The ability to spread your toes can be an important indicator of the strength of the foot. If someone is unable to spread their toes apart, a likely reason is that the small muscles inside the foot are weak. In my experience, not being able to spread the toes is fairly common and I suspect a likely reason is that the design of many shoes restricts this motion.
A muscle that runs along the inside of the arch, called the abductor hallucis, helps to pull the big toe away from the second toe as shown in the illustration below. I’ve written before about the role the abductor hallucis plays in supporting the arch. Weakness in this muscle may also contribute to flat feet and other conditions like hallux valgus (bunions) and posterior tibialis tendon dysfunction.
It’s important to remember, however, that muscles don’t work alone. In order for the abductor muscle to function well the muscles that stabilize the first toe joint also need to be strong. The peroneus longus muscle, for instance, needs to pull down on the base of the big toe. Everything works as a system and that’s why spreading the toes can be a test for the overall strength of the foot.
So what happens when you can’t spread your toes?
When I started arch strengthening exercises I had difficulty activating the muscles in my foot. With a great deal of concentration, I could make the big toe on the left foot move about 50% of the time.
On the right foot (the one that was the flattest), when I tried to spread my toes the big toe didn’t move. If I really made an effort the toe would go straight up or curl in, but there was no separation.
In yoga you frequently hear the cue to “spread your toes” but in my experience many if not most people have difficulty doing this.
Because of the way shoes are designed, the toes are limited in their ability to spread out or grip when walking on uneven terrain. Within the confines of many shoes the toes are not able to work the way they would if you were walking barefoot.
I’m guessing that after a certain amount of time the abductor muscle likely weakens and atrophies, sometimes to the point where it no longer functions (as was the case with my right foot). Most shoes have a tapered toe box. They become narrower towards the end. While this may be more stylish it places a lot of pressure on the toes. This is particularly true for women’s shoes. On top of that, many shoe types have a raised heel which can further compress the toe area.
In my case, after several months of making this a regular exercise I finally had success moving the toes this way. So if you’re someone who is having difficulty getting your toes to spread apart–there is hope!
How To Perform the Toe Spread
This may seem like an easy activity but for some people years of having our feet confined by shoes has significantly weakened the small muscles inside the foot that control the toes. This is especially the case for people with flat feet who likely have a poorly function Abductor Hallucis (ABH) muscle–the one that raises the arch and moves the big toe away from the other toes.
- Step 1: Start in a standing position with both feet flat on the floor
- Step 2: Try to lift all 10 toes off the floor while keeping the rest of your foot stationary
- Step 3: With the toes lifted try to spread them apart as much as you can. Pay special attention to the big toes. Initially you may not see much movement of the big toe into abduction.
- Step 4: Keeping your toes spread place them back down on the floor. Relax and repeat 20 times
- Step 5: Once you become proficient at spreading all 10 toes you can progress to spreading them without lifting your toes first. Eventually, with practice, you should gain a greater ability to isolate the movement of the big toes
Another contributing factor to not being able to spread the toes apart may be restrictions of the soft tissue connecting the toes. I’ve had some success with massaging the foot to attempt to loosen up the tissue. Another popular option is the use of toe spacers that physically hold the toes apart. Some models are even designed to be worn while walking or running.
Writing about this reminds me of a patient I treated several years ago and I’d like to share that story.
The patient was referred to me by a podiatrist with a diagnosis of hallux valgus (bunions). She was having pain in her big toe which is fairly common in the later stages of that condition. This person wanted to avoid surgery to realign the bones so she was sent to physical therapy to try a conservative approach.
The podiatrist wrote specific instructions to perform electrical stimulation to the ABH to try to pull the toe back into a normal position. This was several years ago before I gave any thought to targeting the muscle with specific exercises other than simple toe spreading.
After a short course of therapy the patient decided that she was getting enough relief from her symptoms from the muscle retraining that she went out and bought a portable electrical stimulation unit to use at home. I didn’t see a significant change in the positioning of her toe during that time so I’m not certain the potential for reversing a hallux valgus deformity through muscle strengthening. The treatment, however, was effective enough to reduce the associated pain.
Now I wonder if ABH strengthening interventions were started early enough, how many of these cases would be preventable?
Exercises For Foot Strength
Above all, I feel the most important part of regaining the ability to spread your toes is building the connection between your brain the muscles in your feet that need to activate. Even when there isn’t a lot of observable movement, simply concentrating on the movement and trying to make the toes separate can assist in building strength.
I’ve noticed sometimes when people first attempt this that their fingers well spread out. This is funny in a sense, but really it’s all part of how the body learns a new movement.
Restoring the ability to spread your toes can have benefits that extend beyond just a stronger foot. As mentioned earlier, the foot muscles help stabilize the arch. The arch provides shock absorption and can help reduce stress on the knees and hips. A healthy foot is the foundation for a strong and healthy leg.