How to Build Strong and Pain-Free Feet

If you've been wearing shoes most of your life, your feet are probably weakened or even injured. Get-Fit Guy explains why shoes are not as supportive as they claim to be. Plus, learn a fantastically effective workout to strengthen and condition your feet.

Brock Armstrong
9-minute read
Episode #433

A listener named Aaron called the Get-Fit Guy Hotline and said: “I am a 44-year-old cancer survivor trying to put my body together after treatment. I’ve had a foot injury and have been walking in orthotics for months—getting weaker instead of stronger between the podiatrist visits. Do you have any tips on how to slowly move off the orthotics and instead strengthen the metatarsal area, to get back to strong feet?”

That is a great question Aaron. The foot and ankle are among the most common sites for both acute and chronic injuries in active individuals. When an injury to the foot or ankle occurs, we end up being limited in our ability to run, jump, kick, and change directions. The treatment and rehabilitation of these foot injuries is crucial in getting us back to full participation and full function. But how do we do that?

Back in 2014, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published an article called "A new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle function." That article discusses a “core” that we really ought to be training but in reality we don’t often think about. This core is nowhere near the abdomen or lower back. Yep, you guessed it, they are talking about the foot core!

In that paper, they draw some really interesting parallels between the small muscles of the trunk region that make up the lumbopelvic core and the intrinsic foot muscles. In doing so, they introduce the concept of the foot core. A core that I think we all should be spending time training.

Why Our Feet Need Training?

By the time we reach Aaron’s age of 44, our feet will have travelled about 70,000 miles (or 112,654 km). After putting that kind of mileage on our feet, it is no wonder that eight out of ten Americans say they have experienced one foot problem or another. And even worse than that, one in four Americans report that they are completely unable to exercise due to foot pain. So, folks - this is no joke.

One in four Americans report that they are completely unable to exercise due to foot pain.

Despite the fact that 25% of our bones are located in and below our ankles, and also that our feet are the foundation of our body, many of us neglect our feet. We all know that we should be exercising our arms, legs, and cardiovascular system but when is the last time you exercised the muscles in your feet? And yet, without proper muscle strength in our feet, our bodies are destined to become imbalanced or unstable. Luckily, some simple foot exercises can make a big difference.

Shoes Make it Worse

Even though most shoes are specifically designed and manufactured for things like performance, protection, correcting footfall, and of course, looking snazzy, many of them don’t take into account some very important health factors, such as:

  • Toe-boxes that often press your toes together, weakening foot muscles and affecting nerve health.

  • Thick soles with cushioning that can reduce input to sensory nerves in the feet, affecting balance and the ability to feel variations in walking surfaces.

  • Elevated heels that make it almost impossible for the ankle to move through a full and proper range of motion, placing stress on the hips, knees, and lower back.

  • Built-up arches which do all the work instead of allowing the natural arch muscles and ligaments in the foot to carry their own weight, literally and figuratively.

To make this tangential rant about overly controlling shoes quick and dirty, let’s simply acknowledge that shoes alter the structure and function of the foot. I mean, this is not a new idea. Way back in 1905, an orthopedist named Dr. Philip Hoffman conducted a “Comparative Study of Barefooted and Shoe-Wearing Peoples” and published his results, plus some very telling photos, in the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery.

Take a look at this photo of two different feet side by side—one that has never worn shoes (left) and one that has (right). Pretty big difference, right? You can actually see how the shoe has changed the direction of the big and littlest toes. To drive the point home, look at this photo which shows the veritable straightness and separateness of the toes of an adult who has never worn shoes and then look at your own feet.

Just look at the toes of a baby, before they have had their piggies jammed into some constraining footwear.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.