5 Exercises for Stronger, More Flexible Feet

By , Stacey Lei Krauss, barefoot fitness expert
Over the past three decades, fitness shoe manufacturers have developed advanced technology to cushion and control motion in our feet and ankles. While this advanced support can feel great, it doesn't allow our joints and soft tissue to articulate normally. As a result, we've disconnected with our feet! Much of our losses in flexibility and mobility can be attributed to the fact that our feet have become stiff and weak.   A healthy, aligned and balanced body begins in your feet—and then translates through your entire kinetic chain (ankle, knee, hip, lower back).
As a pioneer in foot fitness (Sole Training®) and barefoot training (The willPower Method®), I've been helping everyday clients and athletes strengthen, stretch and train from the feet on up for more than 10 years. If you're intrigued by barefoot running/training or thinking of trying minimalist shoes, you must start working on your feet first. And even if barefoot training isn't something you're considering, everyone can still benefit from building foot and ankle mobility and strength.
Are you tired of wearing uncomfortable orthotics or getting painful cortisone injections? Are you dealing with an old injury or plantar fasciitis? Are you finding that your balance skills are not what they used to be?
These five exercises will help you to strengthen and stretch all ten toes, and develop flexible strength from the ground up.  Over time you will enjoy improved balance in daily activities and workouts, a stronger walking/running stride, increased circulation and mobility throughout the feet and ankles, and significant reductions of foot, leg and lower back pain and injuries. All it takes is five minutes a day!
Before your next run, walk or workout, try these moves from my "willPower & grace®: Mile High" DVD in bare feet:
Begin with feet firmly on the floor, parallel to each other, shoulder distance apart.
Toe Fan
Lift and lower your toes. You want your pinkie toe to rise to the same level as your big toe. Repeat 4 times. Then, on the lift, spread your toes as wide as you can 4 times.
This exercise will strengthen the muscles in your front lower leg compartment (shin) as well as your toes.  Increased strength and flexibility in your toes can lead to a stronger pushoff for runners/walkers and better balance.

Great Toe Down
Leave all 10 toes up. Press just the big toes down and up. Repeat 8 times. Then do the same with the pinkie toes 8 times. Then alternate big toes and pinky toes 8 times.
This exercise develops smart neuromuscular connections (reconnecting) with your feet. Smart feet are the base of a strong, healthy kinetic chain, and can lead to greater function all the way up the body.

Rock Out
Rock onto the outer edge of your foot and then the inner edge a few times loosening up the ankles.
This flexible strength exercises for the ankles may lead to a reduction in ankle injuries. 

Heel Raise
Lift just the heel of your right foot so you’re on the ball of that foot. Slowly drop it down to the floor. Repeat 8 times. Then, with the heel lifted, roll the ball of the foot from side to side. Repeat on the other side.
In addition to developing flexibility in the forefoot, this exercise helps to stimulate the reflexology points in your feet that correspond to the heart and lungs—a great exercise to do prior to a cardio workout

Grip the ground with your toes and release. (Grip it rather than curl the toes under.) Repeat 4 times.
This exercise stimulates the movement of the arch lifting (called “doming”). 
Take a few minutes to do these moves each day. You should find this will improve your balance, flexibility and alignment so you’ll get more from whichever form of exercise you enjoy the most.
About Stacey Lei Krauss
Stacey Lei Krauss is an international fitness educator accredited with ACSM, ACE, AFAA, 10 years of dance training and over 20 years in the fitness industry.
Considered a pioneer of Foot Fitness, she was coined the "Barefoot Contessa" by Daily Candy, San Francisco, for her Sole Training® program. Since 2000, Stacey Lei has taught thousands of people how to strengthen and smarten their feet, eliminate foot pain, and enhance function and performance.

During the launch of the Nike Free (barefoot/natural) shoe in 2005, Stacey Lei was signed as a Nike Elite Instructor, and she continued her affiliation for six years. She programmed, scripted and recorded the Nike Anywhere, Anytime downloadable workouts, available at iTunes.
In 2011, after a decade of barefoot study, she joined the Vibram FiveFingers® team as Lead Fitness Advisor; writing education and programming to help consumers and athletes understand the concept of natural foot training and how to use Vibram FiveFingers® as a safe and efficient training tool.

Stacey Lei is the president of willPower productions, LLC., and the creator of The willPower Method. She is best known as the creator of the award-winning barefoot cardio-fitness program, willPower & grace®, which is represented by a global team of instructors and taught in fitness facilities around the world.  As a Reiki student and practitioner, she approaches exercise and movement through a functionally integrated body-mind-spirit practice.

Do you think barefoot-strengthening exercises are important for everyone? Have you tried the barefoot or minimalist shoe trend?

Photos provided by Stacey Lei Krauss/The willPower Method®.

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My wife and I do a lot of walking and I think these exercises will really help on the longer walks. Wouldn't it be great to get rid of achy feet? Report
As someone who has suffered permanent foot damage because of the barefoot movement, I would definitely caution people from jumping into the trend until the science is in. After all, our ancestors may not have had shoes, but they also didn't have paved surfaces. That said, these exercises look great and I will definitely do them (after which I will step back into my shoes)! Report
Won't be trying barefoot running, but will definitely try these foot exercises in the hopes that they'll improve my feet health. Report
My podiatrist says most of the injuries he sees are from barefoot running, and those shape-up shoes from Sketchers Report
Doming reminds me of that scene in Die Hard, in which the hero takes off his shoes and socks to grab the carpet with his toes, and the movie takes off from there!

Can some of the exercises be done seated or at a Barre? Report
Positively fabulous information. I've been stationary so long, my poor feet really have a load to carry and I'm excited to use these exercises to make them stronger so I can move more. Report
Loved reading this - and I am a big proponent of foot fitness. I wear my Fivefingers for all my workouts, and I have a pair that I wear outside the gym, too - and at home, it's barefoot all the time. I find it does make a big difference.

I'll definitely be adding these little exercises to my routine, though. Every bit helps! Report
I love this! I am able to do the Toe Fan, Great Toe Down, and Doming exercises at my desk, and my students are none the wiser. Unless, of course, they look at my hands...apparently my toe movements are somehow linked with my finger movements. That's something I'll have to work on! Report
I am so going to start doing this every day during a conference call at work!! My ankles are terribly weak and I just got over a bout of plantar fasciitis that lasted over a year. If anyone is suffering from plantar fasciitis, put Vicks Vapor Rub on the bottom of your feet before your socks in the morning and with a pair of socks at night ..... every day for a week, and your pain will go away! I noticed relief the first night! All gone. Granted I didn't have very much inflammation or damage, so this really just took care of the last little bit. These exercises should help to prevent it from ever being a problem again. ^_^

Thank you for this article! Report
Thanks so much. I needed. It works!! Report
I have heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, arthritis, neuropathy, tendonitis and corns. The only time I am on my feet without my custom orthotics is in the shower or on my yoga mat. I was amazed that I can make it through a yoga practice without shoes! I will definitely try these simply exercises but I will not be trying to go barefoot ever again. Report
I've been reading Born to Run and I think these exercises will help with the opinions expressed there. Report
I've toyed with barefoot running, and I definitely feel like most of the shoes available today are over-engineering us. But I'm not yet comfortable with giving them up, altogether. I'm happy, though, to have these foot and lower leg exercises to add into my rotation. I remember that there is a Pilates series and a piece of equipment for working on alignment in the foot, too. Thanks for a great blog article! Report
No runner but those toes exercise are great LOL! Report
Love it! Report
Added to my favorites and I plan to add these exercises to my daily routine. Love the piggies! Report
Loved this great exercise and I've tried them as I was reading this so easy to do for 5 minutes a day and it now will be done daily to help get my feet strong and have greater balance, etc. Thank you for it. Report
Great blog. My feet get tired and sore if I standing for a while. And I'm wondering if this will help with my foot problem, I have a bone spur on the base of big toe on the top and have feel pain when bending forward. I will try these exercises. Thanks for the info. Report
I think these exercises are a great way to help strengthen feet and ankles and I'm looking forward to trying them. I'll have to be careful with the toe exercises though as I have Morton's neuroma (nerve damage from wearing high-heels years ago) and don't need to do anything to worsen it or bring on an attack.

Thanks for the blog! Report
Thank you for the great simple exercises, so often our feet are forgotten. I think these exercises would be great for everyone to strengthen and improve circulation. My son's foot got crushed by a bobcat bucket and still has pain... I think these exercises will help his weakened foot.
As for going barefoot, I am not fond of shoes but I have not tried the minimalist shoes. Perhaps someday. Report
Fantastic Im going have to try them on my painful feet. God Bless You And Have a Wonderful Week. Report
I did these exercises today with my chair yoga group at the senior center. I think they are great and I plan to use them often. If anyone needs strong, stable feet, it is the retirees who are so afraid of falling. Report
This was wonderful!!! I've had so much trouble with my feet for several years now and these exercises just felt fantastic... Thank you!!! I'll be using them again and buying the DVD soon too. My feet feel so alive right now :) Report
I'm at that age where an old ankle injury and arthritis were making my feet stiff and exercise/walking is sometimes very painful. I tried all these and WOW! my feet already feel better! Thank you for sharing this! Report
LOVE the ankle tattoos! Report
Thank you for sharing these wonderful exercises. I am a firm believer in Vibram Five Fingers footwear. I tried them because I was never comfortable in regular shoes and my custom orthotics. I have neuropathy, and have had foot surgeries including a bunionectomy, tarsal tunnel, and hammer toes release and these shoes allow my feet to relax without pain. My balance is much better as I feel more connected to the ground. Report
Nice exercise. Its really simple and any body can do this, I have been facing ankle pain since 15 days.I am taking medication but its for temporary relief. I hope these exercises would help me out. Nice exercise. Its really simple and any body can do this, I have been facing ankle pain since 15 days.I am taking medication but its for temporary relief. I hope these exercises would help me out. www.comfortor.de/footexercises.html
No, I certainly wouldn't go without shoes, since some smart person invented them many centuries ago apparently because our ancestors found that going without shoes wasn't good. Report
Great exercises !
But on "Great Toe Down", my toes only move together. Is that normal ?
Fantastic! I am so delighted to read Stacey's foot exercises.
As a runner I am finding the more distance I cover, the more I need to stretch and flex my feet.
I am drawn to Stacey's mind/body/spirit integration.
Respect sister!
I have a new mini goal for Jan- buy vibrams for Christmas and have a go! Report
I like these! I can even do them in a chair on the days I can't be on my feet because of pain and fatigue from my cancer and chemo. Report
Thank you. I've been have trouble with my feet feeling stiff, especially after I broke my foot over the summer. I'm definitely going to try these exercises. Report
I'll certainly use these exercises but I would ease into barefoot or minimalist workouts very gradually, if at all. This is, however, a very interesting and timely blog. Report
wow, I'm going to try these and see if it helps some feet pain I get. Report
Thanks for this... I have some awful pain in my feet and can no longer be without my shoes for any time at all before the pain gets real bad. Report
Thanks for this article! I've been having some very disturbing problems with my feet recently and I do think these exercises will be a great help and the article is a great motivation for me.
I discovered "doming" abou 15 years ago on my own. I didn;t know it had a name. I did it after looking at a reflexology ad in the papers and was reminded of the way the footbones resembled the spine and thought that if we need both strong back and ab muscles our feet must be the same way so I did it and cured my plantar fasciitis on my own. I had kept it up for a while, but now I can add these other excerises. Thanks again, this it going into my Favorites! Report
What great exercises! I've been breaking in my first pair of Vibrams over the last few days, and I've been struggling to find the right combination of strength training and stretches. The arch strengthening exercise is particularly useful. Thanks for the insights. Report
Great blog! I started minimalist running about 6 months ago and it has totally changed my body, running posture, minor injury frequency, balance, ankle strength, etc. About a month ago I did yoga for the first time in almost a year- I was AMAZED! I had the strength and balance to be better at it than I EVER was! All because I've reconnected with the many muscles in my feet once again. I felt like an over-night yoga pro! I even got my husband on the barefoot bandwagon and I'd swear you'd think he'd discovered a new religion by the way he loves it. :) I'll definitely add these little exercises to our warm-up routine! Report