Is the “Short Foot” exercise dead ? Dr. Allen thinks it is at the very least, floundering on wobbly premises.

- another blog article by Dr. Shawn Allen

Stand and raise your toes. Where does your arch go ? It should elevate, the arch should increase in height/width/volume thanks to several biomechanical principles, the Windlass mechanism to name one.

Many therapeutic approaches to foot posture correction at some point implement the “Short foot” exercise. In some respects, perhaps many, I think that model may be poorly grounded fundamentally and functionally. My protocols and approach are to restore as functional a foot as possible, during both static and dynamic stance phases of gait, and that means restoring rear and forefoot alignment on a neutral strong competent arch. To be clear, an arch does not need to be high, at whatever its’ height, it just needs to be competent. It is quite possible that I have not truly used the “short foot” exercise in over 10 years in correcting my client’s biomechanics, not in its’ traditionally taught methodology (ie, I have never taught the exercise with the toes flush on the ground, that a mistake in my opinion). I see some limitations in it, and some flaws. These are purely experiential on my part, yet grounded in my successes and failures with many hundreds of clients. This however does not mean I am always right, but i go with what works in my clients. 

When I ask a client to stand up and raise their toes (this is truly how a “short foot” is achieved), pointing out that their arch raised as the toes elevated, they often look puzzled. I often put their orthotic under their foot and again ask them to raise the toes again, thus lifting their apparently “fallen” incompetent arch off the orthotic. I then ask the question, so, are we going to continue to use this device to “Fix” your foot ? Are we going to use a hydraulic push approach restore your foot, or are we going to exercise the muscle that are already there to lift (I like to use a crane analogy) the arch and restore the rear and forefoot relationships ?  Clients always answer this question for me, and they do so quickly.  I am quick to reply that this will take time, repetition, obsession, awareness and homework.  This does not mean every case is successful. Some people have attenuated the ligamentous and tendon structures so badly that a deconstructed arch or weight bearing navicular is just too far gone. There are also those folks who have zero body awareness and that is their rate limiting step.  There are many rate limiting steps in attempting to restore function. We just cannot save everyone. 

I am sure you want answers, protocols, “the order” and “the exercises” I use. Ivo and i have outlined some of them on our blog and on our youtube videos. Somewhat purposefully, we have not prescribed an “order” for them to be done, because each person has their own unique problems and their own order and that is were clinical knowledge must come in to play. You just cannot throw exercises at people and see what sticks, too many people do this already.  I also know that many prescribe the “Short Foot” exercise as homework. That is not a problem for some, but it may have limited value if the prescriber does not realize that 

the exercise has a retrograde approach and a prograde approach. 

What I mean is, with this exercise as it is traditionally taught by many (not all), that you are weight bearing first with the toes down, then shortening the rear-forefoot interval by reacting into the ground, and this is exactly opposite from what truly happens in functional prograde weight bearing. In functional weight bearing the arch and foot need to somewhat splay to load adapt, and more importantly, this has to be a skilled eccentric endurance task. This first portion of the arch splay occurs with the toes off of the ground and so forgetting to teach this part while only teaching the “reacting off the ground, flexor muscle driven approach” is flawed. The toes when on the ground utilize the flexor muscles help to resist the latter phase of arch accommodation, but again to be clear, this does not occur in the initial weight bearing phase where eccentrics of the anterior compartment muscles rule the roost. What I am trying to say is that there is never a point in the functional stance phase of the gait cycle where the rearfoot and forefoot are approximating, other than at terminal toe off, it just does not occur.  Hopefully you can see the point of my argument, that this exercise if done improperly (as taught by many) is not functional. 

So is the short foot exercise dead ? Well, to be honest everything has its’ place in this world. Value can sometimes be obtained from the most corrupt of tasks, but there has to be a correlation and transference to the end purpose.  

None the less, this is a pretty prehistoric exercise if you ask me, it needs to be dusted off and updated and retaught correctly, and that is one of my near term missions in the coming weeks. Again, if anything, if there is one morsel of value , the eccentric phase of “letting go” of the short foot posture into a controlled splay is the part of it that has much of any functional relevance.  Teaching your client how to attain a short foot posture, and then to stand and learn to slowly eccentrically release the short foot posture is its main functional value. But, the toes are critical, and a video is key to helping drive this point home, so that is my short term commission. Again, this does not mean there is not value here, so lets not start a social media rant taking my words out of context.  

To summarize, as we are bearing weight down on the foot the arch should be in a controlled pronatory deformation to shock absorb. There is no time to be reacting off the floor into a short foot, that opportunity moment is lost at contact, actually it really never occurs once the ground is met whether one is in initial rearfoot, midfoot or forefoot strike.  The foot has to be prepared at the time of contact with its’ most competent arch, not busy reacting after the fact trying to achieve the competent structure.  The value in the short foot is earning competence in its loading ability and learning to control its adaptive eccentric lengthening, this must be possible in both toe extension and toe flexion (ground contact).  Failure to procure a competent foot will put your client at risk for all of the juicy pathologies we talk about here on The Gait Guys, things like bunions, hammer toes, pes planus, plantar fascitis, tibialis posterior insufficiency and a multitude of various tendonopathies to name just a few.

Need an exciting primer on the types of things a foot should be able to do ? Here are 2 videos. Video link. Video 2 link.

Dr. Shawn Allen, one of the gait guys