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Strengthening the Core Muscles of the Foot
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Strengthening the “Core” Muscles of the Foot

By Amy McDowell, P.T.

ballet shoes

I was a ballet dancer for a long time and danced on pointe every day.  Recently I started taking a pointe class for adults who had either never been on pointe or who hadn’t worn pointe shoes for a long time.  It had been at least 15 years since I had danced “on my toes” and I wanted to see if I could still do it.

The teacher was very thorough and we spent several classes just working on foot and leg exercises to make sure everyone would be strong enough to hold themselves on pointe safely.  Being a physical therapist, I thought I would know all the exercises you could do for foot strengthening, but I learned a few new and challenging exercises for the intrinsic muscles of the foot.


Both your feet and your hands have extrinsic and intrinsic muscles.  Extrinsic muscles originate far away from the joints that they move (see below).  For the foot, there are toe muscles that start on the shin bones and turn into tendons that attach on the ends of the toes.  They can curl and extend the toes, but they do it by crossing over the many small bones and joints of the foot.


Intrinsic muscles originate and attach within the same body part (see below).  In the foot, they originate on the heel bone or long bones of the arch of the foot and attach on the toes.  The intrinsic muscles are like the “core” muscles of the foot.  Because they are deep and don’t cross over too many joints, they can work well in stabilizing and protecting the arch and structures within the foot.  If the foot intrinsic muscles are weak, the foot structures are more prone to increased stress and injury.  Strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot is good for people with foot injuries and for those looking to prevent injury.



Here are some examples of foot intrinsic strengthening exercises.  They can be done either in sitting or standing, one foot at a time, or both together.  At first, the movement may seem impossible, but if you practice for a few minutes a day, you will start to see the toes working with better control.


FE1_CU21)    “Toe Swapping” – Start with your foot flat on the floor with equal pressure on your heel, the base of the big toe, and the base of the little toe.  Raise up the big toe while keeping the other 4 toes flat and pressed into the floor.  After holding a few seconds, try the opposite.  Flatten the big toe down into the floor and try to lift up the 4 small toes.  Try not to let your whole leg roll back and forth as you swap back and forth between the big toe and the 4 small toes.  You can start by using your hands to hold the toes in place to help your body learn how to isolate the toe movement.

2)    “Playing the Piano” – Start with your foot and all the toes flat with equal weight on the inside and outside of the foot.  Raise the big toe up by itself as in the previous exercise.  Keeping the big toe up, raise up the second toe to join it.  Then add the third toe, the fourth, and the pinky.  Try to make each toe come up separately.  Once all the toes are up off the floor, start putting them back down one at a time starting with the little toe.  Keep rippling them up, and then down, like someone playing scales on a piano.

3)    “Doming” – Start again with the foot flat on the floor.  2044814-2732334-thumbnailTry and press the underneath side of the small knuckles of the toes down into the floor.  This should make the main knuckles closest to the foot raise up like a dome.  The toes need to stay long and straight.  When the toes curl under, it’s the extrinsic muscles working, not the intrinsic.



These movements will be a little frustrating at first, but they will strengthen the “core” muscles of the foot.  They also make good party tricks. 🙂

 Of course, if you have any foot pain that is not resolving, it may be due to “fascial dysfunction” (click here to learn more). Call or email us (info@arcphysicaltherapy.com) to schedule a free consultation with a physical therapist to find out if “Fascial Counterstrain” can help you!

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