If you are into bodyweight training, you would probably have noticed that there is a fair amount of discussion around toe pointing, across all moves. Considering many of the static holds in calisthenics are also performed in gymnastics, the toe pointing has surely been influenced by this.
However, there are a large band of athletes (especially at the top level) who prefer flat feet over pointy toes. The question is, which is better and why? To look at this in more detail I have taken the Front Lever as an example to discuss.
There are many variations of the front lever (and other moves) which have different muscle group activation – is there any difference functionally from the ankle down, or is it all just subjective opinion on what looks the best?
Well, aesthetically the two styles have different effects – pointed toes tend to streamline the body more and make it look more gymnastic and graceful, whereas “pointing your heels” looks more machine-like due to the right angles, giving the impression of rigidness. If we want to understand what’s better from a training perspective though, we must first look at the kinetic chain involved when flexing the ankle and how that impacts the move difficulty and form.
The ankle can point the toes downwards (plantarflexion), upwards (dorsiflexion) or side to side (inversion/eversion).
It has been said that there is a correlation between the Athlete’s ability to engage their glutes and dorsiflex their ankle, the clinical and biomechanical components being undeniable. If an athlete struggles to dorsiflex their ankle, it is usually a given that their glutes aren’t working well.
One of the roles of the glutes is to maintain posterior pelvic tilt (PPT) during movement. This means that your hips are tilted slightly backwards. Many people have tight hip flexors from sitting down all day which causes anterior pelvic tilt (APT), which in turn can lead to back tightness and pain.
In the front lever as an example, the role of the glutes is to help keep the hips up in the air whilst maintaining posterior pelvic tilt.
If we try to do a front lever with dorsiflexion (pointed heels), we are more inclined to use the correct kinetic chain of muscles to perform the move (rear delts, lats and glutes).
If however we opt to use plantarflexion (pointy toes), we find that it encourages APT as pointing the toes away is effectively “unhollowing” the body. It’s important to note that the angle of the head and feet in any movement can be changed without effecting the rest of the body and kinetic chain, but in weaker performers who have not mastered engaging all relevant muscles, angling will cause corruption of the spine’s alignment – for example, turning your head to the side will cause unsymmetrical use of the spinal muscles.
- It is easier to hold the hips up straight if you point your toes, as the hip flexors will contract while long and help out. If you use the hip flexors too much over the glutes, they will encourage APT. If the APT becomes too pronounced, your spine will arch and your front lever will look curved. It is still possible to point your toes and maintain PPT, though.
- It is harder to hold the hips up straight if you point your heels, as the activated glutes will encourage PPT (correct hollow body), and the hip flexors will not be able to engage (a good thing as we do not want APT). When there is PPT in conjunction with a strong core, your spine will be straight.
- In the interim when one is learning the move, your body will drop from the hips, but you should focus on using the glutes as the primary method of pushing them up (remember to keep the core tensed too).
- A correct hollow body front lever CAN be achieved using pointed toes, so long as the rest of the kinetic chain is encouraging PPT. So it is not “incorrect” to point your toes, it’s just that doing this usually discourages glute engagement, which as a result encourages some of the incorrect muscles to get involved.
If anything, the truth is that all suspension moves are a delicate balance of opposing forces on both sides of the body using all muscles, but depending on the direction of gravity and the planes of motion you are moving in, you will need to use some muscles more than the others to perform moves safely and correctly. Knowing which those are for each move you train is the key to unlocking the perfect form…