| | Attacking Limiting Factors: Arch Development

Author / John

There are many perks that come with being on the Power Athlete team; sweet gear, international travel, and the opportunity to assess hundreds of athletes in an accelerated window.  No matter where we are in the world, many of the same limiting factors show up.  Weak trunk, difficultly moving hips through space, and little shoulder girdle awareness, to name a few.  But there is another limiting factor that I have been noticing more and more, flat feet.

supinate-pronate-normal (1)Flat feet occur when the arch collapses and the ankle pronates, rolls in, excessively.  This position of the foot has a chain reaction of misalignment and potential for injury to the ankles, knee, hips and all the way up to the shoulders!  Problems arise from flat feet when they are either ignored, accepted, or given a quick fix.  Quick fixes include ‘arch support’ insoles or heavy, padded shoe recommendations that provide temporary relief for the foot, and ignore up chain consequences.  This quick fix breaks a golden rule: muscles are developed and maintain their strength only when they are used. You must stress to progress!

The central nervous system and the role it plays in our training is a frequent topic of discussion on our blogroll.  What few people realize is how receptive the foot is helps the central nervous system in determining the forces of an action and the intramuscular coordination necessary for the body to react.  The sole of the barefoot also exhibits a powerful plantar surface protective response which diminishes plantar loading on ground contact, which reduces the risk of damage from overloading during locomotion.  Compression of any part of the sole during squats, cleans, presses or other standing exercises can cause general instability and shearing at the above joints.  Athletes who never move barefoot diminish this plantar sensory feedback and affecting reflexes and recruitment!

Athletes must be aware of the reduction of proprioceptive and tactile sensitivity that they are losing by never training their barefeet.  This article a take a quick look at the anatomy of the arch of the foot and provide movements for foot arch development and training of the intrinsic muscles of the foot. These movements will benefit not only the flat footed athlete, but also those looking to improve explosiveness in their squats, Olympic lifts, and plyometrics. Enjoy!

Tri-Plantar-Arch-Power-Athlete-FeetTri-Plantar Arch
Ligaments in the foot and the ankle maintain the position of these three arches:
1) Medial longitudinal arch, important for shock absorption.
2) Lateral longitudinal arch, important for balance.
3) Transverse arch, adapts the foot to the ground.

Intrinsic Muscles of the foot
First (superficial) Layer: abductor hallucis, flexor digitorum brevis, abductor digiti minimi (quinti)
Second Layer: quadratus plantae, lumbricals (four)
Third Layer: flexor hallucis brevis, adductor hallucis, flexor digiti minimi (quinti) brevis
Fourth (deep) Layer: dorsal interossei (four), plantar interossei (three)

A penny and a pen are all that is required for the following exercises.  The penny will need to be placed under the big toe knuckle and is in place to ensure the Transverse arch is engaged and there is no supination, rolling onto the outside of the foot.  The pen is a tool to ensure that the movement is being executed properly and the longitudinal arches are being pulled up and engaged without collapsing.

Set Up
For all of the Tri-Plantar exercises below the athlete will set the big toe knuckle on top of the penny and the pen underneath the mid-foot.  The athlete will then lift the big toe off the ground and grab the ground with the four smaller toes.



Tri-Plantar Arch Iso-Stability/Balance 

Muscles Involved:
Tibialus anterior, Flexor digitorium longus, Flexor hallucis longus, Peroneus longus, medius and tertius, Intrinsic muscles of the foot

This iso-metric hold targets the medial and lateral longitudinal arches and makes all of the intrinsic muscles work in unison to pull back and develop stability and connectivity in the foot.

Tri-Plantar Arch Balance w/ Rotation

Muscles Involved:
Tibialus anterior, Gastrocnemius, Soleus, Flexor digitorium longus, Flexor hallucis longus, Peroneus longus, medius and tertius, Intrinsic muscles of the foot

This exercise targets the medial and lateral longitudinal arch and requires them to maintain true arch support as the body moves through the transverse plane.  This movement can be accomplished two ways; 1) rotation taking place at the hip, 2) rotation taking place at the trunk with the hips locked in place.

Tri-Plantar Arch 4-Point Pick Up

Muscles Involved:
Tibialus anterior, Gastrocnemius, Soleus, Flexor digitorium longus, Flexor hallucis longus, Peroneus longus, medius and tertius, Intrinsic muscles of the foot

This exercise targets medial and lateral longitudinal arches, transverse arch, the intrinsic muscles of the foot and mobility of the tendons, ligaments and muscles of the lower leg.  Stability will be challenged as body moves through different planes of motion. Posture and trunk will be challenged here.  Be sure to reestablish the tall, standing posture before and after each pick up.


  • Establish foot and arch position, then set a tall posture by raising an object overhead.
  • Maintaining posture get as low to the ground as possible, place the object to the right of the foot, then return to a tall, standing posture.
  • Return to the object, pick it up, reestablish standing posture, then place the object across the front of the body and return to tall, standing posture.
  • Return to the object, regain posture and place the object to the back right, behind the body, and return to tall, standing posture.
  • Return to the object, regain posture and place the object to the back left, behind the body as far as possible with a rotation, and return to tall standing posture.
  • Lastly, return to the object after touching all 4 corners, pick it up and return to tall, standing posture.

Towel Crunches

Muscles Involved:
Flexor hallucis longus, Extensor hallucis longus, Flexor digitorum longus, Extensor digitorum longus, Intrinsic muscles of the foot

Common training practices trap the foot in shoes with little opportunity for true flexion and extension.  These towel crunches target the intrinsic muscles by flexing the metatarsophalangeal joints as the towel is grabbed and pulled developing and strengthening the Transverse Arch.  Sticking with our lengthen and strengthen protocol, focus on extending and splaying the toes as far as possible before pulling each rep.


Similar to all of the movements provided in the first ‘Attacking Limiting Factors‘ segment, these are not easy and will take a level of patience during practice.  These exercises were what I used in rehabilitation after suffering a broken ankle and having my foot locked up in a cast for 6 weeks.  If your training day includes squats, cleans, plyometrics or sprinting, put these exercises before training to get the foot firing.

These are also great drills to invest time in during an Active Recovery day on Field Strong where you have no time constraint and are able to practice at a low heart rate.

The key is to begin with the Iso-Stability holds and go for 3x Max Time R/L.  As you begin to stabilize and strengthen the arch, challenge by moving through different planes of motion with the rotation and 4-point drill.  The towel drill is a classic lengthen and strengthen exercise, and can be progressed by either getting a longer towel or adding fractional plates to the towel.

Without correcting this position and strengthening the arch the whole kinetic chain of the athlete is at a risk. Identify this limiting factor in yourself or your athletes, and begin attacking it with above movements.

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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. prebb on July 22, 2014 at 10:31 am

    I can’t seem to lift my big toe and flex the four other toes at the same time.
    Any tips?

  2. dch0 on July 23, 2014 at 6:23 am

    The penny and pen usage is a new one for me. Towel scrunches are used often in PT clinics. Great article about an often overlooked topic of corrective biomechanics.

  3. dch0 on July 23, 2014 at 6:37 pm


    Hey so if you’re still having trouble, best way to start is just working on extending (lifting) the big toe while leaving the other 4 toes down. Then, flex the big toe while lifting the other 4 toes up. It won’t be that easy in the beginning but it’ll get easier as you practice. Remember, the feet can be as nimble as our hands if we work on it enough.

  4. wayne houle on July 25, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    This is a great article. Being in the military and having to be in boots almost everyday seems to destroy my arch. I try and counter this by rolling out my foot and just being concious of my footing inside my boot when im standing. According to the analysis in this article I have a more supinated arch. I personally have never put much thought past rolling out and being concious of how I’m standing footing. This is my first exposure to excercises I can implement to counter and correct my imbalances. Thank you for that.

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