So here’s how this all started…with a text.
Actually it briefly started as a quick chat in the studio one day about 2-3 weeks ago where T (the amazing T Lawrence-Simon) said ‘can I be a guest writer sometime?’ and ‘can you write something about flexing from your pinky toes and not just your big toes?’ And I said ‘sure.’ And so I thought I would write it now.
There are a few questions that I’ll address in this post.
- Why do people tend to flex (dorsiflex) their toes, but only from their big toe and forget to flex through all the toes?
- Are the muscles used in toe hangs and ankle hangs different?
- How to fix monster foot?
Flexing those feet
To flex your feet, especially across the whole foot requires several muscles. It’s not just dorsiflexion of the ankle, it’s eversion (standing on the inside of your foot) of the foot–this is how we get all those toes and metatarsals reaching back and involved in the flexing of the foot for toe hangs.
Big Toe area of the foot:
- The anterior tibialis dorsiflexes the ankle and inverts the foot–turns it out onto its outer edge.
- The extensor hallicus longus also dorsiflexes the ankle, as well as the big toe, and has a small role in inversion of the foot.
- The extensor digitorum longus dorsiflexes the other four toes, dorsiflexes the ankle, as well as assists in eversion of the foot.
- The peroneous muscles: tertius, longus and brevis.
- Peroneus tertius dorsiflexes the ankle and everts the foot.
- Peroneus longus everts the foot–shortening the outside of the foot and lifting it towards the leg–as well as assists in plantar flexing the ankle, AKA: pointing your foot.
- Peroneus brevis, like peroneus longus, everts the foot and plantar flexes the ankle.
How do we dorsiflex through the whole ankle? –that is, how do we get the ankle to contract into a shortened position across the whole foot?
We need to not only dorsiflex the ankle: anterior tibialis, extensor hallicus longus and peroneus tertius, but also evert the ankle via those lateral muscles: peroneus longus and brevis, to engage the whole ankle and foot in what is typically called: flexing the foot.
For most people, their anterior tibialis is much stronger than the muscles that evert the foot and this is because the anterior tibialis is used every time we walk or climb stairs, for example.
In toe hangs we need to dorsiflex the ankle and evert the foot to create a flat surface for the bar to sit on. This will mean for most people they will need to strengthen the muscles that evert their feet: peroneus longus and brevis. This can be done with eversion exercises.
How to help students not end up with monster foot? –that is, how to fix ankles dorsiflexed and toes flexed/curled under? (see image from the beginning of this post)
Unfortunately there isn’t much we can do about this as instructors or you can do as a student. This usually goes away with practice. Alternatively, this may be also a person taking the ‘point your toes’ cue very literally and therefore only pointing their toes, which results in their toes curling under.
If we are talking about monster foot while in a knee hang on an aerial apparatus then there is some muscular reason why a person may end up in monster foot, but again, with practice of their skills this will go away.
The reason is that when you’re new (or learning a skill that is new to you) that requires you to hook your knee(s), dorsiflexing your foot/ankle while you do so, can help you to flex your knee more strongly. When you dorsiflex your ankle and bend your knee, it allows you to activate your gastrocnemius (one of your calf muscles) at the same time. Your gastrocnemius is not only an ankle plantar flexor (pointing your foot), but a knee flexor. It does not help the hamstrings contract any more, but it aids in knee flexion and this might explain why most people flex their ankle, especially when first learning: because they feel the need to hold on tight and contract everything!
To dive a bit further into why monster foot is probably happening, we need to talk about hamstrings. Most people could do with having stronger hamstrings since for many people–due to postural issues–the hamstrings are either, overstretched, fatigued or overworking. Many people also think they have ‘tight’ hamstrings, but they could also be weak due to some of the above listed issues, and weakness can feel like tightness.
Let’s help get those hamstrings stronger. Below are two videos of exercises that you can easily do at home to strengthen your hamstrings.
- Use a slide: fitness gliders, furniture slides or Chinet plate and place under feet.
- Contract glutes and brace core. Seriously.
- Press up into a glute bridge.
- Slowly extend legs straight, feeling your hamstrings resisting the movement while also keeping glutes very contracted to keep hips from touching the floor before the legs are straight.
- Make sure not to over arch your back or lose your core contraction.
- Make sure your hip flexors are not involved in the movement by lots of glute contraction. This is also why my hands are on my hip flexors: I am checking for a crease at my hip flexors. If I feel one I know that I have lost my good form.
- PROGRESSION: Once the extending and lowering phase is easy, you can try to flex at your knees and pull your heels back up and yourself back into the lifted glute bridge. Note: This is very difficult to do with good form. I highly recommend you keep your hands on your hip flexors and if you feel a crease or dip happening, you are not ready for the lifting up into the position yet. To be honest, currently neither am I. On a good day I may get 6 reps of the lowering and the lifting, but that is generally on my 2nd set of this exercise.
- Try 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions
1/2 Kneeling Knee Flexion Lift-off
- Come into a 1/2 kneeling position near a bench, mat, chair or even your couch. The closer your knee is to the surface the more challenging this movement becomes.
- Place back foot on the elevated surface.
- Keep a nice straight line from your knee to the crown of your head.
- Brace core and contract the glute of your back leg. No half-squeezing here.
- Press hands down into front leg to help activate the core–make sure not to lift shoulders up towards your ears.
- On an exhale, contract the hamstring to lift the foot off the surface. Hold for 2 seconds. Return to the surface with control–no plunking.
- Try 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions on each leg
Are the muscles used in a toe hang different from those used in a heel hang?
Yes, yes they are.
In a toe hang, the main focus is the dorsiflexors of the ankle and the everters of the foot. They are what are primarily ‘holding’ onto the bar. This is not to say other muscles aren’t isometrically contracting; I would say the contrary. All of your core, glutes and leg muscles want to be contracting in a toe hang, with the muscles of ankle dorsiflexion and foot eversion contracting even more to create a platform for the bar to rest on or in–depending on how much you can flex your ankle.
In an ankle hang, aside from the core, glutes and leg muscles isometrically contracting, the muscles that need to be “doing the work” do differ. In an ankle hang, we want to be contracting: the quads for leg extension, the internal rotators of the leg, the glute medius and minimus for the pressing out against the apparatus, as well as the ankle flexors to hug around the apparatus. A good ankle hang needs all of these elements and muscles contracting to ‘hang’ in the skill and what I find is that for many people internal rotation is very limited and contracting with the glute medius and minimus and quite challenging. But I’ll save that for different post and how to work on increasing range of motion and strength in these areas.
To sum it up, the difference being that in a toe hang, the way to ‘hang’ is from the platform at your ankle; whereas the way to ‘hang’ in an ankle hang is mostly via the outward press of your legs against your apparatus and the ‘hug’ created by the internal rotation of the leg.
That’s brings me to the conclusion of this post. I hope you find it beneficial and that the exercises I provided will help give you more strength in your aerial and circus discipline. As always if you have any questions please feel free to reach out via the comments or contacting me on the website or a social media platform.
Anterior Tibialis Strength:  
Foot and Ankle muscles and movements:  
Foot and ankle research: