A central tenet of the Tune Up Fitness approach to reaching peak physical condition is finding and illuminating “body blind spots”. These are areas of the body that have been “overused, underused, misused, abused, or totally confused.”

When your body is riddled with blind spots, you shortchange your ability to access and engage all the muscle fibers–all possible “movers”–in any given activity.

Think about it, if you’re trying to PR in a deadlift, but you can only fire 80% of available muscle fibers, do you think your strength will be at its max? Of course not.

It’s normal to focus on the biggest, most famous muscles in any given physical challenge: the pecs, the lats, the abs, the quads, the glutes, etc. It’s easy to always prioritize those big players in high performance.

But doing so might shortchange the cumulative power of the more petite players in any given movement. In particular, the small movers of your fingers and toes which are on distal (far from trunk of the body) ends of your limbs.

Because they seem far away from the big movers, your fingers and toes can get forgotten. But learning to strengthen your hands and feet will give you an extra edge on the competition–even if “the competition” is you, last week.

Why Finger and Toe Exercises Are Important for Peak Performance

Training Small Movers Wards off Overuse Injuries

Overuse is essentially “using one muscle group more than another” (The Roll Model Method, p. 33). The issue with overuse while training is that it can  lead to inflammation, injury and breakdown of that body part.

Overuse can set your training back significantly by causing an injury that might take weeks or months to heal… and then never quite be “good as new” again. This can be prevented by training not just hard, but smart.

To help prevent overuse, teach your body to access more of its available contractile tissues for any given movement. For many, these are the oft-ignored small movers of the hands, feet, fingers and toes.

How to Wake Up the Small Movers of Your Hands and Feet

It might be necessary to quite literally “wake up” these small movers, because it’s possible they’ve been very, very sleepy for quite some time. In fitness terms, this is called underuse.

Underused muscles are “perpetually ignored by movement habits, whether in daily life or in your expression of fitness. They are often bypassed or overlooked due to an old injury, lack of training, a lack of sensing, or failure to realize that these tissues are needed for proper mechanics.” (The Roll Model Method, p. 33)

The best way to wake them up is to use them more consciously. Start by building proprioception of these tissues through rolling them out on therapy balls.

“Proprioception is your body’s sense of itself; your inner GPS system. The ability to sense the position, location, orientation, and movement of your body and its parts.”*

Proprioceptors a type of mechanoreceptor in your tissue. They’re nerve endings that send information back to your central nervous system. Regularly rubbing your hands and feet with the grippy rubber surface of the Roll Model therapy balls will strengthen this mind/foot/hand connection and give you more access to your small movers.

“It’s actually quite easy to heighten your body’s sense of itself using the Roll Model Method. Your body is a festival of nerve endings longing for stimuli and novelty. The balls give them just the right kind of rub to help your tissues get a better sense of themselves.” (The Roll Model Method, p. 112)

“Your discipline in regularly stimulating your tissues will make your nerve conductivity more accurate and help the nerves themselves maintain balance and function.” (The Roll Model Method, p. 112)

Refining the Use of Your Fingers and Toes

After “waking up” the proprioceptors in your hands, feet, fingers and toes, it’s time to put them to work. Ask the muscles to do more than swipe a smartphone or stay stuffed in a shoe. Design exercises that get these small movers to articulate their own unique ranges of motion. 

Here’s one way you can reclaim range of motion in your metatarsals…

Loop a strap around your big toe (first metatarsal), take hold of your pinky toe (fifth metatarsal) and gently pull them in opposite directions. Then practice “toe spreading” without the props to build coordination and strength.

Next, go even further by switching some of your training drills to barefoot.

Muy Thai/Kickboxing competitor Jon “Big Red” Christenson opts for barefoot kettlebell training on many different surfaces and in all kinds of environments…

“I love to be barefoot, if I could I’d go to work barefoot… I’d do absolutely everything that I can. Everyone thought I was weird at first, but I was like I want to be able to feel the ground… martial arts helped because we train barefoot. Newbies complain that mats are so uncomfortable [under their feet]. But sometimes when you’re in back preparing for a fight, you’re in kitchen, you’re on cement, you have to get used to it.”

The same goes for hands and fingers. After prepping them with self massage, find ways to get them to work pulling their weight in all different directions of motion.

By including specific training for your small movers, they will be primed and ready to go when you take on bigger, more challenging physical feats.

Your ankles, soles and toes will be there for you; stabilizing your balance and assisting with running, jumping, kicking and pivoting.

Your wrists, palms and fingers will be dialed up to grip a football, pack a punch, hold a handstand or swing a kettlebell.

The bigger movers that are closer to the trunk will get a boost of power as these small movers step up and play their parts. And better still, you will feel even more embodied–you will have set up residence in more of your tissues, giving you even more opportunities to play harder, bigger and better.

 

*Jaap C. van der Wal, “Proprioception, mechanoreception and the anatomy of fascia,” in Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body (Elsevier, 2012: 81)

Author: Ariel Kiley

 

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JUNE BARTON

Very true… we are all focused on the big muscle groups that use tend neglect the small ones and the ones farthest from our torso. But little did we know that those little ones actually give us more power, coordination and balance, if we strengthen them. I like to use the Tune Up Therapy Balls for accessing those hidden/forgotten areas of the body. Thanks for the great information.

Fiona

Having good coordination in our bodies is very important. This is helpful information will remember my metatarsals.

Vanessa

Hands and feet are so underused as they are on the distal ends of our limbs. I have found it helps for my balancing poses during yoga practices if I warm them up a bit before. Thanks for sharing all the handy waking-up exercises for the small movers!

Polly swingle

There is a direct relationship between the strength of you grip and your risk of falling as you age. I agree let all work those small muscles.

Suzanne O'Donnell

Love spending time at the beach for lots of barefoot time.. Running in the sand by the shore line in my bare feet is my favorite!

Dina

Reflexology is one of the best body treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Unfortunately lots of people totally ignore feet and hands not realizing how important they are. Im glad Yoga Tune Up teaches us about these crucial Small Movers of Hands and Feet!

Andrew

Grip strength and wrist/ankle mobility are so important in every day movement and something that I regularly hear students/people asking questions or complaining about. When it comes to teaching or cueing movement, there are benefits from working from the center outward and there are equally important awareness points that come from working from the outer extremities inward. Another great reminder to hone in on all the different aspects of our bodies and our movement, not just the main action.

Randy Williams

SO true about treating the small movers to optimize the big movers. I have noticed this when I play a sport like basketball, my ankles are much stronger and more mobile since changing up a lot of my training to barefoot or a minimalist shoe. Feeling the ground is so important. Also find when I roll my feet with intention my whole posterior chain benefits. The fuzz is real! In addition to the feet, i found the more I played with kettlebells the more my hands and forearms would tighten up so rolling the palms of my hands and moving… Read more »

Rudie

Feet and hands have got to be the most under-targeted areas! We need these so much. I am always seeking new variations to get in some mobility in these areas. Thanks for these!

Shawn T

This is a great article to remind us that hands, feet, fingers and toes need some love as well. I work on my feet and toes fairly regularly but I often forget about hands/fingers until they are sore or hurting. This is a good reminder to put the prehab work in on this area prior to any issues arriving. ~Thanks

Alice yuan

First of all, wow! Such well structured and informative article. I love the way it was broken down. Simple exercises such as spreading my fingers and toes allows me to feel to different layers of connected tissues in my body! I am not one that’s born with a sharp proprioception (in the process of budiling those sensors) but when I close my eyes and try the hands and feet exercises I can feel so much! Love this <3 Thank you!

Ella Maghen

After I rolled my feet, my downward dog and chair poses were so much more accessible. I had greater range of motion. My sister is on the computer all day and I gave her a set of balls, she rolled her fingers and felt less tension. Thank you for this article

deborah liu

this is an invaluable article! i love it. i always feel better if i warm up with wrist and fingers exercises and roll my feet. this article gives me a big picture perspective and i will work this into my routine.

nic matthews

Feet are so often neglected, so I like to really focus on feet and toes for myself and my students, especially older people who can struggle with balance. Also, wearing ‘barefoot’ shoes has been such a game changer for me 😀

Laura Woodrow

Thanks for bringing up the importance of working on the extremities. One point I’d like to emphasize is how much of the motor map of the brain is disproportionately dedicated to the hands, and somewhat the feet. (Look up homunculus man for more info here.) In fact, the brain gives more attention to the hands than the entire rest of the arms and legs combined. That means, we have arguably greater potential to improve athletic performance by working our end points (hands and feet) than our arms and legs. In my osteopathy practice, I find that direct ball work on… Read more »

Katherine Girling

Our poor neglected hands and feet! The description is spot on: fingers only being used to jab and swipe at our smartphones, and feet stuffed into shoes and mostly immobilized. Use ’em or lose ’em. Thanks for the helpful tips and exercises to awaken these dormant little tissues.

Emily Whitaker

The hands and feet are so often overlooked, I do give my feet a good amount of attention with the yoga tune up balls, and I work the articulation of my toes, but my hands could definitely use some attention as well. My sister always has hand cramps after knitting all day, Im excited to share this information with her as well!

Andrew Chung

I am always shocked by how weak my fingers and toes are when I have to grip at something. I have read headlines of articles and have seen on social media this obsession with articulating the hands and feet and I never knew why and this article totally changed that. I love the information about proprioception and the mind/hand/foot connection. Reading this article has put foot/hand health/strength/mobility at the forefronts of my interests and I look forward to becoming more aware of all of my “small movers”.

S. SAMSON

Thank you for this, it’s perfect timing! Will be putting your advice to good use when my cast comes off in the next week or two for a fractured fifth metatarsal.

admin

Awesome S. Samson! Best of luck in your recovery… and cheers to our injuries often being our biggest teachers!

Tania Guinsberg

Great article. thanks for sharing.

admin

Thanks so much for reading Tania!