by Alison Crouch
Every day I say, “It’s all connected!”
And it is. Our bodies are amazing playgrounds of connection and we can use that connectedness in unexpected ways.
Did you know you can help your flexion, get better access to your ab work and improve your every day strength and mobility just by working on your feet?
Strange but true!
The body is a wonderful organization of tissues, that match and support each other in chains and lines throughout our structures. Tension along the back line of the body inhibits motion in the front.
That means that our fronts are only as strong as our backs are pliable!
There are lots of Pilates exercises that require this kind of give and take relationship between the anterior and posterior muscle groups, but let’s explore the Roll Up as one of the fundamentals.
The Roll Up can be a lovely, fluid move. There’s the flow of the spine, almost a massage through the length of the body as you follow the wave of rolling up and down.
But how often as a teacher have you seen clients struggle to complete their roll? Or as a student felt that moment where you lose the forward momentum and struggle to get up?
There are so many ways that bodies (and brains!) struggle with the full body flexion required for a Roll Up.
The most obvious, of course, is not being able to complete the move!
But we also see other indications that all is not moving smoothly, including:
- Feet coming off the floor
- Hips gripping
- Neck and shoulders hunching
- Head falling back and posterior neck tension
- Recruiting speed and momentum (there’s always momentum, but we want it to be controlled, not flail-y!)
Each element of the anterior contraction required for a roll up is matched by a need for posterior pliability and length.
- The cranio-vertebral flexion of the initial tipping of the head requires length from the posterior musculature of our necks.
- The flexion of our spines from cervical to lumbar means we need both mobility of our spinal columns and responsiveness along all the muscles of our backs, from the complicated patterns of the erector spinae to the simplicity of the quadratus lumborum.
- The ability to move the pelvis posteriorly as we roll over it and onto the sitz bones and then stack up into a seated position means we need some hamstring length.
- And a little calf flexibility won’t hurt!
It appears the only part we DON’T need is our feet!
But the fantastic world of fascia says otherwise.
Fascia – The Fantastic Connection
The Superficial Back Line, as described by Tom Myers of Anatomy Trains, is literally a head to toes connection of fascia, muscle and ligaments.
It runs from the bottoms of the feet all the way up through the Achilles tendons, calves and hamstrings, across the ischial tuberosities and the sacro-tuberous ligament to the sacral fascia, along the length of the erector spinae past the sub-occipital muscles and over the scalp fascia to the ridges of the eyebrows (or vice versa. The connections apply regardless of whether you start at the top or the bottom of the line).
I recently came back from my second fascial cadaver dissection with Anatomy Trains. It’s remarkable to actually see and touch those connections. We can move the cadaver and feel the tensions in the fascia and muscle fibres far away from the initial area of movement!
It’s an awesome demonstration of how cleverly inter-connected our systems are.
So how DO your feet help your flexion?
Because lessening the tension at one part of the fascial chain transmits an effect through the entire length of that line. It’s so cool!
Let’s try an experiment.
Do a roll up and assess how it feels.
Things to notice include:
- Did you come all the way up?
- Did you roll up sequentially using your abdominal muscles or did you roll part way, then hinge, recruiting mostly your hip flexors?
- Did you head stay consistently curved forward, or did it pull up part way through?
- Did your legs and feet stay heavy and grounded or did they pop up part way along?
- Did you feel stress or strain in your neck or back anywhere along the way?
- If you picture the back-line image, can you identify any particular spots on your own body where you feel the line is “sticky” or uncomfortable?
Foot rolling exercises with a ball
An initial note about foot work: please use appropriate amounts of pressure for your own tissues and tensions! Many of us have tight feet and there may be lots of sensation when you roll, but there should be no pain. Adjust your pressure to feel good. If you have balance issues, please make sure you have something to hold onto if needed.
These exercises work best with bare feet. We are trying to create some opportunities for movement between the surface layer of skin and the connective tissue beneath. If you have socks on, mostly what you get is glide between your sock and your skin! It will still be good, but less effective than it can be.
- Use any slightly soft ball (I particularly love the Yoga Tune Up balls or sFera Massage Balls for their grip and squish capacities. So great for fascia!) to start stepping down and stimulating your right foot. Imagine a bingo dabber leaving an ink circle each time you step down. By the time you’re done, your whole sole should be covered!
- Now imagine three lines on the bottoms of your feet, one from your big toe to the centre of your heel, one from the middle toe and one from the baby toe.
Roll 3 times back and forth along the big toe to heel line. Let the ball meld onto the inside of your arch and continue to put pressure all the way to the back of your heel, dragging your foot over the ball rather than rolling on top of it.
- Continue 3 more times on each of the other two lines.
- Move the ball under your arch and twist your foot side to side, as though you were rubbing something off the bottom of your foot.
- Shift the ball directly under your heel and use the same twisting motion.
Standing Roll Down
- Put the ball aside and plant both feet on the floor. Notice any differences you may feel from foot to foot, and if any of those differences continue further up your body. You may feel heavier, lighter, warmer, wider, deeper, more planted, less weighted down. It varies widely from person to person!
- Inhale to slide your eyes down and allow your head to roll forward.
- Exhale to roll down through your spine, engaging your abdominals lightly for support and keeping some space between your torso and your legs.
- Go as far as it feels comfortable to you with your legs straight.
- Look at your hands. Are they the same distance from the floor? Your right hand might be closer to the ground! Notice how you feel from side to side. You may be a bit rotated or feel a greater sense of ease on the right side of your back or your right leg.
If you don’t feel any difference, that’s ok too. You’ve had some lovely movement nutrition for your right side, even if you don’t feel it. I promise!
Repeat the whole foot rolling sequence on your left and try your standing roll down again. Hopefully you feel more even this time!
Repeat your roll up.
Notice if there are any differences.
Did you come up any further? Or come up the same amount but feel more fluid and less strained?
Visualise the back chain again and see if the spots that felt “sticky” seem any more responsive.
Again, you may not feel any differences and that’s so fine!
But if you do, isn’t it fascinating that we can experience a change in tissues that are very distant from the place we spent the most time?
To be clear, we have also made change by doing the standing roll down and repeating the roll up. Each time we revisit a movement we activate muscles, increase circulation and enhance the neurological connections to the motion and the body parts in question.
But if you can feel a big change, I bet some of is coming from helping the tension in your back by stimulating the tissues in your feet!
Fundamental Flexion in your Daily Life
How often do you bend over every day? To pick up your baby from the crib? To pop your toddler into the bath? Get things up off the floor? Load the dishwasher, put on your shoes, roll up your mat, plug in your computer charger… the possibilities are endless!
Wouldn’t it be lovely to do that movement more easily? More smoothly and with less tension along your back or neck?
When you do all those things you have a few movement choices: you can flex your spine (bend over), hinge your hips or squat down and hinge your hips and your knees (and probably your spine as well).
Each of those actions requires some ease and pliability of the tissues along the Superficial Back Line! Whether it’s your back muscles, your hamstrings or your calves and ankles, rolling and working your feet will help them accommodate those motions smoothly and comfortably.
Our feet are habitually under-used in our shoe-wearing, flat-pavement walking culture. That lack of varied action leads to limited strength and mobility in the many important joints and tissues of our tootsies! And as we’ve seen, giving them some love makes it easier and smoother to flex our whole body.
If your feet felt amazing after rolling them out, imagine if you had that amount of mobility and function all day!
I strongly recommend to all my clients that they add a few minutes of foot rolling in the morning. Do it while you brush your teeth or make your coffee. It doesn’t need to add any time to your day, and the payoff is great!
Get some juice going for your feet and you’ll be sprier and more comfortable, you’ll find some of your everyday movements easier and you’ll be rocking out your Roll Ups in no time!
Do you want to learn more about Fundamentals of Flexion or discover new ways to improve mobility in your body? Alison will be teaching a 6-week PIlates for Modern Bodies course online that is designed to help your find more mobility and movement in your body. Click here to learn more about the course
Alison Crouch is the creator of MoveSmart Movement and owner of Boomerang Pilates in Toronto. She has been teaching Pilates, Restorative Exercise and various stuff she makes up for almost 20 years and plans to continue for another 30 or so!
In recent years Alison has been mentoring young teachers and is introducing the first MoveSmart Pilates certification in the fall of 2019.
Move SMART|Sustainable Movement & Authentic Teaching is for new teachers, continuing education for all modalities of teachers and for therapeutic body-work professionals who prescribe exercise. Good teaching skills surpass all the boundaries of style and content!
Learn more about Alison or contact her to work together on at https://www.alisoncrouch.com/