Four Mobility Drills to Fix your Performance Killing Feet

We often blame our feet last for performance problems or tension leaks. But as our main connection to the ground, they are the foundation to all movement and the vessels through which we generate power and express our strength. Neglecting them is not an option. Learn four drills by  Master StrongFirst Instructor Karen Smith to regain your ankle mobility and improve your performance.


Are you Ignoring your Limitations?

What do you think is the single biggest limitation we see at our StrongFirst Bodyweight (SFB) certifications? If you said movement restrictions, you’d be right. Today, I’m going to address limitations that, maybe because they happen so close to the ground, are often ignored or dismissed. Yes, we’re talking ankles. But it goes farther than ‘just’ limited ankle dorsiflexion in an exercise context.

Our feet—all 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments—are engineering marvels that need attention, otherwise, they get cranky. A simple sounding restriction in big toe extension or flexion can cause major problems for your normal, everyday walking. What may start with stiff toes and arches can quickly lead to ankle tightness, which can cause difficulties further up the chain—to knees, hips, back, neck. Thinking we’ll get anywhere near our physical potential while neglecting foot mobility is rather naïve.

Where Should I Start?

At our Bodyweight Course and SFB Certification, the pistol wins in terms of foot and ankle mobility demands. But before we even attempt to teach it and mobility drills, we use a simple, yet telling, range of motion baseline assessment: a feet together/knees together deep squat. Restrictions show up in limited depth. Then we start layering mobility drills, retesting our baseline between each. Drills delivering the most improvement—either increase in range or ease of movement—become part of a student’s recommended daily movement prep.

What Foot Drills Should I do?

We always work toe mobility first, which quickly elicits grimacing faces and groans. What better way to drive home their neglect? This video demonstrates a few drills to liven up and mobilize your toes.

  1. Manual joint manipulation. Sit barefoot with one leg extended and cross your other ankle over it just above the knee as in a figure four. Grip your toes with your hand and gently begin moving them in circular motions. Next focus on your arches by doing hand assisted point/flex drills.
  2. Toe/Heel walks. Begin by walking on your toes as if you are in high heels (sorry gentleman, this is for you also). After a few minutes of toe walking, switch to heel walks focused on pulling your toes toward your shins.

Next, we shift our attention further up the chain to arch and ankle drills. Don’t forget to retest your baseline after each drill to assess your progress.

  1. Ankle prying. Dorsiflexion is one of the most commonly seen restrictions, so prying practice is time very well spent. You can pry in many ways. Today, I’ll focus on the ½ kneeling prying drill since it’s very effective and a familiar position for most. See the video demonstration for details.
  2. Loaded arch work. Possibly the best drill too few are doing and one of my favorite foot drills. With dorsiflexion being the most common restriction, we can’t forget to counter the prying stretch with loaded arch drills. Be sure to start very gently at first. This video shows how to slowly increase your arch loading over time.

Finally, we would make our way to the calves, hamstrings, and hips. While this article largely focuses on the feet, don’t forget that most lower body exercise—whether they are hinging, squatting, or lunging movement patterns—require these muscles to be both flexible and mobile to get the most out of them. So whenever you perform lower body movements like deadlifts, squats, swings, or pistols to name a few, good movement preparation includes your:

  • Toes
  • Arches
  • Ankles
  • Calves
  • Adductors
  • Hip flexors

When a joint is restricted, your brain will find another way to get the job done—we compensate for what we can’t do. And because the ‘new’ way isn’t always a good way, a compensation can cause tightness throughout our whole body. Do you have pain in your spine and out to your extremities? Remember it is important to look at the cause, not just the symptom. Tight feet can cause tightness all the way up the chain. By adding foot work into your weekly training, you can produce greater results, often in unexpected places. You might be surprised by a new PR in your upper body pressing and pulling, as well as your lower body, by increasing your foot and ankle mobility.

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Karen Smith
Master StrongFirst Instructor
Karen Smith is a Master StrongFirst Instructor, and the fourth woman to claim the Iron Maiden title. She has been personal training students of all fitness levels from beginners to elite US military forces since 2000. Karen specializes in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a certified SFG, SFB, FMS, and Battling Ropes instructor.

Karen currently resides in Dallas where she is available for private and group sessions. She is also available worldwide for distance coaching and program design. She travels regularly instructing workshops and StrongFirst Courses and Certifications.

She can be reached at karensmithmsfg@gmail.com or at her blog, Coach Karen Smith.
Karen Smith on Email

5 thoughts on “Four Mobility Drills to Fix your Performance Killing Feet

  • I must appreciate your efforts for such wonderful information. Hats off admin. This information is really helpful for learners like me and I would love to see more posts wrapped in a nice piece of information. Wish you good luck and create more stuff like this one. Thanks.

  • Thank you so much for writing this article Karen. The toe/heel walks have really helped me so much with my left ankle. I fractured it in a high school soccer game and it has not been the same since. I’ve had a lot of pain/instability in that left knee, hip, and lower back at times over the years. I never could quite grasp the concept of pushing my heels or feet through the floor during my KB lifts. I couldn’t feel that sensation or understand it. My glutes were never fully turned on or contracting as hard as I felt they should be while lifting, nor did I know how to fix this.
    Since practicing these toe/heel walks everyday ( and falling over several times trying to maintain my balance, haha) everything has improved. I have more power in my swings, squats and presses. I can really feel my heels and whole foot pushing through the floor for the first time. My left glute and quad flex and maintain tension during lifts in a way I’ve never felt before. I am also able to do the toe/ heel walks without falling over, so I know my balance and stability in that ankle has improved. I look forward to mastering the new tension and strength this has provided and I will continue to practice these drills daily. Thank you so very much for this extremely helpful and timely article!

  • Thanks for another great article Karen.
    I appreciate your emphasis on filling in the gaps of strength and movement that are holding me back.
    I always look forward to your articles so please keep them coming.
    I would love to see a book from you where you cover all the bases.

  • It’s so odd how this site seems to read my mind and give me what I need. This article did just that. Not but a week ago, for the first time I developed a sharp pain in my heel when going into dorsiflexion and was wondering what in the heck to do. I will definitely give these a shot. Thank you!

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