Thursday, September 23, 2010

Do Orthotics Inhibit Calf Growth?

As a personal trainer, the importance of the feet and ground reaction relative to body movement has really interested me. If there is one area I tend to watch alot more on my clients and simply when I am "people watching" it is the feet. Your feet become the body's main leverage component; and with good solid feet you will have enhanced performance in and outside of the gym. Recently, I was asked about orthotic insoles. Well, if you are like me and believe that band-aids are temporary, then you will know my answer regarding this inquiry.

Question: "John, I have severely flat feet and wear orthotics. I am a 22 year old male. I was wondering, I have always had skinny legs, specifically below the knee. I have been doing calf raises at the gym, which helped a bit but I have a feeling that the foot problem is contributing to the delay in muscle development? Am I wrong and if not, what else can I do to build the muscles in my legs below my knees."
Answer: Calf size has really nothing to do with orthotics. If I wanted to be more accurate, I would say "lower leg development" does. There's a difference. Bear with me.

Taller individuals tend to have longer limbs--hence the height advantage. When longer femurs attach to a longer set of tibia and fibula bones [of the leg];  the muscles' insertion and attachment cover a longer area and therefore, by virtue of mother nature, you have "longer calves". This does not mean you are stricken with small calves. This is where I get into the "lower leg development " aspect of my answer. Orthotics or sole inserts are simply a band-aid for poor muscular and mechanical structure of the feet. If you want to develop the soleus and lower leg muscles I encourage you to try wearing flat sole sneakers. Flat sole sneakers will enable the bottom of your feet to make contact with the ground, enabling more stimulation of the propriocepters (nerves) of the lower leg. If you have better activation of these muscles, they will grow. I think orthotics inhibit this, and thus, mask a structural problem due to lack of motor unit recruitment.
If you have ever seen the calves of gymnasts, they have well developed soleus and gastrocs, peroneus and tibialis (front) muscles. The reason being is that the majority of their performance is based on training done on the mat barefoot. If you look at old photos of Arnold (back in the day), the majority of his time time spent in the gym with Draper, Columbo, and Zane were barefoot---and Arnold always contributed his calf development to training barefoot.
On a personal note, I had very small calves when I began weight-lifting. Like Arnold, many in the gym used to tease me about my calves. Like many teens, I was only concerned about having big arms, big pecs, and a big back. Working calves was an excuse to stay a little longer in the gym and watch the cute girl on the stepper. When I began my personal training career and learned the many benefits of single leg training, I started incorporating many single leg exercises into my routine. Almost instantaneously, my lower legs grew. The more single leg exercises I performed in my training,  the more development I noticed in my lower legs. My calves didn't necessarily double in size, but I was able to see each lower leg muscle a little bit better. With the increased development of the tibialis anterior and posterior, peroneus  muscles, gastrocnemius, soleus, and extensor digitorum longus; each step I took felt stronger. Each step felt like I was connected to the ground.

A very small detail I have been working on with my clients is observing for metatarsal instability in the foot. Try this test: stand on your tippy-toes for approximately 2 minutes. As you look down, observe your feet. Do they seem to cave outwards towards your pinky toes? If so, chances are you have some instability in the metatarsal joint (big toe joint):


If you cannot stand on your toes for 2 minutes without falling or losing your balance, chances are you have to apply some isometric work to simply strengthen the muscles around the joint to stabilize during plantarflexion. How do you do that? Perform as you would during the test. Simply spend a few minutes a day by standing on your toes for roughly 2 minutes at a time.  The goal is to keep the knee and tibia in line with the toes during plantarflexion:


Trust me,  this isometric drill will have your entire lower leg screaming. When you get stronger, hold on to some dumbbells for added load. You would be surprised at how many clients I have used this drill on over the years and they have thrown their orthotics in the garbage. And they leave with stronger and nicer looking calves!

13 comments:

  1. This is all good, but you have ignored that he has flat feet. This condition leads to all kinds of trouble. Doing lower body exercises with flat feet destroys the knees and everything from the ground up is affected - the whole body mechanics is improper. I have been doing barefoot squats and deads for several years and my feet don't get better, I only the ruin the knee joints further. I have given up on any lower body exercise.

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  2. Why don't you try the drill I outlined above (in my post) for about 3 weeks 4 times per week for 10 minutes; and see what happens to your "flat feet".

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  3. What would you suggest for a person with hallux riditis?

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  4. Nice tip John.

    Will give this a go - have a few clients with this problem and always thought of orthotics as a sticking plaster approach.

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  5. Anonymous: Hallux Ridigidus is a "stiff" big toe. That joint needs to move. Little by little try to move it as much as possible. Maybe a podiatrist can help you out more.

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  6. I have horribly flat and over-pronated feet and I've never had any knee issues with lower body work. Balance during single leg exercises is pretty bad, but that's just due to my neglecting them.

    I've used Nike Free 5.0s for the last two years and it's helped a bit. Just switched to Vibrams as my main gym shoe yesterday and I'm going to see how it goes. I'll give these balance exercises a shot too!

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  7. I've had a Tibialis posterior problem for the past few months and its making running uncomfortable. I'm going to try this out for the next few weeks to see if it helps with my TP problem.

    I need to get this fixed so i'm ready for football spring ball.

    Any other advice?

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  8. I've had a tibialis posterior problem for the past few months and it's making running very uncomfortable. I'm going to give this exercise a go for the next month and see if I can some relief in my TP.

    I need to get this fixed so i'm ready to go for football spring ball.

    Any other advice?

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  9. good post. in my opinion this is also a fix for medial "shin splints".

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  10. You don't know how much I appreciate this post. After spending 60 years getting to my own maximum fitness level with healthy lifestyle, it is discouraging to find out my arches are collapsing. I will do these religiously and see if my arches can begin to rehabilitate.

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  11. After seeing this blog site today, I called my podiatrist, and got a last minute appt!! wow!!

    Turns out, the podiatrist was a jerk, and was no help..grrr

    Anyways, after 10 years of orthotics, wearing ONLY New Balance 1123's and supinating feet, I want OUT of these damn orthotics. My arches are high as well, and beyond bad balance issues.

    My feet are sooooo weak. The same exercises above are ok for my feet? I also had achilles tendonitis, and think it has subsided.

    Thank you!!!

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  12. That's a very relevant question for that matter which deserves a really good response. And I was satisfied then. Great!

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  13. Do you by chance know of any good places that help with orthotics in Toronto? Please let me know if you do! Thanks so much for help.

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