My ballet teacher used to say, “Imagine you have thumb tacks underneath your arches!” This was her way of getting us to maintain our balance while standing. But how is visualizing sharp objects underneath our feet supposed to help us with balance? While the imagery sounds a bit harsh, let’s take a moment and go with it. If you are standing on both feet, would the thumb tacks be touching your arches? Does this visual force you to redistribute your weight placement? What about when balancing on one foot? Are the thumb tacks touching your arches now?
While trying to figure out how to run pain free, I learned a lot about the mechanics of the foot and the role of the arch. I found my favorite treatment of the subject in Eric Franklin’s book, Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery, where he discusses the arch as an incredibly active structure that adapts to our every move, to provide stability, absorb shock, and transfer weight. He extensively uses visualization techniques coupled with an understanding of anatomy to help us understand and become more aware of our body.
When we think of our arch, we most likely think of the medial arch, the one that runs along the inside of the foot. So imagining thumb tacks underneath our arches was meant to get us to create space in that area instead of rolling inwards on our feet. With a little experimentation, we can sense that the way our weight is distributed greatly affects our balance. This is not surprising as the feet are the foundation of our whole structure while standing.
If we pause and think about it, how is it that our relatively small feet are able to support our entire body? Our foot has a rather unique construction with actually three arches that essentially form a triangle, as shown in the image. In addition to the familiar medial arch, we have an arch that runs along the outside and another one under the ball of the foot. This structure allows the foot to bear all of our weight and to transfer power during movement in multiple directions. Is that surprising? Can you locate the three arches on your foot? The other two are much less pronounced, but there is still a tiny bit of space underneath, even when our foot bears weight.
If the bones of the foot are stacked together to form three arches, how does the foot keep its shape and not collapse? Architecturally speaking, the arch is a structure that gets stronger when compressed from above, something that our foot very much needs. A vital component of this structure is called the keystone. The keystone is a wedge in the middle that provides stability to the whole arch, and the more weight is placed on it, the stronger the arch gets. As shown in the image, each of the arches of the foot has its own keystone.
That means that preserving the space underneath the arches of the foot makes for the strongest possible structure as the keystones of each of the arches align to take on the maximum amount of force. That’s pretty useful when trying to balance our entire body weight on top. It becomes even more useful when we engage in lifting something heavy, think squatting, deadlifting, or pressing something overhead.
Of course our arches are able to adapt and change easily. Held together underneath by our ligaments to help preserve their shape, the structures, particularly our medial arches, are incredibly elastic. This allows our feet to dynamically adapt when we are moving, say walking or running. For now though, let’s consider what it feels like for our foot to be in alignment when we are trying to balance statically with our body upright. Try the following exercises to gain more awareness of the three arches of your foot and see if that helps with your balance. Experiment with these while standing.
- Try balancing on one foot and notice how easy or difficult this feels to get a sense of your baseline.
- Sense the three arches of the foot. You can even trace the arches with your finger to help identify them.
- Can you feel the space underneath each arch?
- What parts of the foot do you feel in contact with the ground?
- Roll your foot side to side, shifting your weight from the inside to the outside of the foot without actively moving the rest of your body.
- How does this movement affect your ankle and your achilles tendon?
- What happens to your knees and hips when you do this?
- Refer to the image below. Can you sense where the twisting in your foot is happening?
- Keep rolling your feet side to side, but make this action smaller and smaller each time. Keep going until the movement is almost imperceptible and your weight is centered in the middle of your foot.
- Shift your weight back and forth from your heels towards your toes without actively engaging your calves and the rest of your body
- Can you sense the change in the shape of the three arches?
- What effect does this weight shift have on the rest of your body? Where does the weight in your hips shift?
- Keep shifting your weight back and forth, but make this action smaller and smaller each time. Keep going until the movement is almost imperceptible and your weight is centered in the middle of your foot.
- While standing on both feet, shift your weight from one foot to the other without actually lifting up either foot.
- As you place more weight on a foot, does the shape of your arches change?
- What parts of the foot take on the most weight?
- Try balancing on one foot again.
- Did the balance get easier?
- Can you sense what part of the foot makes contact with the ground?
- Can you sense the space underneath your arches?
- Can you sense the keystones of your arches?
- Can you feel the adjustments your foot is making in order to help you balance?
That was already a lot to think about, and we haven’t even gotten past standing. But our feet, specifically our arches, do so much more! Stay tuned for a further discussion on how the arch stores elastic energy and some exercises that activate the feet to help improve stability and alignment when in motion.
Comment below on what you noticed during the exercises. Did your balance improve? Are you surprised to learn that our feet have three arches?