In this post: Extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus are important for lifting the toes and midfoot. This is particularly noticeable when we walk uphill.
The extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus are important muscles that help lift your toes and midfoot. It’s for this reason that people tend to realize their issues with this muscle when they walk.
Maybe your front of your foot doesn’t lift quite like you think it should when you take a step.
Or maybe you have such reduced lift that you’ve started turning your feet out to the sides (so the ball of your foot doesn’t have to work as much on each step).
But maybe you had some pain, went to the doctor, and he or she told you your extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus was messed up.
Either way, here you are on the web and–courtesy of Google or your preferred searching source–you’ve found me.
For years, I’ve worked with clients with issues with these two muscles. Here’s everything I know and the tricks I use to help get these two pesky muscles back to normal.
Before we go any further, let’s simplify these names. Extensor means to lift. Hallucis is the medical word for the big toe, and digitorum is the word that refers to the other four toes. Longus means that this is the long version of the muscle, as opposed to the short, which would be brevis.
So, when we’re talking about extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus, we’re talking about the muscles that extend our toes!
But these are more than just toe muscles.
The extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus are important ankle muscles. They control whether we step on the outside, inside, or center of our foot as we take a step.
Also, they help us lift our midfoot from the ankle. This activity shows up every time you take a step, but it’s particularly obvious when you’re walking uphill.
So, yes, the names of these muscles tell us that we’re looking at the toes. However, we now also know that these “toe” muscles can greatly impact how we move from the ankle.
Where Are These Muscles?
Extensor Hallucis Longus
Extensor hallucis longus originates on the middle half of the anterior surface of fibula and interosseous membrane, which is the fibrous tissue between the tibia and fibula. In other words, this muscle begins about halfway up your shin in that space between the two bones in your lower leg.
Extensor hallucis longus inserts on the distal phalanx of the big toe.
Extensor Digitorum Longus
Extensor digitorum longus shares the same point of origin with the extensor hallucis longus and additionally originates from the lateral condyle (the upper outer part) of the tibia.
In other words, the extensor digitorum longus originates along the whole front of your shin, in the space between your two lower leg bones.
This means the entire origin of the extensor hallucis longus is shared with extensor digitorum longus. The opposite cannot be said, though, because extensor digitorum longus is a longer muscle. Therefore, its origin encompasses and exceeds the origin of extensor hallucis longus.
Extensor digitorum longus inserts on the phalanges of the other four toes.
What Do They Do?
Extensor Hallucis Longus
The extensor hallucis longus extends big toe. This means it is the muscle that helps you lift your big toe.
Also, it dorsiflexes and inverts foot at ankle joint. When you dorsiflex your foot at the ankle, you lift your toes and the ball of your foot off the floor while keeping your heel grounded.
Inversion is when the sole of your foot rotates toward the midline of your body. When you invert at the ankle, you are standing with more weight on the outside edge of your foot.
Extensor Digitorum Longus
The extensor digitorum longus extends the other four toes. This means the four toes (not including your big toe) are all connected.
Try it. When you try to lift your third toe, its neighbors will also lift.
That’s because they’re all controlled by the same muscle. Additionally, the extensor digitorum longus dorsiflexes and everts foot at the ankle. When you evert at the ankle, you are standing with more weight on the arches of your foot.
When They Don’t Work Correctly…
When the extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus are dysfunctional, you’ll notice that it’s hard to get your toes properly lifted for activities like walking upstairs or walking up a hill.
Although it’s not a guarantee, this could be a symptom of extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus dysfunction.
Also, if you find that your weight falls either to the outside or inside of your foot, these muscles could be the culprits.
Frequently, the main cause for dysfunction is if the tendon gets bruised or injured when someone steps on your toe. A toe injury may seem very trivial, but these muscles control movements at the ankle. An injury to either of these muscles can cause dysfunctional movement at the toe or ankle joint.
What Can You Do to Keep These Muscles Healthy?
Any time you think you may have a significant injury, the best course of action is always to go see your doctor. Your doctor can order imaging, therapy, and medicine to help you heal quickly. Remember, too, any muscle can be torn or sprained.
However, if you’re looking for ideas on how to keep these muscles healthy, I have some suggestions. First, you will always want to make sure to both stretch and strengthen the muscles.
To stretch your extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus:
- Sit in Thunderbolt pose;
- Use your hands to massage the front of your shin, ankles, tops of your feet, and toes; and
- Actively press the tops of your feet into the ground when you practice yoga poses like Cobra, Upward facing dog, and Cat.
To strengthen these muscles:
- Practice lifting your toes off the floor;
- Do yoga poses that encourage you to bend your toes and flex your ankles like Lunge or Crescent lunge, and
- Try this easy exercise. From a standing position, roll your weight to the outsides of your feet. Roll back to neutral. Then, allow your weight to shift to the insides of your feet (like you’re trying to make your arches flat). Roll back to neutral.
Want to Learn More?
Check out The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. Recently, the book was revised and is in its third edition. I haven’t gotten to read the whole third edition, but I have read the first edition, and it’s very helpful.
If you really love the specifics of anatomy, check out the Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. These cards are a valuable tool to help you locate specific muscles correctly. I highly recommend them. Any time one of my clients comes in with pain, I turn to these cards.
The above links are my affiliate links to Amazon. If you buy the item in the link, I make a small commission at no extra charge to you.
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Have you ever injured your extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus? What did you do to recover? Let us know in the comments.