Build Stronger Feet and Balance

I really am a terrible person but I just can’t help myself laughing out loud, a literal lol when I watch one of those videos with people slipping, falling, crashing their bike on a straight road and of course cats slipping off the kitchen counter. 

It is an innate human thing to do – laugh at someone else’s expense. This very natural response is called Schadenfreude. ‘Schadenfreude is when we laugh at someone else’s misfortune. Schadenfreude comes from the two German words, Schaden and Freude, harm and joy’. Psychology Today It’s our built in response to avoid fear or pain. Simple hey!?

Personally I’d rather not fuel someone else’s avoidance of feel fear or anxiety by not tripping, falling, slipping, to the best of my abilities anyway. 

Another failing of mine are my feet. My big size 46 feet. I used to torture them by squeezing them into tight, rigid cycling shoes. I wore these specialised shoes for 20-25 hours+ a week for a few years when I raced full-time in the 90s’. The firmness of the shoe helps not waste energy pushing into the pedals but can and does result in pathetically weak feet and ankles if no other training is carried out.  

Apart from neurological conditions, weak feet and ankles are leading causes of trips, falls and knee pains. 

While my feet are better now than right after I hung up my bike and stiff shoes (because of knee problems), they have suffered anyway. I tend to train in the gym barefoot or in socks which has helped me immensely. No more orthotics for me. However, I noticed for ages how my bush walks took their toll on my feet and ankles despite wearing expensive barefoot style shoes. Cramps, aches and occasional plantar fascia inflammation all made walking less enjoyable. Until…

Until I discovered balance training. 

In 2016 we had some renovation work done on our house. One length of hardwood removed nearly ended up in the builders skip. This piece of 5m, 8cm x 20cm chunk of hardware made me immediately think ‘balance exercises’ in the gym. I was mostly thinking of adding this for my senior gym members as part of fall-prevention training. 

Sadly I didn’t action this right away. Thinking people would label me as mad as a fish I wasn’t brave enough to unleash the beam. Until… 

Ol Faithful

… Until I finally attended the level 1 Certification with MovNat in January 2020. The curriculum includes many aspects of natural human movement. The preparation manual included many movements to practice including balance. I didn’t really think much about the effort of walking along a length of timber until I realised how inefficient I was. Not wanting to flunk my cert because I couldn’t balance walk, I put in much practice. Pretty much daily I spent a minute here and there walking forward, backwards, shuffling sideways, duck-walking along the timber and other really quite fun moves. This was between November 2019 and January 2020 and during this time I was still doing my weekly off-road walks that I’ve always done. Very rough paths, loose stones and rocks and bits of trees etc.

I can honestly say my body had an epiphany earlier in the year. Were I normally have to focus on where I’m placing my feet to avoid an ouchy, it’s as if my feet just all-of-sudden intuitively knew where to go. These past 6 months of ongoing off-road walking have been fantastic. More relaxed, faster when I need to be and so much more efficient with fewer trips or stumbles if any at all. Best of all, my feet and ankles simply do not give me any negative feedback afterwards. No tight ankles. No big toe pain. No plantar fascia pains. My feet have learned how to be feet again it seems.

Doing more reading has supported my thoughts that balance training effectively fine tunes the feet and ankles and their reflexive strength and endurance. 

I do still daily walks on my cheap ol homemade balance beam that was saved from the builder and I have all my clients routinely walking and working on some 2x4s from Bunnings. At $5 each these have been great investments. A lot cheaper than recovering from a painful fall or trip. I’m not saying a trip or fall will never happen, cause hey, ‘life happens’, but luck favours the prepared.

If you spend your day in hard soled shoes and complain of sore feet and ankles, I really do recommend you call over to your local hardware store and pick up a length of 2×4… or check out the builders skip in your suburbs. 

Here are a couple of videos of simple balance drills, starting with one not needing any equipment at all, just the floor beneath you.

And if you can get hold of a 2×4 or similar, here are some great exercises to practice.

Wooden board is optional, but it puts a sense of reality into the practice.
A little bit more tricky, but also fun.

Got any thoughts or experiences? Why not get in touch.

Step Up…You’re Not a Kangaroo!

The 2010s and onwards will probably go down in history as the period in human development that was enslaved by social media. If in 2018 you are not found on social media and not just google, well then my friend, you just don’t exist!

The almighty interwebs will guide us too when faced with all the modern day quandaries, some helpful and some not so helpful.

  • How do you gut a fish? Let Youtube guide you. It’s how I learned actually.
  • How do you market your online PT business? Let’s some random 24 year old personal trainer help you in return for $12k (sadly true, this one!)
  • What’s the best leg strength exercises? Numerous websites will espouse the value of maintaining a diet of squats, deadlifts and olympic lifting exercises.

While this last recommendation is actually not bad it’s possibly not the best choice for most of us wanting and needing leg strength exercises that add to our health and wellbeing account. Yes, squats and deadlifts are valuable. We spend probably 60% of our training programs employing these two but, we also spend time on single leg strength exercises.

There are no real problems with squats and deadlifts for some of the time but it can be common for an individual to have little imbalances in their hips, ankles, particular muscles which will be unknown to the exerciser until something hurts.

Hurting sucks and yes, if you’ve tried some one leg strength exercises, they suck too.

Often times the more something sucks in the gym, the more benefits it holds and we should practice the sucky stuff until it’s not so sucky anymore. 

Balance or lack of is probably why single leg work sucks. The balance issue is most commonly due to the smaller synergistic muscles, the joint stabilisers, not knowing quite what to do when called upon. As great as squats and deadlifts are, they can become quite efficient quite quickly and some imbalances can arise.

We are bipedals designed with the intent to walk, run, climb and lots of other stuff unilaterally – one leg in front of the other. Our bodies are meant to utilise the muscles that control hip, knee and ankle posture and position as well as the muscles that actuate movement.  We are not Kangaroos!

By taking a little bit of time to work on the single leg exercises we can prevent a lot of pain if we were only to train bilateral movements like squats, deadlift, leg presses, kettlebell swings and such.

To compliment our bilateral movements, what unilateral / one legged exercises can we include?

  • Lunges
  • Single leg deadlifts
  • Various staggered stance squats and dedlifts
  • Step ups

Today, I’m going to run through step ups. Now, you might think there’s not too much to consider with technique. You might take steps at home, work and in the shopping centre, but to get the most out of your time doing step ups, there are a few considerations – so hear me out.

  • Start with a small step and progress to a larger step as you need to
  • Ensure the complete foot is on the step
  • Brace your midsection throughout the repetition
  • Drive pressure through your heal as you start the step up
  • Grip the step with your toes
  • Push the step down with your foot and hip
  • How far forward your knee travels is a personal comfort thing, but to start with, try to keep the knee no more than over the toes
  • At the top when upright – squeeze your ‘butt’
  • Try to control your descent – don’t just drop back down
  • You can repeat the same leg for a set before changing legs or you can alternate legs per repetition.
  • Add weight is needed – if your balance is good

Let’s look at the step up in action…

There are a few variations, but this is the main version we use at the gym.

How to program? 

This is totally dependant on the individual and goal, but for general strength, 3 to 5 sets of 5 reps prove enough. You could use these on a weekly basis to include after squats etc or you could work them harder, with more focus for a few weeks every 2 to 3 months while just maintaining a simple squat etc routine.

Next week I’ll look at another single leg delight.

Want to tell me how much you hate step ups? Please get in touch below.