Extensor Hallucis Longus + Extensor Digitorum Longus | The Best Pain-Relieving Exercises

The extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus muscles lift your toes and midfoot. Here are some exercises to relieve the foot pain these muscles might cause.

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You’re walking along, doing fine, and then you look down. As you stare at your feet in wonder, you realize you’re shuffling. And then, just like the climactic moment in a horror movie, this thought strikes you: Oh my gosh, I’m walking like an old geezer!

But, don’t freak out. This is totally normal.

You probably hadn’t spent a great deal of time noticing how you walk—how your toes lift up, your heel strikes down, and you roll through your midfoot to move you one length closer to getting to where you want to go. But now, you are.

Maybe it’s because you tripped on something and fell. Or, maybe it’s because you’ve got some toe or midfoot pain that you’re trying to get rid of. Either way, you’re now aware that something’s wrong, and you’re ready to take action!

Either way, here you are on the web, and—courtesy of Google or your preferred searching source—you’ve found this post. This is kismet, my friend, because I’ve worked with clients with extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus issues for years. Here’s a quick summary of everything I know about these two pain-causing muscles and the exercises you can use to help get them back to normal.

Pro Tip: Your feet can cause pain all the way up your body. If you’ve got leg, knee, hip, or back pain; download your free copy of The Secret to Immediate + Lasting Pain Relief to learn a quick way to relieve pain all over your body.

Extensor hala-what?!

Because the extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus are important muscles that help lift your toes and midfoot, many people tend to notice their issues with this muscle when they walk.

But, before we go any further, let’s simplify these names so you can better understand what’s causing your pain. 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 lift our toes!

drawing of the extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus muscles
Thanks to slideplayer.com for the image.

But these are more than just toe muscles.

The extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus are important ankle muscles. They control whether you step on the outside, inside, or center of your foot when you take a step.

Also, they help lift your midfoot from the ankle. This happens 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 is the 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. Then, it inserts on the distal phalanx of the big toe.

In plain English, this muscle begins about halfway up your shin in that space between the two bones in your lower leg. Then, extensor hallucis longus inserts on the very tip of your big toe.

Where is the extensor digitorum longus?

Extensor digitorum longus shares the same point of origin as the extensor hallucis longus and also originates from the lateral condyle (the upper outer part) of the tibia. Then, it inserts on the phalanges of the other four toes.

In plain English, 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. But, take note, the extensor digitorum longus is a longer muscle and its origin encompasses and exceeds the origin of extensor hallucis longus.

Anyway, back to the plain English explanation of our muscle’s insertion. The extensor digitorum longus inserts on the tip tops of your four other toes.

Psst! Scroll down a little bit to see the drawing for the extensor digitorum longus muscle.

What does the extensor hallucis longus do?

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 the 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.

What does the extensor digitorum longus do?

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’re standing with more weight on the arches of your foot.

But, when the extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus 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.

A leading culprit for either of these muscles to become dysfunctional is if 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.

How can you relieve extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus pain?

Any time you think you may have a significant injury, it’s always best 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. That includes your toes muscles.

And, any accident—no matter how silly it may seem—could result in an injury. Don’t be afraid to call up your doctor even if your problem is that your fat dog stepped on your foot and now your toe really hurts. It’s okay to go ahead and get that checked out.

But, if you’re searching for exercises to help you relieve pain and strengthen these muscles, I have some suggestions.

8 Powerful Extensor Digitorum Longus and Extensor Hallucis Longus Exercises

When you’re trying to relieve pain (or even if you just want to keep a muscle strong and healthy), you always want to stretch and strengthen the muscles. You have to do both. If you just stretch, you’ll find some temporary pain relief. But, it won’t stay because your muscles aren’t strong enough.

If you just strengthen, you’ll feel yourself get stronger. But, you might also notice the muscle feels tighter and you can’t move as well. That’s why you always need to mix it up and do both.

5 Pain-Relieving Foot Stretches

Foot or toe pain can be excruciating. You don’t just feel it in your foot; you feel that pain through your whole body. Although you might feel really determined to relieve your pain, I want you to do me a favor—pay attention to what you’re doing.

You never want to take any of these stretches so far that you feel pain. What you’re aiming for is a nice, gentle stretching sensation. If it feels painful or intense, stop what you’re doing immediately and move on to something else.

It might not be possible to do all of these stretches today. Pick the one(s) that’s best for your body right now and do that. And, remember to pay attention to how your body feels as you stretch!

1. Thunderbolt pose.

If you have knee pain or tight hips, make sure to have props nearby. For knee pain, you may want to have a folded blanket and a block. If you have tight hips, make sure to have a block.

  1. Begin on your hands and knees. If this is uncomfortable on your knees, place more padding under them.
  2. Make sure that your legs are parallel and hip distance apart. This means that your knees should be about a hand’s span apart.
  3. Shift your bottom back toward your heels. If you start to feel pain in the back of your knees, place a folded blanket in your knee crease. The blanket should help reduce stress and pain. If it doesn’t, stop doing this pose!
  4. When you get to the point where you can’t lower any further, assess your situation. If your bottom is on your heels and you don’t feel any pain or discomfort, you’re set. However, if your bottom does not reach your heels, place a block between your lower shins. You should be able to sit on the block. Adjust it so that you feel comfortable.
  5. Feel your bottom press down into the surface beneath you.
  6. As your bottom connects, feel your spine naturally lengthen.
  7. Broaden your collarbones, and place your shoulder blades onto your back.
  8. Hold here and breathe. I recommend inhaling and exhaling through your nose. Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths.

This is, of course, only a suggestion. You are welcome to breathe and hold for however long you’d like.

2. Table top pose.

This pose is an absolute gem! It’s a great way to stretch the tops of your feet and ankles while you also strengthen your abdominals. I love an easy, multitasking pose!

Sarah Stockett practicing table top pose
  1. Begin on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders, fingers spread, and your knees under your hips.
  2. Make sure your shoulders are away from your ears.
  3. Press down through the tops of your feet.
  4. Rotate your pelvis out so you feel like you’re sticking your butt out to the wall behind you.
  5. Lift your belly button toward your spine.
  6. Reach from your head through your tail.
  7. Hold and breathe through your nose.

3. Rub or roll.

When you’ve got foot pain, there’s nothing like a good old fashioned massage! Get in there with your hands and rub the fronts of your shins, ankles, tops of your feet, and toes.

using a foam roller to massage the top of the feet

Or, if your hands aren’t up for the task, you can use an object. Try an old tennis ball, lacrosse ball, foam roller, or foam massage ball.

4. Cobra pose.

This is a modified version of Cobra pose. Because we’re specifically working on stretching the tops of the ankles and feet, you’re going to want to be really picky when you’re getting yourself set up.

If your back or shoulders start hurting while you’re doing this, lower down and choose a different way to get your foot stretch.

cobra pose prep is a powerful quadratus lumborum strengthening exercise
  1. Begin on your stomach with your hands beside your rib cage. Spread your fingers.
  2. Make sure your legs have a little space between them. Feel your kneecaps and the tops of your feet touch the mat.
  3. Slide both hands out on a forty-five degree angle, and raise up onto your fingertips.
  4. Roll your right shoulder blade onto your back. Feel it slide away from your ear.
  5. Roll your left shoulder blade onto your back. Feel it slide away from your ear.
  6. Reach from your head through your toes. Imagine you are an arrow.
  7. Inhale, press into your toenails and the tops of your feet, and lift your belly. Let your upper body lift and feel your chest rotate toward the wall in front of you. Make sure you don’t feel tension in your low back.
  8. Hold here and inhale and exhale through your nose. As you inhale, think of lengthening the spine and keeping the abdominals engaged. On the exhale, think of softening into any tight spots you might have. If your back seizes up, lower down and choose a different stretch for your feet.
  9. To come out of the pose, inhale to engage the abdominals and reach from your head through the tips of your toes. Exhale and lower.
  10. Do this pose 3-5 times and hold for however many breaths is comfortable.

5. Upward facing dog.

This is a more advanced version of the Cobra pose modification described above. If Cobra pose was too much challenge for your upper back or if you have shoulder or wrist pain, you might want to scroll right past this exercise.

However, if you’re up for the challenge, here’s how to practice the most effective and safest Upward facing dog pose.

Upward facing dog pose
  1. Inhale and exhale through your nose at a regular breathing pace while you practice this pose.
  2. Begin on your stomach with your legs parallel, feet hip-width apart.
  3. Place your hands besides your chest. Broaden your collarbones and roll your scapulas (shoulder blades) onto your back.
  4. Press down through the tops of your feet, and engage your abdominals.
  5. Inhale as you lift your head and chest off the floor and straighten your arms. Make sure your shoulder blades stay securely placed on your back. The last thing you want is to drop in to your shoulders and let them slide up toward your ears. If this happens to you, lower down immediately.
  6. Engage your glutes to help you open further through your spine.
  7. Lift your kneecaps off the mat. Remember, keep pressing through the tops of your feet.
  8. Allow your head to look up as far as it will go.
  9. Hold and breathe. Because this pose is so advanced, you decide how long you should hold.
  10. To come out of this pose, tuck your chin, bend your elbows, and lower to the ground.
  11. Because of the heart-opening nature of this pose, I recommend that you take a minute to practice the spinal rotation pose of your choice.

3 Powerful Foot-Strengthening Exercises

Remember, it’s not good enough to just stretch the tops of your feet and ankles. You also need to strengthen your extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus if you’re going to keep pain away permanently. You’ve already learned some pain-relieving stretches, so here are some powerful strengthening exercises.

1. Lift your toes.

  1. Stand up nice and tall with your feet about a fist’s distance apart.
  2. Lift your toes straight up off the floor.
  3. Hold.
  4. Lower your toes to the ground.
  5. Rest a moment or two. If necessary, massage the tops of your feet or any spots that might be achy.
  6. Repeat 5-10 reps.

You can work one side at a time or both sides together. Personally, I’d do one side at a time because that makes it easier for me to focus on how the muscles are working.

2. Try this easy exercise.

  1. Stand up nice and tall with your feet about a fist’s distance apart.
  2. Roll your weight to the outsides of your feet.
  3. Roll back to neutral.
  4. Then, allow your weight to shift to the insides of your feet (like you’re trying to make your arches flat).
  5. Roll back to neutral.
  6. Do several repetitions making sure you come back to a perfect neutral position each time.

3. Lunge pose.

  1. Inhale and exhale through your nose while you move.
  2. Begin with your knees bent, fingertips touching the floor on either side of your feet.
  3. Step your right leg back quite a distance so that you have a large space between your right and left feet. Make sure your legs are running parallel to each other like they’re on train tracks, not the same rail of a train track.
  4. Reach through your right heel, like it is reaching for the wall behind you. Take a moment to make sure that your right heel is in a straight line and not falling in or out.
  5. Check to make sure that your left knee is in line with the center of your foot. It’s okay for the knee to come forward toward the second and third toes, but it should not go past the toes. Also, the knee should not drop toward the inside or the outside of the foot.
  6. Feel your adductors (inner thighs) scissor and draw toward and past each other.
  7. Hug your belly toward your spine so you can feel yourself away from your left thigh without lifting your fingers from the floor.
  8. As you reach through your right heel, feel yourself reach through your leg, spine, and out through the top of your head. Get yourself aligned, and you can feel energy run through you like a current.
  9. Hold this side for 5-10 breaths.
  10. Keeping everything aligned and active, step the right foot next to the left.
  11. Reach the left leg back and do the second side.

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. 

Also, thanks to Kenhub.com for the use of their extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus images. Their website is a way to get to know the in’s and out’s of anatomy on a deeper level.

Pro Tip: Your feet can cause pain all the way up your body. If you’ve got leg, knee, hip, or back pain; download your free copy of The Secret to Immediate + Lasting Pain Relief to learn a quick way to relieve pain all over your body.

Have you ever injured your extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus? What did you do to recover? Let us know in the comments.

About Sarah Stockett

Hi, I'm Sarah! I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. I believe you can use simple exercises to relieve your aches + pains. AND, I believe I can teach you how.