Get Your Feet in Control

The human foot is a marvel of complex engineering. Each one is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 soft tissue structures that form muscles, tendons and ligaments. Not to mention the 150,000 nerve endings that you have on the bottom of each foot.

Your body needs all of those components to be working at full capacity in order to achieve an impressive vertical jump, sprint or deadlift. But more often than not, your feet have lost that ability, and the negative consequences can be far-reaching. Indeed, progressive doctors that specialize in treating jaw disorders (e.g., TMJ) look at the patient’s foot posture and control when designing a treatment plan.

Many active people take up to 10,000 steps per day. Pair that with the fact that most people don’t wear properly-fitted shoes, or have stiffness in one or more of the 33 joints, and you’ve got a perfect scenario for lousy foot mechanics that can cause ankle, knee, low back or the previously mentioned jaw pain.

Shoes are often the culprit, because they impair isolated action of each toe. And if you wear high heels or cowboy boots, the situation becomes exponentially worse because your toes are crammed together like clowns in a compact car during a Shriner’s parade. This results in poor motor control of your feet – essentially, your feet become “dumb” since your brain loses the ability to effectively control their joints and soft tissues.

Test Yourself

Here’s a simple, basic test to determine if you have adequate motor control of your feet. Stand barefoot with your feet shoulder width apart. Can you lift the big toe without elevating the other four toes? Can you elevate the four smaller toes while the big toe remains on the ground?

If you weren’t able to pass the test, your feet lack the motor control they need. Practice this drill throughout the day while seated, and then progress to the standing version since it’s more challenging. It will probably take a few weeks to get it right, and at first you might need to use a free hand to hold down the toe(s) that should remain static.

The next step is to focus on the shoe dilemma. Remember, regular shoes will keep your toes from moving freely. The solution is to wear toe socks, which isolate the toes so your brain can reconnect with each one. You can find them on Amazon at this link.

And for the times when you want to walk or lounge around the house barefoot, you can find rubber toe spreaders on Amazon at this link.

Now you have a simple way to test, and improve the motor control of your feet. And when you don’t feel like practicing the motor control drill, be sure to wear toe socks or rubber toe spreaders so your toes can come back to life. Your ankles, knees, low back – and maybe even your jaw – will reap the rewards.

Stay Focused,
CW

Test and Build Your Glutes

blog sprinter It is difficult to overstate the importance of the glutes for achieving athletic prowess. When they are strong, you can run faster, jump higher and help protect your lumbar spine from injury. Of course, a well-developed set of glutes also make you look damn good in a pair of jeans or yoga pants.

You probably already do a handful of different exercises each week that are intended to strengthen and develop your gluteal muscles. The problem? It’s easy for your nervous system to prioritize the hamstrings and low back muscles, and neglect the glutes, when you do a deadlift, squat or glute bridge. There are two common reasons why.

First, the motor cortex portion of the brain that controls movement devotes very little real estate to the glutes. This is probably one of the reasons why it’s difficult for people to make a strong mind-muscle connection between the brain and butt. Second, since we spend considerable time each day sitting, which requires zero activation of the gluteal muscles, they get weaker and lose their neural input. Therefore, many people have what Stuart McGill, Ph.D., an expert in treating low back pain, refers to as “gluteal amnesia.”

Over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with a way to easily measure a person’s gluteus maximus strength, based on an assessment that some progressive physical therapists use. Since their version requires a partner, I modified it so you can do it on your own.

Professor Vladimir Janda used to say, “Every exercise is a test.” He was right. And in this case, the opposite is true: the single-leg hip extension test is also a great strength exercise. So you’ll first learn how to use the movement to test your glute max strength, and then we’ll cover the parameters for strengthening it.

Single-Leg Hip Extension Test

How to do it: To test the strength of the left gluteus maximus, first stretch your left hip flexors so you don’t get a false positive. The test should measure your glute max strength, therefore, it’s important to eliminate any soft tissue limitations. Then, lie on your back with your left leg straight and left heel resting on a flat bench. The toes are pointed up, as depicted below.

glute test 2

Next, pull down through the left heel to elevate the hips/trunk as high as possible. The test position (aka, screen) is when your hips are at your maximum range of hip extension.

glute test 1

In order to pass the test, you should be able to hold the left hip in full, end-range extension without any rotation of trunk/pelvis, for 10 seconds (shown above). Repeat the test/screen with the right leg elevated, after stretching the right hip flexors.

Explanation: The gluteus maximus and hamstrings are both hip extensors. Therefore, this exercise doesn’t completely isolate the glute max. However, the hip flexion angle at the starting position creates a favorable biomechanical advantage for the glute max to develop force, so that’s why it’s a good strength test.

As is the case with any glute exercise or test, I always run it by my buddy, Bret Contreras, Ph.D. Here’s what Dr. Contreras had to say about the single-leg hip extension test:

This screen will assess the ability of the gluteus maximus to achieve end-range hip extension, while a rotational load is simultaneously placed upon the hips. If you’re up to par, your glutes will be sufficiently strong to resist being pulled eccentrically into hip flexion. If you didn’t pass, this indicates that you need to include extra glute activation drills into your daily warm-ups until proficiency is reached.

How to fix the weakness: What should you do if you didn’t pass the test/screen? You have two options that revolve around high frequency training (HFT) since the glutes respond especially well to it.

One option is to use the same movement we just covered to build strength. Let’s say you didn’t pass the test for the right glute max. In that case, perform 2 sets of the single-leg hip extension hold for as long as possible at the end-range, using the right leg, twice each day. Continue until you can hold the end-range lockout position for 10 seconds. Of course, the same strategy is used for the left glute, if it’s also weak.

The other option is to use a different glute activation exercise for one, or both glutes. For example, if your left glute didn’t pass the test, you could do 2 sets of the single-leg left hip thrust, for as many full reps as possible, twice each day (shown below). Then, retest your strength using the single-leg hip extension test every 10-14 days until you pass.

blog single leg hip thrust1photo courtesy of Bret Contreras

The purpose of the single-leg hip extension test is not to see if you can stop training your glutes with specialized exercises. Instead, the test helps determine if you need extra glute training throughout the week to correct an imbalance.

Now you have a simple way to do it.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Simple Fix for the Squat and Deadlift

Soldiers live by a mantra that can benefit us all: Take care of your feet first. And the legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, would devote the entire first practice of the season to teaching his players how to properly fit and lace their shoes.

Yep, performance starts from the ground up.

Each foot/ankle region has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles and tendons. When your feet and ankles are dysfunctional they can have far-reaching effects all the way up to your head. Indeed, research has demonstrated a link between a fallen arch (flat feet) and problems in the jaw.

Since your feet form the foundation of your skeletal structure, it’s imperative to keep them in proper alignment when training the squat and deadlift. Therefore, I’m going to outline two simple steps to help you stay in line from head to toe.

Ball Roll for the Plantar Fascia

Directly beneath the skin of the bottom of your feet is a thick, fibrous band of tissue that supports your foot’s skeletal structure. This is the plantar fascia and it often gets extremely stiff due to poor posture, movement and footwear.

Furthermore, the bottom of each foot contains approximately 150,000 nerve endings. When these nerve endings are stimulated with the ball roll they send a strong signal up your posterior chain to release excess tension. This can keep your calves, hamstrings and low back from restricting proper movement mechanics.

What you should do: At the beginning of your workouts, roll your shoeless feet (barefoot or with socks) over the top of a tennis, lacrosse or golf ball. I list the recommended balls in that order because they merge the spectrum from softest to hardest. Which one you use depends on your tissue tolerance. Importantly, the ball roll should not be painful – just a mild discomfort as you focus on the sorest, stiffest spots. Take deep, slow breaths during the ball roll and spend one minute on each foot.

ball foot roll

Now that the plantar fascia and posterior chain have been released of excess tension, it’s time to take one simple step to ensure your foot and ankle joints are in the proper position.

Marker Squat

A proper arch is essential for maintaining optimal biomechanics during the squat and deadlift. When the arch is aligned correctly, it also helps put all the joints above it – knees, hips and spine – in the ideal position. The most common problem is excess pronation of the feet, a dysfunctional position that’s created by muscle weakness and poor motor control in the ankle and foot joints.

What you should do: Start in your normal squat or deadlift stance, then roll your weight onto the outsides of feet while keeping the base of the big toes on the ground. If the base of your big toes aren’t on the ground you’ve created a new problem (excess supination in the foot/ankle region). So shift your weight on the outside of the feet while maintaining contact with the base of your big toes.

Once you’ve found the proper arch position, have a friend or trainer place the tip of a marker lightly against each arch. The tips of the markers will provide the tactile feedback so you can keep your feet in the ideal position when you squat or deadlift. You’ll be able to feel when your arches collapse because they will push into the markers.

Perform this drill without shoes for a few workouts to develop the proper motor control you need in the foot/ankle region to squat or deadlift with proper mechanics.

marker squat

Now you have two simple steps that can help fix faulty biomechanics from head to toe.

Stay Focused,
CW

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What the Hospital Taught Me

blog acute in patient The title of this post was intended to be provocative. However, I wasn’t in the hospital as a patient – I was there to learn how to treat patients with a vast array of orthopedic and neurological dysfunctions.

As part of my Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) training at the University of Southern California, I’m required to perform clinical rotations to develop my skill set. This summer I was assigned a clinical experience at a hospital in downtown Los Angeles that caters to trauma victims. It was, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. So I wanted to share what I’ve learned, and encourage any upcoming trainers or therapists to delve into that world.

One of the many reasons I went back to school to pursue a DPT degree hinged on the fact that, as a performance specialist, I figured out that I needed to improve my knowledge base beyond what my typical clients could teach me. Continue reading

A Better Way to Correct Lifting Form

blog megaphone If you’re a trainer, coach or physical therapist it’s essential to use effective coaching cues. For years we’ve been telling clients to “squeeze this” or “brace that” or a host of other verbal instructions that often weren’t as beneficial as we’d like.

You might know what it feels like to squeeze your glutes during a squat or lunge, but most people don’t – even professional athletes. The problem is that most clients never learn how to correctly activate certain muscles. The key word here is “learn.”

Over the past few decades, Gabriele Wulf, Ph.D., has been a pioneer in the research for determining how people learn complex motor skills. She and her team have studied the effects of different verbal cues for jump height, balance, posture and even golf. I’ll save you the work of thumbing through all her studies on PubMed and get to the bottom line: External cues work better than internal cues.

So what does that mean to coaches, trainers and therapists? It means you could get better results by using different words while coaching exercises that are typically problematic.

The deadlift, for example, is an exercise that requires a good, solid hip hinge. Therefore, we often tell clients to “hinge at the hip” during the descending phase. Or we tell them to “push your hips back as you go down.”

However, those are internal cues because you’re telling them to focus on a body part. Continue reading