Most of you have screwed up feet, and don't even realize it. Thanks in part to some of the crazy choices we make in footwear, our feet have become pathologically weak. We have created a nightmare situation, not only for our feet, but also for everything up the chain. 
 

Nanos vs. Stilettos

I am a self-proclaimed prima donna when it comes to shoes. I have more pairs of shoes than any man should. About 95 percent of the shoes that I own are intended for training. These shoes were designed to protect and support the foot, integrating performance variables over style. 
 
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Dress shoes and high heels are a disaster. Most are designed purely for style and don’t take into consideration the health of the foot. My blessed mother grew up in the 50’s when image was everything. She wore high heels nearly every day of her life. As a result, her feet were sore and painful for as long as I can remember.
 
Regardless of the type of shoe you wear, one thing is certain: they cut your feet off from the world. When a layer of rubber is between your foot and the ground, the nerve endings that provide the brain with proprioceptive feedback and copious amounts of information are being neutered. It’s happening to all of us, and most of us don’t know it.
 
Shoes are prisons for your feet
Even shoes built specifically for training restrict the feet from natural movement and feedback.
 

The Oven Mitt Experiment

From this day forward, and for the next ten years, I want you to spend every waking hour wearing oven mitts on both hands. You can only take them off to sleep. We’ll find a way to work around the awkwardness of it all, hire someone to text, type, and work hand-related jobs for you. Perhaps you can have your favorite seven-year-old put bling on them so you can look smooth. 
 
Ridiculous, right?
 
Think of the level of dexterity and tactile sensitivity your hands have right now. How much of that you would lose if you imprisoned your fingers and hands inside oven mitts? If the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) is at all accurate, your hands would probably lose most of their sensitivity, as well as all of the feedback that your brain receives from your normal day-to-day activities. You would develop incapable, soft, sissy-hands from wearing the gloves.
 
This is exactly what we have done to our feet. Years and decades spent with our feet casted in our shoes have made them fragile and unstable.
 

The Foot and the Body

This article is by no means intended to replace the work of a professional in refelxology, acupuncture, or soft tissue manipulation. There is no better choice than to work with a professional if you are having issues of any kind. If you are lucky enough to find a good one, hang on to them like that girl you should have never dumped a few years ago. 
 
Many of these alternative practitioners believe you can access various organs and other body parts through the hands and feet. Acupuncturists routinely needle the feet because many of the meridian inlets and outlets of the body begin and end in the foot. Several major acupuncture points for ailments like back pain, digestive issues, and kidney and liver problems reside in the foot.
 
The brain loves movement, and the joints provide the lion’s share of proprioceptive information for the brain to create the three-dimensional map we all live in. The world our brain perceives counts on all of the incoming information for accuracy and complex motor control.
 
Just by wearing shoes, we are cutting off these essential signals to our brain.
The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, and 19 muscles and tendons. The 52 bones in the feet make up about 25% of the bones in your entire body. Every day, all these complex structures are slipped into a $125.00 pair of sneakers and strapped into place, inhibiting the foot’s ability to move naturally. It’s a travesty.
 

Reconnecting With the Ground

My first discovery about how shoes impact my performance (besides my time in cleats) was when I started training for my RKC. With kettlebells, the relationship of your foot, the ground, and the force being produced needs to be unobstructed. Most tennis shoes are meant to absorb force, not direct it into the ground, which is why people training kettlebells often wear either Chuck Taylors or nothing at all.
 
When I took my feet out of my tennis shoes and started to train barefoot, my feet hurt. They were not conditioned to harder surfaces, and it took time to become comfortable. But once I did, my training experienced a radical upgrade in performance. Power production, movement quality, and overall efficiency improved overnight, simply because my relationship with the ground was no longer muted.  
 

Awaken the Foot With a Golf Ball

In the six years I spent training kung fu, I learned dozens of disciplines to make me a more effective fighter. One of those disciplines was neigong training, much of which focused on improving our relationship with the ground, how to use it to our advantage, the cultivation of Qi from the earth, and overall rooting. 
 
We all have calcifications on the arches of our feet that have developed over a lifetime. Our plantar fascia is nearly dead and cut off from the world due to our shoes. My Sifu wanted us to break down some of those unwanted hot spots, so he had us spend time rolling out our feet with a golf ball. He explained that the more we conditioned our feet to the golf ball, the more awake they would become, and our ability to use them in combat would increase in spades. 
 
He was right. I worked my feet with the golf ball and immediately noticed an enormous shift not only in my bagua and taiji, but also in my lifting. It was as if I was feeling my feet for the first time in my life. Balance and control of my center increased several times over in the first week. My aches and pains throughout my entire body, not just my feet, seemed to all but vanish, and my rooting was like nothing I have ever experienced before.
 
Rolling the foot with a golf ball
A few minutes rolling each foot with a golf ball will restore some of their function, and may help problems elsewhere in the body.
 

How to Roll Your Feet

So what does a responsible strength coach do for his athletes to improve their performance? He buys a couple of driving range buckets, fills them with golf balls, and sets them on his desk. My athletes know to roll out their feet before every session. I need them to be physically present when they are training, so I help them turn their bodies on by waking their feet up. Here's how we do it:
 
  1. Start in the center of the foot and work from outside to inside. Roll back and forth in the middle third of the foot for about a minute. Most people will notice that the center of the foot will be tender.
  2. Next, work the top third, from the base of the toes to the upper center of the foot. 
  3. Then work the lower third near the heel. 
  4. Last, roll the outer length of the foot, from pinkie toe to heel. Many of the reflexology points that pertain to the back run this line.
 
Spend about 2-3 minutes rolling out each foot, paying particular attention to areas that are tender. When you find a hot spot, lean on the ball. Make it hurt, but nowhere near tapping-out hurt. I typically sit in my office chair or on a bench and then lean on the ball.
 
If you’re wondering if you can use something softer like a lacrosse ball or tennis ball, in the words of my Sifu, “No, you can’t.” 
 

Roll Your Feet, Up Your Game

I rarely make guarantees about anything. But in the case of rolling out your feet, I can guarantee you are going to feel better. You will feel dramatically more grounded after the first time you do it. Just remember, on days two and three, your feet are going to be really sore. After you get past the first week, the only thing you can look forward to is an upgrade to your entire training game.
 
This article was originally published on Breaking Muscle US.
 
More Ways to Free Your Feet:
 
Photo 1 courtesy of Jeff Nguyen / CrossFit Empirical.
Photo 2 courtesy of Chris Holder.
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