Better Feet, Better Back: Discover How Strengthening Your Feet with Pilates Leads to Back Pain Relief

blog post mondays Feb 05, 2024
Image of two feet touching in the sand.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever stood all night at a concert or spent the day chasing your kids around Disneyland. Now, keep it raised if you woke up the next day with low back pain.


So, what's your go-to for back pain relief?


Do you reach for an ice pack, smother your back in CBD cream, or just wait for your back to feel better?


Sure, ice, topicals, and rest can provide short-term relief for low back pain, but have you considered that your feet might be the key to a long-term solution?


“Pilates in Common, the pain is in my low back, why would I focus on my feet?”


Well, low back pain often serves as a telltale sign of joint dysfunction or misalignment that originates further down the kinetic chain, a fundamental concept in understanding body mechanics and movement dynamics. The kinetic chain refers to the interconnected series of joints and segments in the human body, structured in such a way that movement or changes in one area can significantly impact others. This chain is built on the principle that joints and body segments are not isolated in their function; rather, they operate in an integrated manner to produce movement and maintain posture. 



Starting at the feet, which are the foundation of this kinetic chain, every step, shift in weight, or change in posture triggers a cascading series of adjustments throughout the entire body. For example, a misalignment in the feet can lead to abnormal walking patterns, which in turn may cause compensatory changes in the alignment of the knees, hips, and eventually, the lower back. These compensatory changes can strain muscles, ligaments, and joints, leading to discomfort and pain, such as in the lower back.


Moreover, the concept of the kinetic chain encompasses both the idea of the "closed kinetic chain," where the distal segment (typically the foot) is fixed and movements at one joint require compensatory movements at other joints due to this fixed nature, and the "open kinetic chain," where the distal segment is free to move. For example, when performing a squat, the feet remain in contact with the ground (fixed), and the muscles and joints of the legs and hips work in concert to execute the movement, illustrating a closed kinetic chain activity. In the context of low back pain, issues often arise from a dysfunction within the closed kinetic chain. The body's interconnectedness means that instability or misalignment in the feet can directly affect the stability and alignment of the spine, as the compensatory adjustments required during such closed kinetic chain activities can lead to imbalances and strain in the lower back. We'll explore the impact of the feet on squat mechanics more later in this article. 


By recognizing how each part of the body is linked, from the feet up through the spine, practitioners can develop more comprehensive treatment plans that address the root causes of discomfort, rather than just the symptoms. This holistic approach can lead to more effective, long-lasting relief and a better understanding of body mechanics and function.



Just as the erratic pedal stroke in a bicycle signifies a problem with the chain, similarly, excessive joint mobility in your feet can lead to issues elsewhere in the body. The instability caused by overly mobile foot joints is akin to the bicycle's chain jumping, leading to a ripple effect. If the joints in your foot are overly mobile due to weak muscles or ligaments, this might lead to unstable ankle movement. This instability can travel up the kinetic chain, causing your knees and hips to compensate, potentially leading to knee pain or hip misalignment.


Conversely, if the chain is too tight or rusted, it restricts movement, making pedaling hard or impossible – this mirrors a joint’s lack of mobility. Suppose the arch of your foot  is too rigid due to tight calf muscles or stiff joints. This can limit the natural rolling movement during walking. This forces the knees and hips to overcompensate, possibly resulting in hip stiffness or lower back pain.


Just like a bike functions best with a well-maintained chain, your body operates optimally when all its joints have the right balance of mobility and stability.


Simply put, both excessive and insufficient movement in one part of your body, like the feet, can significantly affect other areas, such as the knees, hips, and back.



True. However, at Pilates in Common our  approach to full body health involves assessing alignment and coordination of multiple joints during movement. From our years of experience, we’ve observed that functional, healthy feet are essential for people to properly stabilize and support full-body movement. Interestingly, did you know that your feet are myofascially connected to your hamstrings? This connection means that tightness in the feet can exert additional pull on the hamstrings, creating a cascade of tension up the kinetic chain. Therefore, addressing hamstring tightness without considering the condition of your feet offers an incomplete solution. By nurturing the health of your feet, you can achieve a more comprehensive approach to relieving tension and enhancing overall body function.


The feet, being the lowest joints in your body, are foundationally crucial. Each foot is a complex network of 33 joints and 26 bones. To learn more about the anatomy of the foot, check out our Pilates Anatomy 101 post on the feet! The anatomy of the feet is ripe for misalignments or dysfunctions that ripple upwards, affecting everything from your ankles and knees to your hips, and all the way to your spine.



Poor foot alignment can result in an altered pelvic tilt and hip rotation, which in turn, can cause the hamstrings to become tight or overstretched and the hip flexors to shorten, contributing to back pain.

This is why, at Pilates in Common, we prioritize foot health as the initial step in addressing low back pain. The graphic below visually illustrates how you stand on your feet directly influences the alignment of your knees and hips, and subsequently, the length and function of your hip muscles.



Let's take the squat as a practical example to understand the impact of the feet on the entire kinetic chain.The squat, integral in many Pilates exercises, involves harmonious, multi-joint movement patterns paired with controlled breath. Each joint’s ability to stabilize or mobilize  is influenced by the feet. If you've ever experienced knee or low back discomfort post-squat, the role of your feet might be enlightening. Have you noticed how weightlifters often squat barefoot? It's to utilize the hundreds of thousands of nerve endings in the feet for better proprioception, crucial for effective, balanced squats.


Exploring the role of foot strength in squats reveals a fascinating interplay between various parts of our body. It's not just about the squat itself, but how each component of our body contributes to this fundamental movement. When we consider the impact of weak feet on a squat, it's essential to recognize the intricate relationships within the kinetic chain. The body functions as an interconnected system, where the state of one joint can significantly influence others.


1) Starting right above the feet, week feet can limit ankle dorsiflexion which initiates a chain reaction that impacts the squat's overall mechanics. The ankle, serving as a complex junction between the foot and lower leg, is key to maintaining stability. A compromised ability to dorsiflex at the ankle leads to adverse effects on knee alignment. Given that the shin bone is a shared component of both the ankle and knee joints, any instability originating at the ankle can cause the knees to misalign during a squat. Such misalignments, like the knees collapsing inward or bowing outward, can greatly affect the squat's effectiveness and safety.


2) Building on the impact of weak feet and restricted ankle dorsiflexion, hip mechanics become compromised due to misalignments in the ankles and knees. The hip's function is closely tied to the lower extremities' alignment, facilitated by the femur connecting the knee and hip joints. Misalignment, such as inward collapsing or outward bowing of the knees—stemming from ankle instability—exerts uneven forces on the hips. This leads to compensatory actions, either through underutilization or overextension of hip muscles, directly affecting squat performance and safety.



3) Following the progression from weak feet and limited ankle dorsiflexion through to the compromised mechanics of the ankles, knees, and hips, the interconnectedness of these components culminates in its impact on the lower back. The hip joint, integrating the top of the femur, plays a pivotal role in sustaining the proper alignment of the lower back during a squat. Misalignments originating from the feet ascend through the kinetic chain, causing the hips to adjust improperly, which may result in an overarched or excessively rounded lower back. This maladaptive posture, particularly evident during a squat, places undue strain on the lumbar region and its musculature, heightening the risk of discomfort or injury.


The strength and stability of our feet are integral to the proper execution of a squat. They not only influence the alignment and function of our entire kinetic chain – from the ankles and knees to the hips and lower back – but also underscore the deep interconnectedness of our body's joints. Thus, addressing foundational issues like foot strength is key for optimal performance and health in movements as intricate as the squat.


Are you ready to give your feet the attention they deserve?


Watch the video and follow along to learn our top 5 Pilates exercises for foot strengthening and mobility. These exercises are tailored to build a strong, stable foundation for your movements. Aim to practice them daily to memorize the routine. Completing the whole series is important, as each exercise builds on the next for optimal foot health.



This video introduces five fundamental Pilates exercises for the feet and additional bonus techniques, offering a glimpse into Pilates in Common's unique teaching philosophy. We understand that exercises are not one-size-fits-all, so our approach is tailored to the body in front of us, focusing on individual needs and progressions. Through this video, you'll not only learn specific movements but also grasp how we emphasize the importance of the kinetic chain, teaching our students to appreciate the body-wide impact of each exercise. Our goal is to foster a deep understanding of how movements connect and affect one another, ensuring a personalized and effective Pilates experience.


Watch the video to learn the following exercises:


Self-Massage of the Feet and Calves: 

What You Do: Grab a hand towel and loop it around the bottom of your foot. Start to shimmy the towel side to side as if you're drying off your foot. Work the towel, shimming side to side, up the back of your calf and then down the front of your shin and over the top of your foot!

Why It's Great: This not only eases tension in the plantar fascia of your feet but also soothes tight calf muscles. It's a fantastic way to boost flexibility and circulation, and it helps relieve any discomfort. Since your calf muscles heavily influence your foot's movement and health, keeping them relaxed is key to maintaining good foot mechanics and alignment.


Supination and Pronation of the Foot and Ankle:

What You Do: Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart on a flat surface. Begin by gently rolling your feet inward, allowing your arches to slightly collapse, engaging in pronation. Then, slowly roll your feet outward, lifting your arches to engage in supination. Continue to alternate between pronation and supination, focusing on the controlled movement of your feet and ankles. Aim for smooth transitions and maintain balance throughout the exercise.

Why It's Great: This exercise strengthens and increases flexibility in the foot and ankle muscles, promoting better balance and stability. It's particularly beneficial for correcting or mitigating issues related to excessive pronation or supination. Regular practice can lead to improved foot mechanics and alignment, reducing the risk of injury and enhancing overall movement efficiency.


Toe Extension + Frankenstein Walk:

What You Do: Begin either seated or standing with your feet flat on the ground. Then, lift all your toes off the ground as high as they can comfortably go, stretching them away from the floor. The balls of your feet remain on the floor. Hold this lifted position for a moment, and then gently lower them back down. You can perform this exercise with or without the aid of toe separators to increase the stretch and challenge. Turn toe extension into the Frankenstein Walk, by attempting to walk while keeping your toes lifted off off the floor. Funny faces encouraged!

Why It's Great: This action not only strengthens the muscles in your toes but also improves their range of motion. It's beneficial for enhancing balance, aiding in more stable and effective walking, and can help in preventing issues like hammertoes.


Foot Spine:

What You Do: Sit down with your legs stretched out in front of you, ankles flexed, and toes pointing up. Start by pointing your feet, pushing the tops of your feet away from you to lengthen. Then, gently push your toes forward, aiming them towards the floor without curling them under. Focus on reaching with your toenails towards the floor. After fully pointing your toes downward, slowly reverse the movement: pull your toes back towards you, lift the balls of your feet slightly, and finally, pull your feet back into the flexed position, with toes pointing up.

Why It's Great: This exercise enhances flexibility and strength in the muscles of the lower leg and foot, crucial for movements that require foot articulation and stability. By emphasizing the lengthening of the foot rather than the scrunching of the toes, it promotes a fuller range of motion and helps prevent the shortening of muscles and tendons in the foot. This exercise is particularly beneficial for improving circulation, reducing the risk of foot cramps, and supporting the overall health of your feet.


Standing Footwork: 

What You Do: Start in a Pilates V position with your heels together and toes about a fist's distance apart. Squeeze your heels together as you bend your ankles and knees, bringing your shins forward towards your second and third toe but not past them. Then, lift your heels a few inches off the ground. From this raised position, straighten your legs while keeping your heels elevated. Finally, lower your heels back to the ground with control.

Reverse the Sequence: Start in the same Pilates V position. Lift your heels a couple of inches off the floor, maintaining the heel squeeze. Next, bend your knees towards (but not over) your second and third toes, keeping your heels raised. Then, bend your ankles to gently lower your heels to the floor without straightening your knees. Finish by standing up straight, pushing into your feet to extend your legs.

Why It's Great: This exercise strengthens both the intrinsic muscles within your feet and the extrinsic muscles that connect to your lower legs, as we mentioned earlier. Performing both the forward and reverse sequences challenges these muscle groups in different ways, enhancing balance and stability.


Explore our additional "Pilates for Your Feet" blog post, featuring another video packed with foot exercises, our top shoe picks (because shoes really do matter!), and essential foot props!


Have a question? Leave a comment below or send us an email at [email protected]!


Written by: Destinie Slavich and Nicole Lancie 

First image credit: Mitchell Griest