Several years ago I created this site as part of a project to see if I could fix my flat feet with exercise. After several months of training, I developed stable arches.
This guide provides an in-depth overview of my flat foot correction process.
Flat Feet Basics
Flat feet is a condition characterized by the absence of an arch on the inside of the foot.
There are two main types of flat feet: flexible and rigid.
Flexible Flat Feet
A flexible flat foot is a foot that has the ability to form an arch but the arch flattens when weight is put on the leg.
This is the type of flat feet I had and what I refer to when talking about fixing flat feet.
Checking For Flexible Flat Feet
There are generally a few ways to check for a flexible flat foot, including:
- if an arch is present when seated with the foot dangling in the air,
- if an arch forms when standing up on the toes, and
- if an arch forms with flexing the big toe up by hand.
Rigid Flat Feet
A rigid flat foot cannot form an arch. This is usually the result of how the bones are shaped or formed in the foot. This condition is uncommon and is unlikely to change with exercise.
Other Types of Flat Feet
Besides rigid flat feet, there are other types of flat feet that are quite different from the flexible type that I had, including:
- conditions that cause spasticity or contracture of the heel cord (e.g. cerebral palsy) or other neurological conditions,
- flat feet that are related to disease processes (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, posterior tibialis tendon dysfunction) or
- injuries that alter the normal anatomy or functioning of the foot.
And even though many cases of flexible flat feet can improve (and there is research that supports this), all individuals are different. So the program I followed may not be effective or even appropriate for some cases.
How to Fix Flat Feet
There are a few key principles that helped throughout this process. The two most important concepts are the neutral heel position and the foot tripod.
People with flat feet often stand with their heels in an everted or angled out position. The neutral heel is what I call the straight up and down position of the heel.
Training myself to hold the neutral heel position and strengthening the muscles that invert the heel (e.g. posterior tibialis) was a big part of the process.
The foot tripod is a useful way of thinking about how the bottom of the foot contacts the ground.
The three points of the tripod are the:
- Center of the heel
- Base of the little toe
- Base of the big toe
A balance between these points gives the foot stability.
Learning to feel how these tripod points contact the ground was key to making many of the exercises effective.
Problems and Fixes
Going through this process taught me that the factors contributing to flat feet can extend well beyond the foot. To figure out how to fix my flat feet, I needed to understand why they were flat.
Below I’ll go over the major issues and provide examples of exercises I used to address those problems.
Factors contributing to flat feet:
- Lack of ankle flexibility
- Foot muscle weakness
- Calf muscle weakness
- Posture and walking mechanics
- Hip muscle weakness
- Forefoot supinatus
Lack of Ankle Flexibility
A tight calf muscle or Achilles tendon can force the foot to collapse inward. This was evident in my case because whenever I went into a squat my already flat feet would collapse even farther.
A tight calf muscle restricts ankle dorsiflexion motion. Ankle dorsiflexion is the bending movement of the ankle that brings the top of the foot closer to the shin.
If the foot is on the ground, this motion happens when the lower leg travels over the foot.
Flexibility improves with regular stretching. An example of a stretching exercise for the calf is the standing wall stretch.
Calf Stretching for Flexibility
- Stand facing a wall and about 12 inches away from it with the hands on the wall for balance.
- Extend the leg to be stretched behind with the knee straight.
- Gently lean forward while bending the knee in front until feeling a stretch in the calf on the extended leg.
- Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds.
Repeat 4 times on each side.
A variation of this can be done with the knee bent to better isolate the soleus muscle.
See also: Better Calf Stretching for Flat Feet
Foot Muscle Weakness
The arch is like a bridge and the muscles inside the foot tie the two ends of the bridge together. These muscles are part of the system that keeps the arch from flattening when weight is put on the foot.
Besides supporting the arch, the muscles inside the foot (known as intrinsic muscles) stabilize the many joints of the foot. Doing so assists the larger muscles of the lower leg in raising the arch.
The muscles inside the foot may be weak or functioning poorly. One of the core exercises for flat feet to target these muscles is the short foot.
Short Foot Exercise for Arch Muscle Strengthening
- Sit in a chair with the foot on the floor and the toes pointed forward.
- Keeping the toes flat on the ground slide the front of the foot back along the floor toward the heel.
- Hold the short foot position for 5-10 seconds.
- Relax and repeat.
Repeat 10 times on each side.
The short foot exercise can be progressed from sitting to standing and then eventually holding the position while performing single leg stance activities.
The foot intrinsic muscles also control toe movement. So exercises for toe dexterity play a role in strengthening these muscles. An example would be spreading the toes apart.
Lower Leg Muscle Weakness
There are several muscles in the lower leg that cross the ankle joint to attach onto the foot. These muscles are larger and stronger than the muscles inside the foot.
The posterior tibialis is one of these muscles commonly suspected of being weak in people with flat feet. But all the lower leg muscles work together to give the foot stability. One of the best exercises for strengthening these muscles is heel raises.
Heel Raises for Lower Leg Strengthening
- Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart
- Raise heels off the ground as high as possible keeping pressure through the front of the foot
- Hold for 1-2 seconds at the top of the movement then return slowly to the starting position
Perform 15-20 repetitions.
Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Anterior pelvic tilt posture is when the front of the pelvis tilts forward creating a large curve in the lower back.
This posture is sometimes associated with changes in the angle of the joints in the hip, knee, and ankle. This change in alignment can place increased stress on the arch.
Getting into Better Alignment
To maintain a good arch shape, I found it necessary to improve my posture. A big part of this was reducing anterior pelvic tilt.
But bringing the whole system, from head to toe, into better alignment made a noticeable difference in arch height and stability.
Some general cues I like for posture are:
- stand tall with ears over shoulders,
- keep a neutral pelvis, and
- maintain hips over ankles.
There are many exercises the can help with reducing anterior pelvic tilt and improving posture. I found postural exercises were most effective when combined with being mindful of maintaining good alignment.
Walking is one of the best exercises for training the foot. Just think, if you take 8,000 steps a day — that’s 8,000 chances to work on arch strengthening. Walking mechanics are very complex. I needed to change the way I was walking in order to stop my feet from overpronating.
Three simple rules for walking
- Keep feet pointed straight ahead (or close to it).
- Keep weight towards the outside edge of the foot.
- Walk with a springy step.
In combination with the exercises and improving posture, I was able to stop my arches from collapsing while walking. At first, I had to frequently think about it. But over time everything became automatic.
Other Contributing Factors
Some of the largest muscles in the body are around the hips. The hip muscles need strength to control the alignment of the leg.
A lack of hip strength can alter the alignment of the leg and increase pressure on the arch.
I didn’t find isolated hip strengthening exercises very useful.
What worked best were exercises that combined hip activity with arch strengthening.
Some examples would be balancing on one leg or squatting while trying to maintain an arch in the foot.
Forefoot supinatus is the angling or inverted position of the bones in the front of the foot in relation to the heel. This causes the foot to roll inward (pronate) in order to bring the big toe side of the foot down to the ground.
Supinatus is thought to be a way the foot adapts over time to overpronating. I had this only on my right foot and it was hard to reverse. Working on pressing the big toe down while preventing the heel from everting was one way I went about correcting this.
Toe Tapping (Toe Yoga)
- Start with your foot flat on the floor
- Try to lift your big toe into the air while keeping the other toes down
- Then switch and try to lift your other four toes while keeping the big toe pressed down
- Keep alternating back and forth until the muscles on the inside of your arch start to feel fatigued
Repeat 10 times.
Footwear and Orthotics
There is a lot of debate about what types of shoes are best for people who have flat feet or overpronate. In the past, I wore stability shoes and used arch support insoles.
Part of what inspired me to start working on my arches was the barefoot-running movement. So during this project, I started spending more time barefoot and began wearing thinner, more flexible shoes with less support.
There is some evidence that going with less support strengthens foot muscles and I believe this helped in my case.
Before starting this project, I never paid much attention to the strength and flexibility of my feet. I felt dependent on shoes and thought my feet needed external support to function properly.
When I began working on this in 2012 there was very little information available on correcting flat feet. Even with my training as a physical therapist, I wasn’t sure if building arches was possible.
My goals was to perform 5-10 minutes of foot exercises everyday. The most dramatic changes happened in the first few months.
I continued to adapt the program as I found new things to work on and it took about a full year until I was completely satisfied with the results.
Now, I look at the time I put into this process as one of the best investments I’ve made for my health.
Hopefully this guide has given you a good overview of the approach I took to correct flat feet.
If you’ve found this guide helpful and want more information, consider becoming a member. The membership area of the site provides an in-depth look at these concepts and specific exercises from my program.
Flat Feet Academy
Comprehensive guides and routines for the exercises in my flat foot correction program.