Getting Into Your Toes

Several months ago, I spent some time @ IFast in Indianapolis during my time there for the NFL Combine.  I’ve been privileged to be @ the Combine with Woodway for the past few years, but usually it’s an in and out.  This year, I had an extra day, so getting over to Mike Robertson and Bill Hartman’s facility worked into the schedule.
This is a post Mike put up talking about some of his impressions of the few hours we spent at the facility.  It actually was one of the more fun “talks” I’ve done because I seem to do better when people just ask me questions, rather than have a set timed start and finish.
One of the points that I think had some gravity was the message of where the back foot should be during a tall or half-kneeling position.  My suggestion is that there is efficiency in hyperextending the toes and using the MT heads as a point of stability and contact.   Here are my reasons why, again on varying levels of “evidence.”

1.  It feels right.
I’m sure the EBP crowd will have a ball with this one, but common sense is evidence in some form.
Do this.  try the half kneeling hip extension technique with the foot relaxed and PF on the bottom leg.  Now try it again with getting into the toes.  I don’t know that I’ve ever found someone who didn’t think they felt more of a stretch through the hip flexor and quads when the toes were hyperextended.

This dude usually has good form.

Here’s what I think is happening.  When you have your foot relaxed and dorsum down, the fixed point is the knee, and the body is fairly vertical.  With the foot and toes DF, there is a posterior weight shift.  You should sink back into the hip slightly.  This weight shift offers a greater excursion for the glutes to extend the femur, and the forward glide of the head of the femur should be more pronounced.
I think you can probably mobilize well without this position, but the harder you push through the knee as a fixed point, the better the fulcrum to extend through the spine.  Leaning back into extension during a hip flexor mobilization/stretch is one of the more frustrating things I see in terms of hip mobility.  If you extend through your low back, that is met with an anterior tilt of the pelvis.  Isn’t that NASM 101 that an anterior tilt of the pelvis is from tight hip flexors?

What are you even doing up on the table in the first place?

The half kneeling position is certainly a key position for the Turkish Getup and Split Squat progressions.  These terminal moves are where we want the hip extension through the back leg to present itself.  If that is the position in where we need mobility for technical proficiency, that might be a fair reason to do at least some reps in this position.

2.  Think Anatomy Trains.
I am thinking of the Superficial Back Line in particular.  We know that this fascial “line” traverses from the scalp to the sole of our foot and toes.  Given this line, if there is shortening of the line, it should pull the body into an extension pattern like a back handspring.

This stuff never ceases to amaze me.

So consider the half-kneeling position.  The line is slacked from the cranium to the posterior knee, as the position should be tall and neutral.  If you push into your toes, you traction the back line through the fixed point of the toes.  Because you also have a fixed point at the knee, instead of bending backwards, you lean forward.  That’s the weight shift from above.
This tension between the toes, ankle, and knee translates to create relative flexion at the hip.  There’s a bigger moment to stretch against with the glute contraction.  The fascial connection of the Superficial Back Line is the reason why.

3.  It’s a trick.

This one is just my thinking out loud of sorts.  I have no way to prove this other than anecdotal repetitions, but it definitely ties in to the biomechanics and fascial components above.

The power in this mobilization/stretch is the reciprocal inhibition of the anterior hip muscles, your ASIS/AIIS hip flexors and quads.  I think we would all agree on that.  I think at the very least, the mobilization feels different with changing the ankle and/or toe position.  Part of the reason is because there is a much stronger glute contraction elicited with the toes in position.

I’ve said before in other topics that the brain is often just one giant emergency break.  It is a governor on inputs and output through all of the body’s systems.  With the fascial line engaged with toes into the floor, I think there is message to the brain saying, “Hey, this body is about to propel forwards, so ALL SYSTEMS GO!”  The fascia has that level of sensory integration.  We know this as well.  The brain gets the message and releases neural flow to the glutes, and there is a bigger contraction.  And I think it’s because of the sensory integration of the foot that demonstrates mobility and stability though all 4 of its joint systems: big toe mobility, midfoot stability (should be a nice arch reflexively), TC mobility, and ST stability (pretty much by default-not a huge player here).

With the toes out, the brain doesn’t get all that feedback via the foot, and the glute is not inhibited, but it is not as excited as when there is a different level of sensory input.
Again, this is just my theory, but the bottom line is there is clearly a biomechanical difference.  We should be able to see that the fascia is involved.  There’s reflexive stability occurring.  When all of these stars are aligned, I think the CNS lets the body act on the integrity it is recognizing.  The sensory input from toe mobility is the keyhole to get a better pop through the hips.
For the same reason(s), I’m not sure doing bridges or 1-leg bridges on the heels is the best choice, nor is allowing the toes to curl up in sitting back into a squat.  I think we need full contact of the toes, so the brain can recognize….or at least be tricked into thinking….that there is forward propulsion in the plan.

Dude, it's a Trick, not a Trap!

There are going to be some positions where the toes are not going to be dug in.

Again, I mentioned before that I think you can get the hip flexors without the feet, but 1) the stretch is not as strong, and 2) it is very easy to hang on the hip capsule which feels like a stretch, but it is nothing more than pushing against the hip capsule, as well as extending in the spine.  This is an example of Femoral Anterior Glide as per Sahrmann.  The femur translates or slides forward instead of spinning or rotating forward.  A steady diet of this with the wrong hip can lead to your FAI of choice.
There is that double chair stretch that I’ve seen and yoga pigeon on the floor, and while there may be a release of the hip flexors, I think you are cranking on the psoas.  Look at the anatomy: Anterior pelvic tilt.  Psoas shortens from both ends.  “Oh, but it worked for me.  My back pain is gone.”  Anyway.

Old example from Sahrmann demonstrating the difference between glide and spin at the femoral head.

Babies don’t push into their toes when they crawl or verticalize with assistance the first time around 9 months.
Well, I would say that babies are not yet aware of the need to drive through the feet, and in fact, the success they have in getting to standing with the arms assisting confirms that they don’t yet need to call on the neural flow.  You’ll see this even when they begin to walk with a large steppage gait.  There isn’t much pushoff through the toes.  Babies do things because they have to in order to meet their sensory demands.
There comes a realization as we mature that pushing into the toes gets us somewhere faster and more stable.
This is of note in training DNS  positions where the NDT goals are guided chronologically more so than biologically.

Lastly, addressing the rear foot in a RFE Split Squat with the foot flat, for all the reasons above, is probably a good way to limit the contribution of the back foot.

Back foot down. Vertical tibia in the front.

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14 Responses to “Getting Into Your Toes”

  1. Donald Berry says:

    Thanks for posting this. Yes it feels right, and that is how I and my patients were performing it until I got corrected. Thanks for putting it together like this!

  2. Smitty says:

    Charlie,

    I’m having a hard time visualizing what you’re saying in Point #2.

    “So consider the half-kneeling position. The line is slacked from the cranium to the posterior knee, as the position should be tall and neutral. If you push into your toes, you traction the back line through the fixed point of the toes. Because you also have a fixed point at the knee, instead of bending backwards, you lean forward. That’s the weight shift from above.
    This tension between the toes, ankle, and knee translates to create relative flexion at the hip. There’s a bigger moment to stretch against with the glute contraction. The fascial connection of the Superficial Back Line is the reason why.”

    It seems if you put the back line on tension by pushing into the toes, wouldn’t it take up the slack and move you into extension?

    Thanks in advance,

    Smitty

  3. Charlie says:

    It should be slacked above the knee and tensioned below the knee.
    You are right that when you push into the toes, you extend.

    That is what I am trying to say.

  4. Ray McCarthy says:

    Charlie,

    Great stuff and something I will “play around with” today at the gym. With myself first of course…..

    Thanks Much!

    Ray McCarthy

  5. Doug says:

    This is a great post, I agree with you and teach this method with all my clients. I like the “push off” toe position for all half kneeling and tall kneeling positions: chops, lifts, rows, presses, lat pulldowns, overhead triceps rope presses etc.
    keep up the great work.

  6. Mark McGrath says:

    Excellent intuituive process. Your points are supported by Osteo/TCM practitioner and author Phillip Beach (www.phillipbeach.com) in his book ‘Muscles and Meridians’. He describes a new approach to re-setting the body using ‘archetypal postures’ or floor positions of rest. One of these is the Japanese sitting posture with the toes extended, which morphs into the drinking posture when you extend your forehead to the ground without use of the arms. Utilises sacrotuberous ligament amazingly.
    Since putting clients into the toes extended kneeling posture, it becomes incredibly apparent why we have so many low-back issues. This vital link of the chain is not functioning.

  7. Mark says:

    AWESOME post as usual. Gonna have my trainers read this one for sure.

    Also “What are you even doing up on the table in the first place?”==> LMAO

  8. Sam Leahey says:

    If anyone is interested in illustrations of Charlie’s points, you can find them here:

    http://exercisesforinjuries.com/coaching-the-joint-by-joint-versus-talking-about-it/

    SL

  9. Christopher says:

    Charlie,

    Thank you for this post.

    Your opinions on the pigeon?

    I tend not to use it. Isn’t it too complex? Hip extension on one side, hip external rotation and flexion on the other side … all too often, the rotation seems to happen at the lumbar spine.

    Your thoughts?

  10. Charlie says:

    I think it is a very fair move just like everything else, as long as it fits the standards of the joint by joint.
    I imagine someone should be able to do a Russian split before they do a deep pigeon.
    But in all honesty, I’ve never been formally trained in these yoga positions, so I’m not sure what the perception of technical proficiency is in the first place.

  11. BillBowe says:

    Does the big toe even have the range of motion to do a RFESS with the toe down?

  12. Dave says:

    Solid post with some good info.
    Regarding #1…Wouldn’t a simpler explanation be that when you dorsiflex the foot and hyperextend the toes during 1/2 kneeling that you increase the amount of knee flexion- increasing tension on the RF, which is why the stretch is more pronounced?

  13. Charlie says:

    Maybe.

  14. Andrew says:

    I practice Kendo, and a fast and powerful strike depends on driving explosively off the rear leg and through the hips.
    My sensei, a 6th Dan with 30 years experience, recently came to fully realise the effectiveness of digging in the toe to increase the power of the strike—something he’d been told years previously by a Japanese master.
    This post explains the science behind how this might actually work—fascinating!
    Thanks!

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