As far back as I can remember, my right hip has always turned out. My feet were perpendicular; at 12 and 3 o’clock. I blamed 7 years of fencing, but it never really “bothered” me, because I always did things like squat and swing with a little more external rotation than others and it seemed to work out just fine. My hips like being all splayed out like a ballerina. In fact, I have more turn out than the two professional ballet dancers I know. I never really thought much about it (other than having a nifty party trick that made people squick out), until I did some things I had never done before, like trying to learn the pistol and flying back and forth to New York a lot.
The pistol is the godfather of bodyweight exercises. If there was a dictionary entry for “simple; but never easy” the picture next to it would be a guy doing a pistol. And if there was a Don of the pistol, it would be Steve Maxwell. I was in New York visiting Antonio, getting advice on how to progress myself into doing pistols. A few minutes into us dicking around with kettlebells, Steve Maxwell dropped by. Soon I was getting 30 minutes of free instruction from the Don of pistols himself. The conversation went like this:
“What the hell is up with your foot?”
“It’s always done that.”
“Well stop it.”
“I can’t today. My TFL cramps and hurts from the 6 hour flight.”
“You’re 29 years old. I’m 60. Nothing on you should hurt yet.”
Later that week I was relaying this story to my friends Rob and Charlie, both fitness uber-nerds. Their verdict, “Your right foot is stupid.” What are friends for, right? But I still didn’t believe them. I have never had a problem before. I’m pretty strong and mobile and I never have any pain… except after 6 hour flights to New York.
I finally put all the pieces together when Rob took me climbing, something I had never done before. When you climb you have to put all your bodyweight on your big toe and drive upward a lot. I immediately pulled a muscle in my right ankle. Which muscle? The one that you use to put pressure on your big toe and drive upward. Everyone was right: my right foot was stupid.
Here was my rehab strategy:
- Attack my feet and ankles with a lacrosse ball and stretch them a lot.
- Pick up lots of things off the floor with my feet.
- Consciously walk with my feet parallel and drive off my big toe.
That’s it. Within a week, weird stuff started to happen. I started to get soreness and cramping in my internal hip rotators. My feet started to face forward without me thinking about it. And most importantly, I got off my next red-eye to New York with no hip pain! But then other great stuff started to happen…
My problem in the pistol is that I cannot maintain intra-abdominal pressure at the bottom. I just collapse and fall over. It’s the same problem I have with conventional deadlifting. If my feet get closer together than shoulder width, I just deflate like a popped balloon. But after two weeks of my “rehab” I was suddenly hanging out at the bottom of a squat with my feet and knees together with little effort. The same day I was rocking the close-stance squat, I was setting up to do some sumo deadlifting. For some strange reason I decided to try and pick up the 275lbs I had put on the bar with a conventional deadlift. My one rep max in the sumo is 320lbs, but I have never even picked up 135lbs conventionally. But that day I put my feet a little less than shoulder width apart, engaged everything crazy hard, hinged down to the bar, grabbed it outside my knees, and squeezed the trigger. The damn thing came up like it was made of styrofoam. Let’s be clear, I didn’t just add some weight to a lift: I did something I have never been able to do at all after two weeks of picking up t-shirts with my damn toes.
The lesson here? Well the obvious one is don’t neglect your feet. Get out of your shoes and be barefoot as often as you can. Train in a pair of shoes with toes (I even bought a pair of these to walk around in). But the more valuable lesson here is not to neglect movements you can’t do, just because you can’t do them. It’s one thing to work around problems, it’s a whole other thing to completely neglect weaknesses. I should have put the pieces of my dysfunction together, but it was too easy to just sumo deadlift or turn out my feet a little in the squat. It wasn’t until I was forced into new things like climbing, pistols, and frequent long-haul flying that I began to understand the totality of my problem, which turned out to be very easy to fix. So remember kids, there’s very little difference between a groove and a rut. If you get out there and try to do some new things with your body, you just might be surprised what you can learn.