The Big Toe: Key to Proper Movement & Athleticism
Video by Nick Hawkes

When we leave our toes in hard and/or narrow shoes for too long, they get stiff and start to lose their function unlike our fingers which are free to move as they were made to. Because of this, we need to give them a little help from time to time as they do serve a few, very important functions for us. Improving your toe function – and especially the big toe function – will help improve your movement patterns, athleticism and pain.

Primary Functions of the Big Toe

The Big Toe Controls Static Balance

This is crucial for athletes and older adults alike. All athletes need good balance to be their best. Soccer players require a solid plant foot. MMA fighters rely on balance for both offensive and defensive maneuvers. Obviously gymnasts would be affected by this and also CrossFitters who do gymnastics as a part of their training…For older adults, an immobile big toe can lead to lack of balance during everyday movement and greater potential of falling, which as we know, can be often be the cause of deteriorating health and quality of life for a person.

The Big Toe Controls Pronation of the Foot During Walking & Running

Lack of pronation (that internal roll), or even over pronation, depending on how the big toe is stuck, can increase your chance of injuries like ACL ruptures because unnatural torque is created up the chain in the knee. Besides the increased risk of injury, if your big toe isn’t properly mobile and functioning, then your form is probably off as well, so you’re not running as efficiently as you possibly could. Now consider other movements that require control of pronation like squatting, bounding and even push press and the damage you could do with a stiff big toe.

The Big Toe Acts as a Shock Absorber when Running

When we run, a force three times our body weight is absorbed through our feet, two-thirds of which is absorbed by the big toe. If the toe is too stiff and unable to properly absorb the shock, this can lead to injuries like bunions, sprains and stress fractures. Not to mention that something else has to make up for most of the shock absorption like knees and backs.

The Toe Test

Can you move your big toe independently from the other toes? It is important for it to move up and down separately of the other toes. You should also be able to move it away from the others laterally.

  1. Take off your shoes and sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Use your arms, if necessary, to squeeze your legs in so that your shins are vertical.
  2. Make sure you have pressure through three points in your feet – the ball (base of big toe), the base of the pinky toe and the heel.
  3. Without pronating or everting (keep that even pressure in the three points)…press your small toes into floor and try to lift your big toe.
  4. Then do the opposite and press your big toe down while lifting the small toes.
  5. You can even do a wave with the toes or try to lift one at a time.
  6. Make note of where you are with each of the steps above.

The Toe Fix

Do exactly what you did for the test – move your toes around! Besides moving them up and down and side to side, see if you can pick up a pencil or other object with them and using different toes. In the beginning, you might feel like your brain is sending the signal to move but it’s just not happening. If this is the case, you can use the help of your hands until you are able to control it on your own. Once you get them moving, apply tension with a rubber band during the movement(s) to turn it into more of a toe workout. Give it a try – just a few minutes a day will give you great improvements in your athleticism and pain in a very short time!