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Ankles and Toes – Friends or Foes?

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Me: “This next position is called ‘bird on a perch.’  Place your arches on the bar and gently wrap your toes over while you reach your heels under.”

Student: “Okay…oww, wait, my toes are cramping…”

Me: “That’s actually pretty common, shake it out and try it again. Maybe use your toe muscles less…”

As a Pilates and YTU® teacher, one of the first things I notice is how my students use their feet. This is especially true when I have a new student on the Reformer for their first series of “Footwork”. Traditionally, this is the first series performed in a Reformer session, for both beginning and seasoned practitioners and is a way of warming up and checking in on the whole body.

For the uninitiated, the movement looks like a squat – except you are lying down and spring-loaded resistance is taking the place of gravity and body weight.

Sounds simple, right? Well, like a well-executed squat, there are a few pieces that need to line up correctly, starting with the feet and ankles.

The feet are standing on the bar in various positions – “Pilates first” – toes on the bar, feet in a small V position, heels a little lifted, “Bird on a perch” – arches on bar, heels reach under, toes reach over, “Heels” – long, relaxed toes with strong, even dorsiflexion at ankle. Each position is challenging in it’s own way, but it’s the last two that are often the hardest. What I usually see are toes that are going crazy – either cramping up or splaying wildly -and the ankles can’t quite maintain full dorsiflexion.

The extensor digitorum longus extends the toes and dorsiflexes the ankle.
The extensor digitorum longus extends the toes and dorsiflexes the ankle.

What’s going on here?  Repeat after me.

Extensor Digitorum Longus

Extensor Digitorum Longus

No, this is not some Harry Potter-esque spell, but the fancy latin name for the muscles that pulls the toes up toward the face. Extensor = lifts, digitorum = toes, longus = this muscle actually originates on the top of your shin!

The extensor digitorum longus (EDL) is actually involved in two other important foot actions besides lifting your toes: dorsiflexion of the ankle (pulling the front of the foot upward) and everting the ankle (lifting the outside of the foot).

Between flip-flops and “positive” heeled shoes (even 0.5 inch counts), much of our footwear put this muscle in a chronically shortened position, over-stretched position, or both.

Have you ever had a cramp when you point your toes? Or have an upward bend in the toes where they meet the top of your foot even when your feet are “relaxed” (also know as Hammer Toes)? Even shin splints. Tightness and/or weakness in this muscle might be to blame.

The EDL can also take over for the other muscles that dorsiflex and evert your foot – this is especially true if you like to wear shoes that don’t allow the muscles on the back of the calf to fully lengthen.

In other words, tight calves might often go along with tightness on the top of the feet and the shins. Getting strong, supple ankles might require a more thorough approach than just stretching your calves and doing calf raises.

Come back on Friday for some amazing YTU releases and strengtheners for this hard working muscle and get the spring back in your step.


  1. Bishop, G. (2103 December 30). Standford’s distinct training regimen redefines strength. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/31/sports/ncaafootball/stanfords-distinct-training-regimen-redefines-strength.html
  2. Calais-Germain, B (1993). Anatomy of Movement. Seattle: Eastland Press.
  3. Kendall, F.P. ; McCreary, E.K; Provance, P.G.; Rodgers, M.M.; Romani, W.A. (2005). Muscles Testing and Fuction with Posture and Pain, 5th Edition. Baltimore: Lippincott William & Wilkins.
  4. Miller, J. (2014). The roll model: A step-by-step guide to erase pain, improve mobility, and live better in your body. Las Vegas: Victory Belt.
  5. Common Peroneal Nerve Palsy Following Inversion Ankle Injury: A Report of Two Cases. Mark D Stoff and Andrew F Greene. PHYS THER. 1982; 62:1463-1464.


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