Many people assume that it’s the people who train the hardest that achieve insurmountable amounts of size and strength. This isn’t actually the case. Training hard is important but the person who can train injury free will always make more linear progression. Looking after and “pre-habing” your body is an essential part of training. Although corrective work doesn’t seem that glamorous, it potentiates size and strength, making it a key aspect of effective training.
In this 4-part series, I will be discussing the importance of each joint, why you need to train them, and how you can incorporate the exercises in to your training split.
Part 1: The Foot & Ankle
Have you ever been working on your laptop and then the battery is running low? You get out your charger and plug it in, only to find that your laptop doesn’t start charging at all. After a quick inspection you then go to the next portal across the line, which is the plug socket. Everything here looks fine, so you then have to check the mains to see if a fuse has gone. The take home point here is, if your laptop isn’t charging, there could be an issue with any aspect along a chain. A chain may have a focal point where all the power originates, such as the power mains to your house. Our feet are the equivalent of this in our body.
You will all be familiar with muscles in the body. Muscles act as pulleys that enable joints to move. Although muscles get most of the attention, there is a massively overlooked element, called Fascia, which inter webs our body, connecting muscles joints and bones. We have Fascia so that our bodies can move in unison whilst travelling along a certain plane. This connection allows muscles to move in tandem, generate force and essentially stay together as one big unit. The really cool thing is that these fascial lines (or anatomy trains) run throughout the entirety of our body. We have a biomechanical railway that connects muscles in our toes to our forehead.
Let’s piece this all together then. When we have an issue in an area, it is common belief that the problem is originating from that initial area. This can be true, but it is not always the way. Just like everything gets cut off when there’s a fault in your power mains, we can be prone to dysfunction if there is an issue with our feet and ankles.
Why is this? Well just like muscles have origins and insertion points, so do fascial lines. Many of the main tracks that run throughout the body originate in the feet. A problem with the feet equals a problem with the mains. It is actually possible that your shoulder issues can be coming from in proper footwear or an ankle injury from years ago.
Let’s now translate poor foot and ankle health with the compound lifts.
You may be familiar with the knee over the toe debate when squatting. The actual knee going over the toe queue isn’t relevant to this matter, but the ability to get your knee over the toe certainly is. Restrictions in dorsiflexion, (posh word for ankle range of movement), has an impact on the kinetic chain that wraps around your body. In a nut shell, if your ankles aren’t flexible, the rest of your body becomes inflexible. To explain the technical mechanisms behind this would require a lot more time but think of it like this:
You get an extension lead out of the cupboard so you can plug in an appliance far away. If there is a knot in the extension lead it makes the lead shorter by default. Lack of range of motion in the ankles is like the knot in the cord. It shortens the overall length of the lead.
When this happens, it can inhibit, (weaken), muscles all over the body. You lose power output and potential stability, which leads to compensation. Compensations mean muscle imbalances and a greater chance of injury.
By now you’ll have gathered the importance behind foot and ankle health. Here’s how to apply this knowledge to your training plan and lifestyle to see long lasting improvements.
1. Start and finish your training sessions with ankle work
Pointing your toe to your shin is called Dorsiflexion. Pointing your toe away from your shin is called Plantarflexion. Plantar flexion trains the calves whereas Dorsiflexion trains a muscle called the Tibialis Anterior. For ankle health, it is very important you train both these muscles. Many people train the calves neglecting the Tibialis Anterior as it A) is hard to train, B) isn’t going to turn many heads when walking topless on a beach. However, training this muscle can in-directly increase your squat and deadlift. This means more muscle.
Training parameters don’t have to be anything fancy. Just 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps is sufficient. I like to do this before squats and deadlifts, as the increase in ankle range of motion helps potentiate mobility throughout the body. They are also excellent to finish with and fatigue levels may be high and they are a very low risk/impact muscle group to train.
2. Roll the sole of your foot with a lacrosse ball
Go into any gym and you will see people foam rolling muscles as a way of “loosening” them before and after training. So many people do this to the muscles, but many neglect the “power hub” of the body; the feet. Rolling the soles of your feet can gently release fascia, (anatomy trains), that connect all over your body. Some people can respond incredibly well to this and see dramatic improvements in hip and shoulder mobility almost instantly.
Remember this though. Pain is not good. Being in pain puts the body and brain into a stress response. This isn’t ideal for releasing muscles. As you can control the pressure of the ball, only go to a 5-6 out of 10 in regards to pain. It’s completely normal to hear and feel crackles and pops when doing this. This is fascia releasing and “ironing” out. Feel free to roll out your feet as much as you like. It doesn’t always have to be before training.
3. Walk barefoot as much as you can
Our feet are our hands of the lower body. Just like we type, grab and feel with our hands, we are supposed to do the same with our feet. Being locked up in shoes and socks all day makes our feet and lower leg muscles become weak and lazy. This impacts the kinetic chain as explained before. Although walking around barefoot isn’t really practical or socially acceptable, it’s a very effective way of improving foot strength and posture. Even if it’s just walking around the house, improving your toe dexterity will lead to much better muscle signaling and sequencing all over the body. There are now plenty of options for footwear that mimics being barefoot, such as Vibram’s and Five Finger’s.
So that concludes the first instalment of my bullet proof body series. I’ve started with the feet as these are critical for overall joint health and performance. Utilising these simple tips with patience, overtime will lead to better performance in the gym and help you prevent suffering a non-impact injury. In the next instalment, I’ll be discussing the lower back and how to avoid lower back pain.