Foot Awareness

Movement on Earth is dependent on articulation with the ground. Human locomotion occurs because our body applies force with the feet into the ground and all motion, athletics, and training are dependent on how efficiently this occurs. Despite fast improvements in performance in recent history, there has been an equal increase in dysfunction in the average body.

Duck Footed
I’ve always hated when people walk duck footed because it looks lazy, unnatural, and inefficient. I’ve noticed that I see it a lot in people who don’t have an athletic background. Dancers often do it because they are taught to be externally rotated in the hip constantly. It often results in collapsing the arch via ‘navicular drop’– the navicular is just a bone behind the base of the big toe on the inside of the foot and this term merely means it has dropped to the floor because of a lack of an arch (see picture below). Going barefoot or wearing flip flops a lot can also cause arch issues. Walking duck footed, or externally rotated in the hip, can also result in excessive loading of the hips instead of distributing the load evenly throughout the entire leg, hip, and trunk.

Why Does It Matter?
Lifting is dependent on efficient force transfer. When the toes are pointed out and the arch collapses, the tibia/knee/hip internally rotates. If you squat with this internal rotation, then it places more stress on the medial aspect of the knee as well as distal quads instead of distributing the loud through the rest of the knee extensors and utilizing the hip extensors efficiently (not to mention the adductors of the inner thigh won’t be stretched to help extend the hip and the hip’s external rotators won’t be contracted to improve the tightness around the hip). Not only is it less efficient, but it’s injurious in a variety of ways because of where it shifts the stress of the force. Knees can get irritated, especially if they aren’t actively shoved out or the knees shift forward at the bottom of a squat because the stress is pin pointed on one side instead of moving through the joint evenly. Primary hip flexors like the rectus femoris, TFL, and parts of the glute medius can also get irritated from the knees shifting forward and in. The lumbar may also not be in proper extension when the knees collapse and some back issues can arise. In other words, problems can reverberate up from the knee all the way to the back as a result of a poor foot position.

If the load isn’t distributed evenly throughout the structures, then the muscles won’t get worked as well and the efficacy of strength training is blunted. In lifting, efficiency = safety = efficacy = strength.

How To Fix Funky Foot Position
The first thing you can do is stop walking with the toes pointed out. Point them forward. It will feel weird as hell at first, but you have to do it consistently enough to make it a habit. Consider the thousands of repetitions that occurred to make the “toes out/duck” position a habit; we need to reverse that. Improvement in toe position will help walking and running. Take a look at this post/video by Kelly Starrett for more on efficient gait mechanics.

While keeping the toes forward (in walking, standing, or running), think about loading the outside of your foot. Loading the outside of the foot will prevent that ‘navicular drop’, or arch collapse, and improve the knee and subsequent hip position. It also activates some other muscles in the shank (lower leg) while shifting where the force is applied. Definitely look at this post/video by Kelly to see an example of the difference between good and bad arch positions. Kelly shows that when you actively put the weight on the outside of your foot, the knees won’t collapse during a squat. It’s a combination of distributing the force appropriately through the thigh and hips and putting the structures in a better position to externally rotate at the hip. This is what “improving torque at the hip” means — a phrase used by Kelly in his videos. If you’ve been having trouble with your squat, pay attention to this concept and apply it in your training.

If you’re the type of person that has some knee pain when descending or climbing stairs, and you don’t have pre-existing injuries, then it isn’t something that is “natural” (especially for younger folks). It’s possible to reduce pain by a) improving positioning to distribute the force more efficiently and b) adapting the structures of the knee to withstand stress like running or jumping. The former is discussed in this post/video and primarily focuses on the same “lateral foot” and “knees out” concept. The “adapting the knees so they don’t hurt from jumping/running/etc.” discussion leaves the scope of this post, but constitutes a slow and steady progressions into activity that stresses the knees.

This post introduces the concept that foot articulation with the ground will dictate the body’s mechanics whether it’s squatting or walking. Soon I’ll do a post on foot drills and exercises that will help strengthen the arch and lower leg as well as help reverse the navicular drop habit.

39 thoughts on “Foot Awareness

  1. I’ve been fighting plantar fasciitis in just one foot for over a year. I think it was caused originally by bad shoes. I’m afraid I’ll have to get injections again. I’ve done stretching, mobility work, foam rolling, golf ball rolling, heat/ice, etc. Pain seems to be spreading to other parts of the foot as I subconsciously favor them over the heal.

  2. Justin – I had a follow-up question after Friday’s Q&A. You were advising not to alternate cleans and deads every workout in a LP, and perhaps instead do cleans Monday and deads Friday. Roger.

    So, can you briefly elaborate on this? “RDLs on Monday will do more for you than cleans will.” I’m intrigued – do you mean they’ll do more for my deadlifting performance, or for overall strength/size development? And are you suggesting dropping cleans?

    For context, I’m on week 7 of SS, up to (all in pounds) squat 230x5x3, press 90x5x3, bench 117.5x5x3, PC 117.5x3x5, deads 230x5x1. Late 20s male, 160lbs, ~18-20%BF, 5’7”, gained about 9lbs so far.

  3. Justin, I fit this description, but only in my right foot/leg/hip. I was thinking it was a glute imbalance of some sort causing me to externally rotate my leg, but maybe its bad foot positioning?

  4. Interesting. I have flat feet (but I don’t walk around like a duck-footed Gordon). I also have a Morton’s neuroma in my left foot. (My doctor advised me to avoid “load bearing exercises”. Hahaha.)

    Yesterday, I was thinking about foot positioning during the squat. I’ve been trying to un-fuck my squat for a while. I always start a set with toes ahead, and I always cue “knees out”. But I noticed that my left foot gradually turns outward throughout the set, such that my toes are pointed out about 45 degrees by the end of the set. Must fix this.

    I’d imagine that loading the outside of the foot would be easier in a shoe with good arch support. I squat in Chucks. This is not ideal, but it’s all I can afford at the moment. Chucks have zero arch support. I’m saving up for some real lifting shoes. What’s the arch situation like in lifting shoes? Are some better than others for flat-footed lady Gordons like me?

    “Duck-footed Gordon” made me laugh.

    Before reading the entire post I was going to ask you if you had lifting shoes. While you still need to address some ankle/knee/hip mobility issues, weightlifting shoes will significantly improve your situation.


  5. I have terrible foot awareness. One foot (left) always seems to end up pointed out more then the other.

    I too am flat-footed (its fine) but don’t walk duck-footed.

    I try to keep toes pointed out at 30 degress while squatting. Do I need to work on keeping them pointed straight ahead with the outside loaded?

  6. I have walked like a duck my entire life, and I don’t like it. sometimes it’s worse then others. My dad does it too.

    Looking forward to the drills, I do have a navicular drop on one side.

  7. OK, I’ve got an interesting twist on the duck foot – it’s kind of a family trait (all the men on my dad’s side of the family have it to some extent) and is not related to external rotation of the hip: with my kneecaps pointed directly ahead, my feet point out about 20-30 degrees. To point my feet directly ahead requires me to rotate my hips inward about as far as I can, and conversely, if I externally rotate my hips as much as possible, I can turn my feet nearly backwards. We asked a doctor about it when I was a kid and he said he could fix it but he’d have to break my legs and was kind of a choad about it. Of course, I’ve got pretty flat feet as a result, but it’s always been just kind of a minor annoyance that I barely even think about.
    I have wondered how to address this issue as regards my squat. I have tried pointing my feet in line with my thighs to load the outside of my feet, but that makes my knees feel really jacked up, so I squat with my normal position because that feels the best and most effective to me. Do you have any insight as to anything I could do better? Looking forward to the foot drills, I’m sure they can only help.

  8. This post is spot on. I recently googled the shit out of my feet pain and I realized that I do this on my left foot and it is especially pronounced in the bottom position of cleans and snatches. I now wrap my foot for every lifting session and i think it is slowly getting better. It is so bad though that I cannot run or sprint, only jog, good thing that I never do any of those. I sprained the piss out of my ankle last spring (came down hard playing bball and effed up the outside of my ankle) and I think that the tendon imbalance let my left foot cave in. I have never had any feet issues like this before and it is good hear some action plans for rectifying it. @tbone I gotta say that I am pumped as hell to lift in your gym. It looks sweet and you can expect an emial soon

  9. Interesting, I’ve been predominantly a sandal/barefoot walker most of my life and my mom always said I walked like my dad, a bit like a duck.

    To note, like some of the other posters so far, my right foot likes to turn when I squat. Has since I started squatting when I was 17. I can attempt to adjust it but it likes turning out.

    Personally, I played a lot of sports where I was “right-handed”. Baseball and golf as I grew up to my teens. My dad was a judoka that was mainly a righty but learned how to throw with his off hand and mix it up. He also was a right handed baseball and golf player.

    I’ve always thought because of the right handed baseball and golf that my right hip has become like that. I do know there is something imbalanced about my hip because that is where lower back pain springs up, especially in squats and dead, especially with lots of volume. I do my best to loosen it up, do hip circles, twist my back like a scorpion stretch to make it manageable.

  10. Great post. I have flat arches and have been wanting to do some exercises to strengthen and correct these because I’ve known since I’ve started lifting that it negatively affects my squat form. I end up having to point my toes way out, which at the same time pushes my arches into the floor and loads the inside of my feet way too much. I don’t walk duck-footed though (as far as I know)? I’ve been wearing inserts in my Chuck’s to try and raise my aches up a bit but I’m not convinced this helps much, if at all.

  11. I’m also flat footed, and I noticed huge changes in my squat efficiency and knee stability when I started using Kelly’s cues. It was almost like night and day.

    I’ll be looking forward to the post on arch-strengthening drills. My arches are definitely not 70’s big.

  12. For squat purposes, can the toes point out slightly to track with the knees? Doesn’t this help in letting the hips drop between the legs for proper depth? Or is it simply a matter of ‘toes forward, knees out’?

    My current stance — which may improve after learning more directly/indirectly from Kelly — is that it depends on the person’s mobility to achieve proper positioning. The toes shouldn’t really go beyond 20 to 30 degrees though and many people will point them at 45 degrees. 45 will significantly promote the navicular drop issue.


  13. So after walking around and looking at my feet I notice that thankfully I don’t do this, but I when I squatted I looked at my foot position, and realized that my right foot likes to “slide” midset to point more outward. This doesn’t cause any pain, my knee still tracks in line with the foot (and somehow I stay symmetrical coming out of the hole). I have lifting shoes in the mail, will this fix it? Or is it something like the platform being too smooth (college power racks,

  14. Damnit, entered too early.

    College power racks, with a floor not unlike a basketball court (not quite that slick, but its still a polished or laminated surface).

    Respond to either post I guess. Hopefully that shit made sense.

  15. Justin,

    On the subject of feet, do you still approve of a small heel lift on the Deadlift? Like in the Rogue Rips?

    Cos folks change their minds sometimes.

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  17. I used to walk like a duck-footed-gordon, then i took an arrow to the knee.

    Not really, but I do under-pronate/supinate when i walk or run (i have really hih arches), can this cause issues as far as lifting goes. It seems like i have always had really tight Achilles tendons, hams, and hips and have always had to work on getting them loose, but havent been too successful. Maybe its a consistency issue, but I am pretty good about doing some sort of stretching on the daily…any ideas?

  18. I was born with flat feet ‘the most severe flat feet I’ve ever seen’ said my charming physio). I’ve stopped the duck walking, but I guess I’m basically otherwise fucked? Tough to strengthen arches that were never there.

  19. I have always walked like a duck, and recently I’ve been really trying to pay attention to the source of the turn-out. In my case, it seems like it comes from insufficient rotation in the hips, which forces my knees together and my toes out with my weight aligned over the arch instead of along the outside of the foot. It has affected the flexibility in my ankles: it I correct the alignment (by thinking of rotating my legs outward), and then bend my knees, my ankles have much less flexibility. I look forward to the follow up for this article, but I suspect that I need to work on upper leg and glute development as well as foot and lower leg.

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