside of the foot.

As always, it’s important to warm up before any workout, even if you’re training the little muscles. All of these require no equipment—just a solid floor and your feet.

1. Short Foot Exercise

By far the most popular intrinsic muscle exercise for feet, the short foot movement is the best place to start. Sitting down, have both your feet flat on the ground and shoulder-width apart. Initiate the movement by lifting all of your toes up while maintaining contact between the ball of your foot and the floor. This effectively raises the arch of the foot, which you’re going to attempt to keep up.

Continue by lowering the toes towards the ground while also engaging the muscles of the arch. This should help you keep a doming in your foot, along with pulling the big toe towards the heel. These actions together should result in a “shorter” looking foot, hence the name of the exercise. Keep in mind that the toes should be laying flat and straight ahead, in order to avoid toe curls. Since it’s an isometric hold, you’ll want to maintain this position for about 30 seconds.

The difficulty can also be increased for an added challenge. First, try this exercise standing instead of sitting in order to increase the weight placed on your arch. Then, you can continue by standing on one foot as you raise the other, and hold for 30 seconds. Various yoga poses can also be done this way.

2. Big Toe Lift

While it’s a simple-sounding exercise, separating the movement of the big toe is a good way to engage the intrinsic muscles over the extrinsic ones. You’ll want to begin by either standing or sitting, with feet together. All you need to do is raise the big toe while the other toes stay planted to the floor.

The key with this exercise is to prevent your foot from rolling out to the sides, which can give the impression that you’re going higher than you actually are. You should also be avoiding any curling of the little toes. The more you practice this, the greater range of motion you’ll be able to achieve.

3. Toe Splay

Once again, either sitting or standing, stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Initiate the exercise by simply spreading out your toes as far out as possible, without curling or performing a toe extension. The trick with this exercise is to put the most emphasis on the big toe.

Activation of the big toe has been shown to be an effective way to activate your arch, and so you should feel the arch muscles contract. Once they’re splayed, hold the position for about 8 to 10 seconds. For this movement, you can perform reps and sets, or just practice throughout the day whenever you’ve got some time.

4. Big Toe Press

The following exercise will build off of this one, but it doesn’t mean the big toe press isn’t great in its own right. Sticking to the theme of simplicity, all you’ll really be doing is pressing your large toe into the floor while lifting your other toes.

You can do this either sitting or standing, with standing being slightly more difficult. Also, try to keep a shoulder-width distance between your feet. Don’t curl or straighten your toes as you do this, and try to feel the tension between your big toe and the other four toes. Once you’ve raised your little toes, hold that position for somewhere around 8 seconds.

5. Big Toe/Little Toe Lifts

Also called the piano toe exercise, this movement relies primarily on separating the movement of the big toe from the rest of the toes. Similar to the exercises we looked at above, the separate movement of the big toe is thought to increase the engagement of the intrinsic muscles of the foot.

For this exercise, you can sit or stand. Begin by lifting the little toes off of the ground, maintaining contact between your big toe and the floor. Continue by then lifting the big toe off of the ground while placing your little toes down to touch the floor. This is basically the entirety of the movement, switching from big toe down to little toes up, and vice versa. The key is to get a good handle on this exercise so you can do it quickly.

For an added challenge, maintain the short foot positioning that we looked at above. Keeping the high arch in your foot while trying to control the finer motor movements can prove to be pretty challenging. But if you’ve mastered this, try taking your little toes off the ground, maintaining an arch, and standing on one leg. Once you can do this, there’s little doubt that you’ve got a strong pair of feet.

Barefoot Running

Barefoot or minimalist running has been something of a fad over recent years. The studies that have been done on this are somewhat contradictory, and altogether there isn’t a massive pile of evidence to lean on in one direction or the other. However, there is some evidence that suggests that running with no (or minimalist) shoes can increase the volume of foot muscles, and their cross-sectional area (especially with the abductor hallucis muscle).

As we said, there is little evidence for this—but there is some. Specifically, some studies have found positive effects of barefoot running on the intrinsic muscles, and their size and strength. This is somewhat dependent on the distance one runs and their experience as a runner.

The other side of the argument is that shoes give us much-needed support in a high-impact activity such as running—especially when over longer distances. However, running isn’t the only thing we can do barefoot. Things like yoga or even just walking around also seem to improve our balance and intrinsic foot strength if we do them without shoes.

Getting the Right Kicks

Whether or not you opt for minimalist running, you’re going to need shoes at one point or another. This is another area that can potentially make (or break) your foot health, especially in terms of keeping the intrinsic muscles as healthy as possible.

There are plenty of tips for making sure that your shoes fit, but one of the key factors is looking at the toe box. Located at the front of the shoe, this part of your shoe needs enough space in either direction to comfortably hold all of your toes and the width of your foot.

A good way of checking whether a shoe is sized well is by removing the insert of the shoe and placing your foot overtop it. Your foot should almost perfectly align with the edges of the inserts, without any excessive overhang or too much space. But there are other important things to remember as well.

Keep in mind that sizes don’t matter all that much, since manufacturers differ quite a bit. Instead, pay attention to how much space is left in the shoe when you put it on. There should be about 1/2 an inch left over in the front of the shoe, and about 1/8 of an inch left over in the back.

This will ensure that your shoes aren’t too tight, while also preventing your foot from sliding around. It’s also a good idea to walk around with both of them on to get a good feel, wearing socks that you’d normally wear from day to day. A shoe should be immediately comfortable as soon as you put it on.

You should also be trying to fit your shoes to the larger foot. This is more obvious with some people than others, but it’s very rare for our feet to be exactly the same size. That’s why sometimes our shoes don’t fit as well on one fit as on the other, but when accounting for this, it’s best to get a size that’s more comfortable on the larger foot.

Lastly, trying on shoes at the end of the day is recommended over trying them on first thing in the morning. Our feet tend to slightly swell over the course of the day, especially if we’ve been walking around a lot. Measuring the shoe to the “swelled up” feet will help to keep enough wiggle room throughout the entire day.

close up of man with jar and bottle preparing protein shake

Supporting Your Feet in the Kitchen

Doing the right exercises and having the correct shoes are important for foot health, but they’re only a part of the overall picture. And even though the intrinsic foot muscles are relatively small compared to other muscle groups, they still need the same sources of energy in order to ensure health and consistent development.

When it comes to growing muscles and making them stronger, the name of the game is protein.

high-quality protein source with all essential amino acids is important for a good-looking and healthy physique. Things like lean meats, fish, and eggs all provide good sources of protein that can power your workouts. But total body wellness doesn’t end at protein.

To power your workouts and ensure correct hormone creation, it’s important to also include plenty of healthy carbs and fats in your diet. Although these sometimes get a bad rap from different dietary fads, getting carbs and fats from healthy, whole foods is the best way to go if you’re trying to lead a healthier lifestyle.

Putting all these pieces together and sticking to a healthy lifestyle will help your feet take you to new heights of feeling, and looking, good.