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Build Big Toe Strength to Reduce Falls (2 Isometric Exercises That Work!)

Video Highlights

- Correlation between toe strength and falls
- 2 isometric exercises for toe strength
- Exercise demonstrations

Hi, I’m Dr. Eric Cobb of Z-Health Performance. Today we’re going to talk about building better toe flexor strength, particularly your big toe, to improve your balance, your stability and your safety as you move through the world. If you are not aware, we’ve been doing a long series on fall prevention. Last week I wrote a blog about specifically building big toe flexor strength.

I know this is my thumb. We’re going to talk about your toe in a second, but for demonstration, I’m going to use the thumb. The reason that we want to look into this, as I said, is that we just finished last weekend. Our live defying gravity, which is a fall preparation and fall prevention course. And we looked at mobility deficits and strength deficits, etcetera in the body that seem to correlate highly with falls, with increasing age.

When you look at the feet, specifically, a loss of flexor strength, particularly big toe flexor strength, is highly correlated with falls. And in fact, some researchers say that big toe weakness is actually one of the leading causes of falls as people age. When you look in the literature about this, it is interesting to see that we typically lose about 7-8% of toe flexor strength per decade.

So by the time you’re in your sixties, you have about 30% less strength in the toe flexors than you did when you were in your twenties. If you have not trained them now with training, it’s been conclusively proven that people even in their eighties can dramatically strengthen the toe flexors. So for us, we don’t say, hey, weak feet are a sign of aging. We say weak feet are a sign of habitual use.

Start off in your twenties, maybe you’re exercising more, you’re moving more. And then as we age, we start buying nicer, nicer shoes that are stiff or really cushioned. And all of a sudden, our feet are not working very hard. They’re walking on pillows all day, which makes them actually less sensitive and weaker over time. So we want to make sure that we have an approach available that allows us to quickly regain this strength.

So for the big toe, what we’re going to focus on are two different versions of isometrics. Let me explain these quickly. If these are new to you, go back into some of our other blogs and watch our discussion about isometric exercise. By definition, isometric means that I’m going to be creating force, but no movement. So an isometric of my thumb right now means that I’m pressing really, really hard, but it’s not moving like it would be if I was doing some kind of basic weight training exercise.

Isometrics are incredibly powerful for many things, and there are multiple versions of them that are also really important when it comes to rehabbing the feet. The two that we’re going to talk about right now, one is called an overcoming, and one is called a yielding isometric. And we’re going to talk about also at what range, whether the muscles fully contracted or fully stretched. And how does that play into making the feet stronger.

So, first thing I want you to know is that an overcoming isometric means this. Let’s say this is a wall, and I bring my big toe into that wall and I start pressing really hard, thinking about breaking through that wall. That is an overcoming isometric. Even if no movement is happening, my intent is to continually push into that barrier. An overcoming isometric is well known to increase neural drive.

So basically, brain discussion or communication to the working muscles more than other forms of isometrics and even some other dynamic exercises. ‘

So normally, whenever we’re working with people, their feet are quite dead. So we have them begin with an overcoming isometric, particularly in a more contracted range of motion. That is adding up the best of both worlds from a research perspective, to really make you more aware of what’s going on with the muscles in your feet.

After we have done that, we then follow that with a better strengthening version of an isometric, which is called a yielding isometric. A yielding isometric, we will typically put the big toe into extension. So it’s going to be at a stretched muscle length. We’re going to put it under full stretch, and then I’m going to be pulling back either with my finger or with a strap. And as I do that, I’m just simply going to resist the pull of the hand with the toe.

Now, this is called a yielding isometric, because I don’t try to push through the band. I’m just basically trying to hold my position as more and more pressure is applied. The cool part about this is that yielding isometrics generally make things stronger, faster than overcoming isometric. And at a full stretch length, or a full muscle length, that also adds into the strength effect through the full range of motion.

So, like I said, two different exercises gives you the best of both worlds. One wakes the muscle up, improves neural activity. The second will increase strength more quickly as well as endurance more quickly and explosiveness more quickly than the other version. And done at a full stretch, it actually will increase that strength throughout the range of motion a little bit better.

So let’s just quickly demonstrate these, and you can try them.

The concentric overcoming my big toe is going to be here. I’m going to think about grabbing a marble or something else. So I get into a nice full flexion. I’m then going to give myself a barrier and remember overcoming. I’m going to push into the barrier like I’m trying to break it. So now I’m going to push and I’m going to hold for 5- 8 seconds. Three, four, five.

I’m going to relax. I’m going to rest about 10 seconds and then again grab the marble, put the barrier there so I can push into it and push. And I’m going to do that somewhere between four and maybe six sets. Alright? Basically, we’re trying to accumulate around 40 to 50 seconds of work in that position. After we’ve done our four to five sets here, we’re then going to switch to the other version.

For the other version, I’m going to use a band. I’m going to wrap it around my toe, my big toe. I’m going to come out into this position and again I’m pulling my toe up into an extended position. Now, this is called a yielding isometric. So all that I’m going to do is I’m going to begin pulling with the band. Toe’s job is just to resist the pull.

All right? So I’m going to get pulling. I’m going to resist. Once again, five to 8 seconds. And as the seconds are accruing, I can pull a little bit harder if I want to increase intensity of the exercise. Rest 10 seconds. And again, I’m just trying to hold position here. And that makes this into a yielding isometric.

These feel a little bit subtle, they feel a little different, but just remember the definitions, because like I said, neurologically, they do hit the body differently and they impact different areas of the brain or require activity in different areas of the brain in order to be successful.

So these are two kind of favorite isometric approaches. I promise you do these three to four times a week, within about four weeks, your feet are going to feel remarkably different. All right? So I’m going to encourage you to give these a try. If you are a movement professional, you’re interested in blending neuroscience with what you already know, that is what we’ve been doing for over two decades.

We are a brain-based education company. We work with doctors, coaches and therapists around the world. So if this is of interest to you, make sure to subscribe to the channel and also go online, check out our free mini-course, etcetera. We really want to see if this is a fit for you so you can let us know if you have any questions. I hope that you enjoyed this.

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