Finding your intrinsic muscles!

Everyone has heard of the term “core muscles” used to describe the deep muscles around the spine and pelvic region that are important in keeping us healthy and pain free. We now also talk commonly about a “core” of deep muscles around the hip that are also critical to exercise, especially for people with hip pain and pathology, and those rehabilitating from hip injuries and surgery. These core muscles are not the ones we can see and easily touch (eg not the “6 pack” abdominals or the large Gluteus maximus muscle), nor are they the muscles that are trained in your common gym strength exercises. The core muscles (probably better thought of as deep, joint stabilising muscles) must be specifically and accurately trained.

But whilst awareness is quite good about the abdominal core region, and getting better regarding the deep hip core muscles – what about the foot? For a structure that is made up of over 100 moving parts, including 26 individual bones and 33 joints, very little attention is paid to this area. We go to the gym to strengthen the big muscles – quads, hamstrings, calf, abdominals, pecs, biceps etc… but there’s more muscles in this critical small area of the foot than any other part of the body.

And when you consider that forces of around 6 times body weight are transmitted through the foot in landing activities, and 2-3 times body weight forces every step you take when running, it’s pretty amazing we don’t spend more time training these muscles!

There are actually 5 layers of these deep muscles in the foot (as can be seen in the picture below) and these intrinsic foot muscles often need to be strengthened, especially if you are in a sport like ballet (and most certainly if you are en pointe), participate in a sport that involves lots of landing, or if you have a history of foot problems.

There’s an easy way to test how strong your intrinsic foot muscles are: just have a try at these common exercises we prescribe to target the foot intrinsic muscles. There’s a fair chance your foot intrinsics need a bit of work, and these seemingly simple exercises may prove near impossible to perform.


  • Begin with your foot resting comfortably on the floor (sitting is the easiest position to start in). The heel and knuckles of your big and little toes should all be taking equal pressure.
  • Try and raise your big toe off the floor whilst keeping your other 4 toes pressed lightly into the floor. Hold for a few seconds if you can.
  • Then try the opposite: try to lift the four smaller toes off the floor whilst keeping the big toe lightly pressed against the floor. Once again, hold for a few seconds if you can.
  • For both of the above exercises, no part of your body should move other than the toes you are trying to extend.


  • Same start position as above, with equal weight on heel and toes.
  • Try and raise your big toe off the ground first, then your second toe, and so on, until you get to the fifth toe. Place them back down on the floor one by one


  • Same start position as above. Gently press the knuckles of all five toes into the floor, raising the arch of your foot slightly.
  • DO NOT let your toes claw or curl into the ground (this means your extrinsic muscles are working). Your toes must stay long and relaxed. Hold for a few seconds.

As always, if you have any pre-existing foot problems please check with your physio before starting these, and if any of these exercises cause you discomfort then stop immediately.

Other than that…good luck!

Anthony lance

SSPC Physiotherapist