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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