So what happens when you flex your foot? Dorsiflexion of the foot happens when we push through our heel and the toes come towards the shin much like if you were standing. During dorsiflexion, the front of the leg is engaged and active, including the shins and quads, while the back of the leg (hamstring, achilles) is lengthening. It also helps keep the foot, ankle and knee in proper alignment. When you point your toes (also called plantar flexion) the reverse happens; the front of the leg is lengthening and the back of the leg, including the hamstring and calf, is engaging.
As an experiential experiment, try laying supine (on your back) or maybe sitting on the couch with your legs out straight. Point the toes and sense into the muscle engagement in the legs. What comes online and what feels stretched or lengthened? Now try dorsiflexing the foot, pushing through the heel and pulling the toes towards your shins. Again, notice what changes happen in the muscles. Next, try a single leg lift, once with a dorsiflexed foot and once with a pointed, or plantar flexed, foot. How do they compare? Another example to try is hip raises, or bridge pose in yoga terms. Try raising the hips with the feet flat on the ground, pushing into the ground with the heels. Then, try pointing the feet, being on “tippy toes,” and notice the difference in which muscles are in charge of the movement.
But which one, dorsiflexion or plantar flexion should you do during exercise? Well, as a prior college professor loved to answer, it depends! It depends on a number of factors, including what muscle group(s) you are focusing on, what specific exercise you are doing, and let’s not forget that each individual is different in the anatomical makeup and health of their foot and ankle which can play a part in determining this. If either of these, dorsiflexion or plantar flexion, is difficult due to tightness, tension, pain, muscle weakness, etc., focusing on foot mobility can help strengthen the foot muscles, improve flexibility, and ease pain. Medical News Today has a good listing of foot exercises that can be done easily at home in just a few minutes, making them great daily practices!