You might associate toe spacers more with pedicures at the salon, not lifting heavy at the gym. But you’re only meant to wear the thin separators at the salon until your nails dry. Toe spacers for strength athletes are a different story.
The gel or silicon inserts meant to separate your toes aren’t just a TikTok trend amongst aspiring athletes and influencers. Big-time CrossFitters like Sam Briggs, Emma Lawson, Jeff Adler, and Danielle Brandon have all been known to flaunt their toe spacers on social media.
Here, you’ll learn the ins and outs of what these strange separators are, how to use them, and the potential benefits of toe spacers for improving strength athletes’ mobility, foot strength, and even overall performance.
- What Are Toe Spacers?
- How to Use Toe Spacers
- Benefits of Toe Spacers
- Who Should Use Toe Spacers
- Who Shouldn’t Use Toe Spacers
What Are Toe Spacers?
Toe spacers — also referred to as toe separators or toe spreaders — are generally made of silicon or gel, designed to slip between your toes and separate them from each other. They come in varying sizes that separate your toes to different degrees.
Some styles are somewhat bulky, meaning that you’ll be wearing them around the house with no shoes. Other toe spacers have a sleeker design, meant to separate your toes while wearing shoes with a slightly wider toe box.
Why Do People Use Toe Spacers?
Toe spacers can counteract the effects of squishing your feet into shoes with narrow toe boxes. Athletes often tout them as a way to stretch their foot muscles and ligaments, realign their foot angles, and reduce foot pain.
Some athletes may opt to use them as a countermeasure to wearing high heels and training shoes with narrow toe boxes. If you’re going to wear constricting shoes, the logic goes, you can undo some of that squishing by stretching your toes out afterward.
View this post on Instagram
[Related: 6 Stretches and Warm-Ups to Improve Ankle Mobility]
Others may choose to replace or supplement their current shoe selection with wider toe boxes that can accommodate toe spacers. This way, you’re giving your toes the opportunity to explore a broader range of motion day to day without any constricting effects of tight shoes.
This approach may be particularly helpful to athletes with bunions or other potentially painful foot conditions that impact toe angles.
Other athletes opt to wear toe spacers during training, hoping to improve their ability to grip the ground and maintain mobile, strong feet while lifting.
Why Your Feet Important in Lifting
You need more than strong lats and a solid posterior chain to deadlift heavy. Although these muscles might not come to mind immediately, your feet need to be strong if you want your lifts to have a steady foundation.
The ability to “grip” the floor with your feet during powerful pulls and squats demands a strong relationship with your feet.
The stronger your feet, the better you’ll be able to channel strength through your toes to maintain the crucial three points of contact with the ground during your lift. Also known as a tripod position, this stance entails displacing equal pressure between the base of your little toe, the base of your big toe, and your heel.
By creating a stable base to lift from, maintaining these three points of contact sets your knee and hip joints up for a successful lift.
Without a solid stance, you start off all your standing lifts — everything from squats and deadlifts to overhead presses and even standing biceps curls — with a weak link.
This shortcoming only gets worse if your foot muscles are unbalanced, such as if your toe angles are less than optimal. (1) For example, if you have bunions (aka hallux valgus) and your big toe is abducted away from your foot, it will be very hard to maintain three points of contact. Your ankles and knees may be negatively — and painfully — impacted by this, too. (2)
The idea of toe spacers is that they may be able to even out your toe angles, whether temporarily during training or more permanently over time. This may enable you to optimize your foot pressure and strength to give yourself the strongest base possible for your lifts.
How to Use Toe Spacers
When you’re trying a new strategy on or off the lifting platform, it’s often wise to apply the principle of progressive overload. Start small — with something you know your body can tolerate — and gradually increase the intensity from there.
[Related: Are Knee Sleeves Worth It?]
With toe spacers, that means putting them on and wearing them for 10 minutes at a time for a couple of weeks to let your feet acclimate. Do this while sitting at first. Then, try 30 minutes. Once you’ve worked up to wearing them while sitting, try walking around in them.
When your body is used to walking around in them for the length of your average training session, you might consider doing a stretching or mobility session while wearing them. If it’s part of your goals, you might then work up to performing your training in toe spacers.
Depending on your goals, you might want to wear toe spacers for:
- Recovery: when you’re not being very physically active at all
- Mobility: during warm-ups, cool-downs, stretch sessions, and perhaps light cardio
- Training: during your workout sessions themselves
Benefits of Toe Spacers
If you’ve never tried toe spacers, it might be hard to get behind the hype. Here, you’ll find research-backed benefits of toe spacers that might just convince you to give them a try.
They Stretch Your Toes
Since toe spacers are designed to stretch your toes, as opposed to the constraints of certain types of shoes, they can help counter the effects of constricting shoes. This can take a lot of pressure off your feet and strengthen them at the same time. (3)
If your preferred training shoes have a narrow toe box, you might want to consider wearing toe spacers after your workouts to counteract the impacts of squishing your toes into that narrow box.
They Help with Gripping the Floor
You may be tempted by barefoot training because of the idea of strengthening your feet. After all, when you’re not wearing shoes, your toes are literally gripping the floor during your lifts.
But your commercial gym might not allow lifting while barefoot. Or you may have bunions or another foot condition that sets your toes at an unusual angle. In that case, it may be difficult or impossible to establish those coveted three points of contact painlessly and effectively.
Enter toe spacers. You can get the freer toe splay available with barefoot training, but you’ll be wearing (wide-box) shoes. Plus, if your toes are splayed in a less-than-optimal way, wearing spacers during your lifts can reorient your toe angles so that you may grip the floor more solidly.
Toe spreaders designed specifically for an individual’s feet can alter a person’s hallux valgus angle and intermetatarsal angle. (4) Customized toe spreaders may help permanently make a tripod position easier to maintain, since your toes may become more evenly spaced.
Potential Pain Reduction
If you live with bunions or other foot conditions that may negatively impact both your quality of life and lifting performance, toe spacers might help.
Performing foot-strengthening exercises by deliberately spreading your toes can be helpful in pain reduction for bunions. (5)(6) Since toe spreaders keep your toes spaced out, they may be able to stretch and strengthen your foot muscles. In turn, this may help with pain relief.
For people with painful bunions, insoles with toe separators may be more helpful for pain reduction than wearing night splints — even if the spacers don’t alter toe angles. (7)
Who Should Use Toe Spacers
Toe spacers can be useful for a range of athletes who want to do everything they can to give themselves an edge on the weight room floor. This might mean helping themselves lift more efficiently or counteracting the impacts of tight shoes.
Athletes Who Can Get Customized Gear
If you’re a serious athlete who’s willing and able to dedicate the resources to getting custom-made gear, you’re in luck. Toe spreaders that are personalized to fit an athlete’s feet stand a good chance of altering their toe angles to help reduce pain and maximize movement efficiency. (4)
[Related: 2023 CrossFit Open Workout 23.1 Results]
While regular toe spacers — particularly those in insoles — may be helpful for reducing foot pain, you may be more likely to change your toe angles with customized spacers. (4)(7) If you can shell out for this personalized gear, you might be setting yourself up for even more success than going with a generic spacer.
Athletes With Foot Pain
Many athletes experience pain in their feet from wearing constraining shoes, like those with narrow toe boxes and high heels may. (3) This pain may be relieved by emulating barefoot training and stretching the ligaments of the feet to counter the effects of tight footwear. (3)
Toe spacers can be a big help here, as they’re designed to help simulate a more barefoot-esque environment for toes better able to grip the floor evenly. The stretching and strengthening provided by spacers may also contribute to significant pain relief. (5)(6)
For athletes with pain due to foot conditions like bunions, toe spacers are a noninvasive treatment that may be able to help reduce pain without a lot of medical intervention. (8) So if you’re concerned about getting treatment without relying on invasive treatment (like surgery) that requires recovery time, toe spacers may be quite helpful.
Athletes Who Want Stronger Feet
Research has found that deliberately spreading your toes may help reduce pain from bunions — but that’s not all it does. (5)(6) This spreading of the toes is considered a strengthening exercise for your feet overall. (5)(6)
When you spread your toes with spacers, you’re increasing your ability to maintain three points of contact with the ground during your lifts. In doing so, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to strengthen your feet even further by exposing them to a healthy training stimulus.
Who Shouldn’t Use Toe Spacers
Just because it’s popular on social media doesn’t mean it’s for you. Toe spacers may not be useful to every strength athlete. If your instinct is to stay away from anything that gets between your toes, don’t sweat it. They’re not a must-have for everyone.
Athletes Without Access to Customized Gear
Some research indicates that the most effective toe spreaders are the ones that are custom-made to suit an athlete’s feet. (4) If you don’t have access to personalized gear, then you might want to forgo participation in the toe spacer phenomenon.
Athletes Who Find Toe Spacers Uncomfortable
Let’s be honest — some people are just plain squeamish about your feet. If you don’t like dealing with your feet more than absolutely necessary to slip on your socks and training shoes, then these probably aren’t the innovation for you.
You may also find that the material of toe spacers — some are gel, some are silicon — is just plain uncomfortable. It’s worth noting that even for athletes who love them, toe spacers take time to adjust to.
View this post on Instagram
[Related: Best Foam Rollers for Muscle Recovery, Pinpoint Massage, and More]
So if you try them for the first time and find them a bit uncomfy, you might want to try again for a little while. The discomfort may fade into your new favorite training and mobility accessory.
Space Your Toes
As a strength athlete, you’re always looking for an edge. But lifting with foot pain is absolutely no fun. And when you’ve hit a deadlift plateau because you just can’t get a firm footing, training starts to feel pretty bleak.
If you’re looking to develop stronger, healthier, more pain-free feet, the benefits of toe spacers might be enticing. From stretching your feet and diminishing pain to boosting your ability to grip the floor, you’ve got yourself a potential candidate for your next favorite fitness accessory.
- Arinci Incel N, Genç H, Erdem HR, Yorgancioglu ZR. Muscle imbalance in hallux valgus: an electromyographic study. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2003 May;82(5):345-9.
- Park C, Kang N, Jeon K, Park K. Quantifying the Dynamic Stability of Gait Patterns in People with Hallux Valgus. Appl Bionics Biomech. 2021 May 10;2021:5543704.
- Xiang, L., Mei, Q., Xu, D., Fernandez, J., & Gu, Y. (2020). Multi-segmental motion in foot during counter-movement jump with toe manipulation. Applied Sciences, 10(5), 1893.
- Cha, Y. H., Kim, S. J., Lee, K. H., Kwon, J. Y., Kim, D. H., Seo, A., & Kim, S. J. (2018). Designing personalized toe spreaders for hallux valgus with three-dimensional scanning and printing. Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Biosciences (JBEB), 5(1), 1-6.
- Glasoe, W. M. (2016). Treatment of progressive first metatarsophalangeal hallux valgus deformity: a biomechanically based muscle-strengthening approach. journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy, 46(7), 596-605.
- Kim MH, Yi CH, Weon JH, Cynn HS, Jung DY, Kwon OY. Effect of toe-spread-out exercise on hallux valgus angle and cross-sectional area of abductor hallucis muscle in subjects with hallux valgus. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Apr;27(4):1019-22.
- Tehraninasr A, Saeedi H, Forogh B, Bahramizadeh M, Keyhani MR. Effects of insole with toe-separator and night splint on patients with painful hallux valgus: a comparative study. Prosthet Orthot Int. 2008 Mar;32(1):79-83.
- Park, C. H., & Chang, M. C. (2019). Forefoot disorders and conservative treatment. Yeungnam University journal of medicine, 36(2), 92-98.
Featured Image: Dr. Michael Tang PT, DPT, CSCS / YouTube