Why You Should Move and Exercise With Your Feet Straight-(er)

Let’s just say it outright: having full access to your body’s potential is harder than it sounds. This is especially true as modern people. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s just not practical to squat barefoot on the subway or in the boardroom. In the well-defined tug-of-war that is nurture vs. nature, we can change the “nurture” to be “shaped by the environment” and “nature” to mean, what is it a human being is supposed to be able to do given our 2.5 million years old physiology? One thing we do know though is that the world’s fastest runners, highest jumpers, most successful cyclists all share one trait – their feet are straight when they move and exercise.

Use It or Lose It

One of the aspects of human physiology that is underappreciated is the dynamic relationship between the actual physical loads on the human body and how the body responds. The easiest place to appreciate this “nurture affects nature” dynamic is in the bones of the human body. In the late 19th century, German surgeon and anatomist Julius Wolff described how the bones of a healthy person reflected the loads under which they were placed. If loading on a particular bone increases, the bone will remodel itself over time to become stronger to resist that sort of loading. 

“Use it or lose it”.

-Wolff’s Law

We tend to think of loading as lifting weights or jumping. But loading can also mean the absence of strong forces in the boney tissues. In the 1990s, osteoporosis became a “public health crisis.” Originally we told people that were susceptible to bone loss to up their calcium and magnesium and to walk more. This, of course, turned out to be an incomplete recipe for correcting this problem. The real solution had to include higher than bodyweight forces. We needed to jump and land AND have the right substrates on hand in order for those bones to remodel and become stronger. Wolff’s law is the original “use it or lose it” philosophy. “But isn’t this article about foot position?” It is, but we need some context first.  

“You are as old as your feet”

– Russian proverb

What is Normative?

As we begin to lay out our case for what “normative human function” is, we can draw from any number of sources. By normative, we don’t mean normal. We mean, the expected ranges of motion across the whole spectrum of human body type (without the presence of pathology or injury). For example, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons suggests that “standard” ankle dorsiflexion (flexing your foot towards your shin) should be expected to be 20 degrees. Standing requires zero dorsiflexion by comparison. If you were laying on your stomach and someone tried to flex your foot towards your shin, expected would be 20 degrees. The gold standard for physical therapy (Norkin and White) also suggests that 20 degrees are expected. There are a couple of other reference sources that suggest a bit more, but I appreciate that these values of ankle motion are a bit more on the conservative side. See fig (a) below. 

Plantar flexion and Dorsiflexion

Standardized ranges of motion can be thought of as context-free “snapshots” of human capacity. Because these body measurements are observed without the context of the rest of the body and without actual loaded movement, they are useful but incomplete. Knowing how far the steering wheel will rotate when the car isn’t moving is nice, but it doesn’t really say anything about how responsive the steering is at speed or how well the car drives. It’s clearly important, but by itself, it’s incomplete information about the system as a whole.  

If the expected range of motion when flexing the ankle with a bent knee is 20 degrees, the first question we should ask is, “what does squatting look like if I’m missing all or almost all of my ankle dorsiflexion?” You can certainly squat down partway with no ankle range of motion (your lower leg will be very vertical) and your torso will have to bend forward at the waist to stay balanced, but you can do it. This zero ankle motion squat will make it harder to be in very athletic shapes (tough to compete looking at the floor with your hips hinged into a deep hip hinge) and it certainly isn’t ideal for keeping a barbell on your shoulders for a front squat. I will repeat, it is possible.  

It turns out, however, that being able to flex your ankle is actually quite useful for athletic movement and even activities of daily living, like squatting with 100 kg on your shoulders or squatting to the toilet. And, when you can appropriately flex your ankle, you can move and exercise with your feet straight…which is ideal…

Dr. Kelly Starrett coaching an athlete
Check out how I’m squatting with straight feet

We have movement genius built into our DNA

The next question sets itself up. Don’t people squat and move throughout their day just fine without having full access to their ankle range of motion? You bet we do.  

Enter: Compensation. Humans are some of the most clever animals on the planet when it comes to creating viable solutions to complex problems. The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. It happens to be attached to a body that has been evolving for more than a couple of million years in its more modern form. We are built to move and move at all costs. Our bodies are extraordinary in their capacity to continue to move in even the most austere conditions. Our very survival used to be predicated on being able to hunt, fight, gather and carry sustenance, and reproduce. Our bodies aren’t fragile. On the contrary, our bodies get better and stronger when they are stressed. They are anti-fragile. 

“Muscles and tissues are like obedient dogs.”

– Pediatric PT saying

There is also a flip side to the incredible adaptation abilities of our bodies. Remember when we described “nature” as “shaped by our environment?” The same mechanisms that allow us to adapt so easily to difficult environments and loads, can work against us if we don’t appreciate the implications of our anti-fragile selves. For example, if we fail to move in ways that are consistent with the environmental demands of our evolutionary selves, we may find that we may lose access to ranges of motion that aren’t regularly touched. Can you squat all the way down to the ground while keeping your heels on the ground? I bet you could when you were a toddler. It’s so common for children to be able to perform this simple movement, in fact, that it is a red flag if they are unable.

So what changed? Moreover, when did it change? Overnight? All of a sudden? Do you remember a moment when you no longer could perform this fundamental human movement?

The chances are that as you aged, your movement behaviors changed as you began to interact differently with the world around you. For example, you probably moved from ground-based play exclusively, to more time spent sitting in a chair at a table. You also moved from being barefoot nearly all the time to wearing whatever shoes your family provided for you. Were those shoes flat or did they have a thicker heel than they did a toe? Were you aware that you might have suddenly and radically changed not only how your feet interacted with the ground, but how far your heel was now off the ground?

While it may be difficult to imagine that these seemingly insignificant environmental nudges to your physiology actually aggregate into expressed changes in movement outputs, we must consider that they are potentially shaping us over a time span of years to decades. Imagine missing a night of brushing your teeth. This is quite reasonable if you’ve ever been to college and pulled an all-nighter studying, or worked a graveyard shift, or even taken a red-eye cross country flight. It’s probably not really that big a deal to your dental health. But, what would happen if you started missing days regularly, or even weeks?  I bet the results would be pretty self-evident, and relatively quickly. The same feedback mechanisms, unfortunately, do not equally manifest themselves in the human body. We might begin to experience changes in our tissue systems and never really be confronted with the potential implications of these changes, sometimes ever.  

Remember, human beings are savage survival machines. Our bodies are designed to last a hundred years, buffer the ravages and degradation of life and injury, and still function to the last. The problem with this incredible gift is when we come to believe that what we are doing and how we are doing it, or how we are moving or not moving, is sustainable given that we haven’t had any “problems”. Add to this a super-computer brain that is designed to make do with what it has to work with, and it’s easy to confuse “good enough” for “what is it I should be able to do again?”

Ora Reed-Holland, age 114
Ora Reed-Holland age 114

Imagine what an advantage it is to have a body that can cope with changes in its mechanical expression of movement by instantaneously creating workarounds. You’d still be able to walk around without any movement in your ankles (albeit with less efficiency, speed, and balance) for example. Kids with early signs of muscular dystrophy create brilliant solutions for getting up off the ground with straight legs and very little leg strength. In persons with cerebral palsy, altered changes in the brain’s ability to coordinate movement is overridden by the same brain, the body creates stability and again retains locomotion.  

The former examples may seem extreme, but they illustrate how well our bodies can adapt to significant changes in our fundamental biology. What then is the body’s compensation or workaround strategy for missing ankle range of motion? 

We turn our feet out. We walk like ducks and simply negate our missing ankle and foot function by walking around the ankle joint and rolling across the foot. As a survival strategy, this is pretty brilliant. But, it begs the existential question, “Is survival enough?”

Duck with straight feet
Even ducks actually move with straight feet?

The short answer is, sometimes? If I’m being chased by a hundred rabid chickens, I’ll use whatever strategy is available to me, thank you.  

The rest of the time, survival as a baseline is a pretty low bar. And, it’s very short term oriented. If you ever want to run faster, farther, jump higher, cut quicker, or ride a bike faster, you are going to need to have your feet pointed straight ahead. 

We recognize that full physiological function may not be on everyone’s priority list given that most of us just want to be able to go about our lives in a pain-free state. Heck, those bunions and demi-ankles may not ever really cause you grief. Go ahead and eat little chocolate donuts while smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. I personally guarantee this won’t create immediate problems in your health. The operative word here is “immediate”. We should think about behaviors in the short term and in the long term.  Sometimes it’s harder to do a better thing that ultimately pays off in terms of opportunity and potential you can’t yet appreciate.  

Kid smoking sitting next to a chicken.
Please note that both the child and the chicken’s feet are pointed straight

Reality Check

We are forced to confront simple truths:

Do we accept lower levels of function because the potential down-stream consequences aren’t immediate?  

Are we ok with the fact that survival compensation strategies limit force production, skill transferability, and movement economy, and potentially lead to dysfunction and pain?

Are we not sophisticated enough to adjust our environments to maintain the abilities with which nearly every child on the planet is born?

At The Ready State, we emphasize positions and techniques that maintain the full capacity of the human being. We have long maintained that the “best” athlete is the person that can pick up a new skill, the fastest. We choose shapes that reflect the full and normative expression of human physiology. We believe that technically good human movement is more robust than movements that contain survival compensations.  We believe that movement skills are robust and that they should transfer across skills, sports, ages, and cohorts.  

Missing ankle range of motion or having incomplete access to your physiology isn’t a value statement. It’s a reality. No one knows or can account for your personal injury history, environmental exposure, or movement learning. It’s not good or bad. But it is one or zero. This means you are either at full power and ability, or you have the opportunity to get even better (and believe me, I know lots of the world’s very best that can still get better).

In short, we believe and can demonstrate that moving, squatting, jumping, running, landing, and riding are all done better with feet that point straight ahead. Again, the best athletes on the planet move and exercise with their feet straight…did I say that again?

It may just be an issue of practice. And, it may be an issue of soft tissue restriction. Either way, muscles, and tissues are like obedient dogs. And, remember, at The Ready State, we have lots of content that can help with your tight ankles.

Feet straight-er, please.

14 thoughts on “Why You Should Move and Exercise With Your Feet Straight-(er)

  1. Avatar
    Barry says:

    Adaptation: By the end of my grade six year I had developed a limp due to multiple sprains through my childhood; my family GP told me the limp was permanent. Oddly, I could outrun anyone I played with at that time and a few months previously I ran a five minute mile. (Sadly, the coaches at my school had no idea that that was a remarkable time).

    I decided that track and field was the sport that would repair my feet. When I started, one of the coaches noted both my limp and the fact that I moved with my feet pointing outward. He tried to direct me to throwing events'” You’ll never be a good runner.” I persisted, and he relented but insisted I work on getting my feet square.

    Brilliant.

    The school 100 yard record holder was a grade 12 kid with the body of a god. He was mean and cocky to boot. And he smoked! I set myself the goal of beating his record.

    Now you need to understand that I was a spectacularly skinny kid, very quiet, even shy.

    My dad helped me practice starts in the evening. He was the one who noticed the lack of ankle mobility, “You need to power off the front of your feet not the sides.” That was it: every morning before school and every night before bed I did push ups, chin ups, sit ups and rocking in and out of the start position keeping my feet pointed straight down the “track”. I would rock in and out of this position hundreds of times. Then one evening an unbelievable power surged through my feet and I took off in what was probably one of the most freeing starts I have ever experienced. Trouble was I was in my bedroom at the time.

    When my parents rushed into the room, they found my semi-conscious and across the other side of the room from the wall I damaged. We lived in that house for a few years after, and dad never fixed the wall

    By the end of grade eight I beat that record of the smoking grade 12 sprinter. My feet were pointed straight down the track every step of the way.

    I am 72 now and believe any success I have enjoyed in sports emanated from the time I spent improving foot strength and mechanics.

  2. Avatar
    Jackson Tyler Eddy says:

    Great read, thanks! Couple questions…

    What about Lebron James? I have a similar feet out style to him (more with my right foot) and always wondered if this was something I should try and change. I’m a 40 year old pickup basketball player (2-3 times per week) and I’d love to keep whooping on the young bucks for 30-40 more years. 😉

  3. Avatar
    Christian Stegall says:

    This is a great article. Thank you! I’m a big Katy Bowman fan and have practiced feet straight for awhile but have struggled with marrying these ideas with what I’m taught at my gym which is for some lifts feet and knees are angled out. Instinctually this has seemed wrong b/c my goal is squat well before squating heavy. Feet out seems like a cheat, or compensation to get a heavier weight. That is true isn’t it? Or, are there some lifts that should be executed with feet pointed slightly out? It seems this article has indicated no, that working toward better ankle mobility/range of motion so that your feet can be straight is the healthiest thing for all our endeavors. Just wanted to make sure there weren’t any addendum’s to this.

  4. Avatar
    Dave says:

    I had an experienced personal trainer who insisted that my feet be made straight during workouts. However as I told him my feet do not point straight they point out to the sides and if I force them to be straight it causes my knees to point inward. He pushed me to put my feet straight. After months of that I developed a severe strain in one knee and was unable to walk which gradually recovered over 3 weeks while stopping trainer workouts. An experienced osteopath MD then advised me to stop forcing my feet straight.

  5. Avatar
    John says:

    I studied your training recommendation to point my feet straight ahead. I can follow that recommendation for some movements, but not for others. It caused me problems in the squat to point my feet straight ahead, with external rotation torque at the hips. Like many people might have, I turned my knees out to the sides a fair amount for some years of time while squatting. I didn’t experience ankle impingement or loss of balance from doing so. However, I might have lost strength or coordination in the bottom position from trying to push my knees out while also straightening my legs out of the bottom position.  

    Nowadays, with my feet pointing the same direction as my knees, 30 degrees or so to the sides during a squat, I keep the same foot arch but have more strength out of the bottom position because I am not concentrating on keeping my knees out. My knees like to track in the direction of my feet when I squat. My feet can keep their arch when pointing to the side because my feet are strong enough to do that. Some of that was due to my move to flat shoes years ago. Everyday use of flat shoes partially rehabbed one of my flat feet and strengthened both of my feet and my shanks. Ironically, it was actually the addition of unilateral exercises like step-ups or split stance leg presses or one-legged leg extensions on a leg press that gave me more balanced leg strength and hip coordination. I deemphasize the squat in my own strength training routine in favor of unilateral exercises or split stance exercises.

    I have always had plenty of dorsiflexion and plantar flexion range of motion, but studying your recommendations made me more aware of my feet eversion and foot rotation. I do my best to walk and run with my feet straight, and a combination of things made the difference for me in that area, including your helpful book on running. 

    Thanks, Kelly.

  6. Avatar
    Tim Jordan says:

    Very good article. I would just like to make a couple of points. Sometimes upstream problems in knee and hip alignment, degree of pelvic tilt and lower back lordosis can manifest in foot position and misalignment. Correcting foot position alone may help, with but not be enough to address, those problems.
    Also, another human attribute important for survival, albeit brain based, is cooperation. Essential for successful hunting and gathering. That same cooperation in our agriculture based society can translate into delegation i.e. getting others to do things for you. This allows specialisation to emerge which is fine for high level complex skill based activities which not everyone can do. Eye surgery for example. Problems arise when we delegate everyday physical effort to others and perform fewer and fewer physical tasks ourselves. Enter time and effort saving machines and we may be left without nothing more physically demanding than typing. We need to engineer physical activity into our way of life again as even short periods of regular exercise do not compensate for an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
    Finally, I cannot agree more with you about the possibility of movement dysfunction in high level athletes. There are so many factors that contribute to athletic success that extrapolating best movement practice from those who win gold medals is to fail to recognise that without those flaws they might perform even better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *