Intrinsic Muscles Of The Feet

Training the foot muscles is as important as developing the muscles in the rest of a dancer’s body. Well-developed feet are important for all dancers, regardless of the style of dance they work in. The muscles in the feet provide stability for all movement and are particularly important for controlling jumps 

Consistent attention to working through the foot is the best way to ensure that they are able to protect the lower body against injury and maximise jumps.


Feet have extrinsic and intrinsic muscles. Extrinsic muscles originate away from the joints that they move. For the foot, there are muscles that move the toes that start on the shin bone and turn into tendons that attach onto the toes. They can curl and extend the toes, but they do it by crossing over the many small bones and joints of the foot. The extrinsic muscles of the ankle and foot include the big calf muscles, the muscles that curl and straighten your toes and the muscles that allow you to “wing” or “sickle” the foot.

Intrinsic muscles originate and attach within the same body part. In the foot, they originate on the heel bone or long bones of the arch of the foot and attach onto the toes. The intrinsic muscles are like the “core” muscles of the foot. Because they don’t cross over too many joints, they can work well in stabilising and protecting the arch and structures within the foot. If the foot intrinsic muscles are weak, the foot structures are more prone to increased stress and injury. The intrinsic muscles in the foot lift the arch and move the toes from the knuckles. Strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot is important for dancers with foot injuries and for those looking to prevent injury.

Weakness in the intrinsic foot muscles and overuse of the extrinsics will result in the toes “clawing” both when rising, en pointe and in tendu. Control of the intrinsic allows the middle joint of the toes to remain straight while fully pointing the rest of the foot. It is important to work these muscles just like any others – with focus and understanding. Teaching young dancers about how their foot works and ensuring their technique is correct is essential in preventing overuse and chronic injuries from occuring.

A great way to ensure dancers are using their feet correctly is to get them to work in bare feet. Often it is hard to see if students are “cheating” when they are wearing their dance shoes. Exercises such as plies, tendus, rises and releves allow the teacher to see if the student is “gripping” the floor with their toes causing a “step” formation through the toes, or curling their toes when pointed, teaching dancers to work through their feet.

Using imagery can also help students become more conscious of their feet. Some suggestions include:

1. Compare feet to suction cups as you work through a tendu.

2. Peel the foot off the floor in a jump.

3. Massage the ball of the foot into the floor.


4. As one ballet teacher used to tell us, “imagine you have ‘Mr Sheen’ on the bottom of your shoes and make the floor shine”.


Try these exercises to help you start developing the intrinsic muscles in the foot. They can help prevent overuse injuries through the long tendons in the foot especially tibialis posterior and flexor hallux longus. They can also help reduce the risk of injury in knees, hips and lower back as you will start using your foot to help cushion your landings by dispersing the forces more evenly long the lower limb chain.

Toe Swapping

This exercise helps you to develop control of the intrinsic muscles within your foot

a. Start by sitting with the foot on the floor, equal weight on the inside and outside of the foot.

b. Lift the big toe off the ground keeping the small toes down.

c. Lower the big toe and lift the other toes.

d. Make sure you are not twisting or rolling your foot or ankle.

Piano Toes

a. Start by sitting with the foot on the floor, equal weight on the inside and outside of the foot.

b. Lift all the toes off the ground keeping the ball of the foot in contact with the floor and your ankle neutral.

c. Place one toe at a time onto the floor starting with the little toe and finishing with your big toe. Like playing the piano one key at a time.

d. Reverse the movement by lifting the big toe first and ending with your little toe.

e. Make sure you are not twisting or rolling your foot or ankle.


This exercise helps engage and strengthen the intrinsic muscles which will, in turn, develop the arch of the foot.

a. Make sure you are not twisting or rolling your foot or ankle.

b. Think of a narrowing between the first and fifth toe.

c. Energy of the dome is drawing up from the floor – imagine “slurping” the floor with your foot

d. Keep the toes long and flat, don’t let them curl under. You should be able to see all your toenails throughout.

Article written by Haydee Ferguson.

Physiotherapist with a dance history spanning more 25 years.

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