Hacking the ‘Short Foot’

The short foot exercise is a technique recommended by Czech physiologist and postural expert Dr. Vladimir Janda, to build strength and endurance in the muscles that support the arch. The technique primarily strengthens the abductor hallucis muscle, an important dynamic stabilizer of the foot.

This video is a great example of how a traditional short foot is achieved and trained.

We cool? Short foot edification complete. Let’s talk some specifics.

I have always had a lot of trouble executing the ‘short foot’ technique as well as finding an optimal foot position while exercising. My feet are a pretty terrible test sample, but I will discuss them briefly:

I have hyper-mobility in most of my ligamentous structures due to some congenital laxity combined with having overstretched every part of my body at a young age while training for dance.

 
DSC_0009

Totally normal.

 
This laxity is present in my feet, which, to an untrained eye, can look like they have a fully collapsed arch -– or, a ‘flat foot’.

flat foot

Beth Flat Foot

 
However, while exercising, as well as on command, I can give both of my feet a respectable arch at any given moment by using Janda’s short foot technique (as described above).
 

Whoa!?! There's an arch in there. Sexy-time.

Whoa!?! There’s an arch in there. Sexy-time.

 
I’ve been practicing a traditional ‘short foot’ most of my adult life — a gift given to me time and again by various physical therapists. I’ve spent a ton of energy training this proper foot position, yet no matter how much squishing, reshaping, and short foot practice I do, with or without load, my feet still exhibit some calcaneal eversion (and very little arch). What’s worse, the short foot position still isn’t a part of my natural neural landscape and doesn’t feel remotely organic or comfortable. In fact, the short foot technique often causes me to feel pretty jammed up in my ankles during exercise, almost as if my talus is hitting a bony stop, especially during deep knee flexion/ankle dorsiflexion.

For years Eric and I have been toying with the idea that I may have restricted active dorsiflexion combined with some unnatural bony change from years of pointe work and gross overuse of extreme plantarflexion.

Pointe Shoe XRay

Approximately 22 years of working in this comfortable position.

In lieu of this hypothesis, to help compensate for this perceived lack of mobility and to reduce the sensation of hitting a bony end-range, I started training a fairly vertical shin angle during exercises requiring significant knee flexion.

Not surprisingly, my squat suffered big time. It was functional, but awkward. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy squatting. It felt weird and ugly.

Powerlifting Squat

Pretty much me on squat day.

I also acquired a ‘crunchy’ (albeit pain free) left knee even though the foot, knee, and hip positions were structurally sound.

I began to tell myself that, perhaps, squatting wasn’t for me. I happened to be training for the Dragon Door: Progressive Calisthenics Certification, which includes 40 body weight squats, so I thought, “Ok, I’ll keep messing with squats until the Century Test is over, then put them to bed, maybe forever.” So, as a last ditch effort to save my squat, I started royally f*#king with my foot position.

What I discovered blew my mind and has changed the way I will exercise FOREVER.

Hell Yeah Baby Meme

I discovered I could obtain a COMFORTABLE short foot position by adjusting my heels as opposed to my toes. This ‘back door’ to the short foot position has resolved my calcaneal eversion, eliminated the bony end feel during deep knee flexion/ankle dorsiflexion, increased active ankle dorsiflexion, and reduced the Cap’n Crunch sounds from inside my left knee. And guess what, kids? I can ALREADY see a major difference in the structure of my natural arch.

Here’s how it works (with photos):

Beginning in a traditional squat stance, feet under hips (or slightly wider), toes pointing straight ahead, ground the forefoot (the toes and metatarsalphalangeal joints) to the floor. Gently shift your weight forward onto the forefoot and lift the heels slightly. Then, using the hip external rotators (think glutes and deeper), adjust the heels medially (towards each other) and place them back onto the floor. Big and little toe joints must remain in contact with the floor, and you should have the center of your heel on the ground.

ReverseShortFootStep1

ReverseShortFootStep2

Reverse Short Foot Step3

 
There are several things I really like about this Reverse Short Foot Technique (totally official nomenclature):

1. Other methods of finding a proper foot position for the squat/exercise require you lift the front of the foot off the floor, throwing your weight onto your heels. When using Reverse Short Foot you get to keep your proprioceptively rich connection of the forefoot and toes on the floor.

2. With the forefoot securely grounded before adjustments are made, losing contact between the big toe joint and the floor, and the temptation to overcompensate by rolling the foot into eversion are limited.

3. You can access the deep hip rotators and let the hips dictate the foot position (as opposed to the tibia – making it less likely you will grind your knees into dust).

4. Reseating the calcaneus with slight external rotation of the entire leg brings the rear foot in line with the mid-foot which can open up additional space on the lateral side of the ankle allowing the talus to glide more freely during dorsiflexion.

After a few weeks of challenging this new foot position in single leg stance, squatting, and RDLs I saw some pretty impressive changes to my bi-lateral hallux valgus (bunions) and ability to balance without rocking into pronation or eversion. Last week, I challenged my foot position further by practicing my pistol and wushu squat, and holy hell that new foot position is really starting to stick around long after my workouts!

Beth Konopka Bergmann Wushu Squat

If you’ve ever had challenges with the traditional short foot technique I encourage you to give this a try!

 
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