Toe separators also referred to as toe spreaders, toe spacers, and toe stretchers, continue growing in popularity amongst lifters and athletes. In my opinion, their popularity has followed suit with the growth of barefoot shoes being used in the gym.
If you wear barefoot shoes for working out now for their wide toe box, then you’ve likely already considered using toe separators in addition to their use, if you don’t use them already.
As I’ve dived deeper into barefoot shoes, training barefoot, helping clients with this training style, and exploring the idea of exposing my feet to different stimuli, I’ve learned how I prefer to use toe separators (toe spreaders) to make steady foot gains.
In this article, I’ll discuss how I like to approach using toe separators for myself and my client’s lifting, and I’ll discuss what they are, how to clean them, and much more.
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Disclaimer: If you’re experiencing something like a bunion and you’re considering using toe separators, then I’d suggest seeking out a medical professional who can provide more context and a game plan based on your needs. This article is designed for lifters and athletes who want to supplement the use of toe separators with their current weekly training.
What Are Toe Separators?
Toe separators are tools that help separate the toes from one another by placing a piece of material in between each digit. Most toe separators are built out of rubber or silicon and are designed to be malleable and easy to clean.
Some toe separators have holes where you stick the toes in, while others utilize an arch-like construction to separate the toes. Toe separators are commonly used for things like bunions (hallux valgus), but they also have applications for those without feet issues.
What Do Toe Separators Do?
As their name suggests, toe separators help separate the toes from one another to various degrees. Toe separators work to create space between contracted or “squished” toes to promote toe splay or the spreading of the toes.
More specifically, toe separators work on stretching the ligaments of the toes which are often contracted due to the toe boxes of the shoes we regularly wear.
In the context of comparing toe separators to other tools we use for workouts, I often relate them to doing passive mobility work. For example, if you train heavy deadlifts, then utilize a decompression technique for the spine, I liken this to using toe separators after wearing shoes with snugger toe boxes.
In the medical world, toe separators are typically used as an initial and early intervention for things like bunions, metatarsalgia, and Morton’s Neuroma. (1) Essentially, toe separators are used to help others work around these issues without serious medical intervention.
By creating more space between the toes, participants in studies who suffer from the issues listed above often report a reduction in pain, and in some studies, researchers have noticed a slight change in metatarsal angles when toe separators are frequently used. (2)
For lifters and athletes like myself who don’t currently have foot issues but want to employ toe separators, they can be great tools for exposing your toe to different ranges of motion. They can also be useful to create subtle changes over time in our foot shape.
If the toes can splay more readily and appropriately, then they can better and more efficiently do their jobs of creating balance and producing force into the ground when we’re walking, running, and lifting.
Benefits of Toe Separators for Athletes and Lifters
In the context of lifting and athletic endeavors, toe separators can come with a few key benefits. While everyone’s experiences with toe separators will be different from the individuality of our anatomy and training habits, I have noticed the benefits of using separators more often.
Note, the benefits below and the magnitude of how beneficial they’ll be for you will once again ebb and flow based on the multifactorial context of your life.
1. Expose the Toes to Different Ranges of Motion
The first benefit that I love using toe separators for is to provide my toes with different ranges of motion. By using toe separators, I can put my digits into different positions and ranges of motion that they’re not exposed to when wearing shoes.
In the context of training and lifting, strategic variability can be a really useful tool to build well-rounded performance. Similar to how we vary training blocks to work on different exercises with different ranges of motion, I conceptualize using toe separators similarly.
Regarding function, toes are meant to splay and move freely to promote proper gait mechanics. If we’re constantly only putting our toes into one position, then we could be sacrificing their potential to help us move more efficiently.
On top of this, by utilizing toe separators you can — in theory — spread the base of your toes which could be useful for long-term foot health, especially as a lifter and athlete who’s putting a lot of stress on their feet every single week.
Long story short, variability regarding the range of motion we expose our bodies to can be a useful strategy to ensure we’re allowing our body, limbs, etc. to do their natural thing and not limit function by putting them into a single position.
2. Potentially Spread the Toes Over Time
Another benefit that can vary from user to user when using toe separators is that they can widen the toes over time. It’s important to note that variables like how much your toes will spread and how long it will take to have them do so will vary greatly.
Essentially, I don’t want you to think that if you use toe separators for a month, then your feet will magically widen and spread. The above variables can be influenced by things like your footwear history, foot anatomy, and lifestyle.
That being said, with consistent use, you may experience that your toes spread over time when using toe separators consistently. On a personal anecdote, my feet have spread out slightly since implementing barefoot shoes and toe separators and I have clients who have experienced similar instances (there are also handfuls of anecdotes of this happening in the lifting community).
Additionally, another point to consider with this benefit is that toe separators alone a few times a week or for short durations each day likely won’t move the needle that much regarding toe splay.
However, if you’re using toe separators, training barefoot or walking more barefoot, and utilizing barefoot shoes when the contexts fit your wants and needs, then you’ll experience more of a change over time.
On top of this, it’s important to also consider that your foot’s architectural magnitude of change can also be dictated by how contracted your toes currently are. If you never walk barefoot or work on your foot’s/toe’s range of motion, then you may notice a greater difference than others who already do a lot barefoot.
Like exposing the toes to different ranges of motion, consistent toe splay over time may lead to more efficient foot mechanics which can translate to performance for running and in the gym and with comfort for walking.
3. May Help Prevent Issues the Feet Can Experience
There’s no denying that running and training can put our feet through a beating. Lifters and athletes experience more stress on their feet than someone who rarely is jumping, sprinting, running, and managing heavier loads.
I like to think of toe separators as preventative tools in some contexts. For example, if you’re constantly experiencing a lot of compression and pressure on the big toe pushing it into the second digit, then you could experience a bunion at some point.
This is obviously not a definite occurrence that will happen to everyone, however, I think toe separators can be nice tools for helping us hedge our bets from running into issues like this since they’re often already used to help mitigate and “fix” some of these issues.
I liken this to how many lifters use massage, heat and cold exposure, mobility work — and the list goes of recovery-focused modalities — to help keep them on track with our training goals and to prevent running into overuse issues.
How to Use Toe Separators
If you’re a lifter and athlete and you want to start using toe separators, then I’d suggest approaching them similarly to how you approach your current programming and training.
Toe separators will create a stimulus for the feet, and in my opinion and what’s worked well for me and my clients, is that you’ll want to use them with a progressive overload-style strategy.
Basically, program your toe separator use and use variables like time to influence the progressive stimulus of their use. This can also help with consistency and adherence to their use, especially if you have metrics and goals that you’re aiming to hit with the separators.
True Beginners Using Toe Separators
If you’re brand new to toe separators and you’ve never really trained barefoot or worn barefoot shoes, then you’ll want to start slow with toe separators and their use.
They can feel a little uncomfortable at times and if you’ve always exposed your toes to narrower toe boxes, then you’ll want to ease into their use for comfort purposes. This can help with adherence and tolerance of their use, too, so you don’t get turned off by their discomfort.
Below is a flow that you can experiment with regarding toe separators and their use. Do note, all of the following below for these sections are my coaching takes on how I’d suggest using separators for your context.
- Weekly Frequency: 5-7x/week
- Time of Use: Once in the evening when you’re winding down and relaxing, and then you can use your hand to work the toes in the morning when you wake up.
- Duration of Use: 10-20 minutes. I’d suggest starting at 10 minutes, then adding a minute each week or every fourth session for comfort purposes. You can also scale by how many times a day you’re using toe separators Scale this on your tolerances and what you experience.
On top of using toe separators, I’d suggest starting experimenting with barefoot shoes and barefoot training here and there. You DO NOT need to make the switch full-time by any means, but strategic barefoot-focused work can be useful for exposing the feet to variability once again.
Intermediates and Above Using Toe Separators
If you’re used to being barefoot and exposing your feet to wider toe boxes or barefoot training, then you’ll likely feel that you can be more aggressive with your toe separator use.
I find that more frequent toe separator use is something I’ve come to enjoy and I regularly progress my toe separator use based on the frequency of using them and time of use. This also helps my feet since I’m reviewing so many different shoes.
- Weekly Frequency: 6-7x/week
- Time of Use: Morning, Post-Workout (if possible), and Evening
- Duration of Use: Your call! You can likely be more aggressive with your time of use than a true beginner. For example, in the morning I like to use my hand to work my toes, then I’ll wear toe separators after tough leg days and running workouts for 15 minutes, then for 20 minutes at night when I’m coming from the day.
Realistically, it’s your choice for how you approach your progressions as someone who’s accustomed to barefoot shoe use and barefoot training. Scale accordingly and progress in a sensible means.
How to Clean Toe Separators
To clean toe separators the process is relatively simple. A lot of your cleaning protocol will be dictated by the toe separators you have and the type of material they’re built out of.
As always, I always suggest following the care instructions that come with your pair, but if your pair didn’t come with cleaning instructions, then I’d suggest doing the following.
Cleaning Toe Separators
- Grab a soft soap and a clean washcloth.
- Go to a sink and run lukewarm.
- Add a dollop of soap to your hands, then handwash your separators.
- Once they’re cleaned, hand dry them with your washcloth and place them in a dry setting.
I found this to be a useful way to clean toe separators and prolong their lifespan. I’ve read that some put them in their dishwasher, but I feel weird about that and a washing machine can cause them to break down faster, so I choose the hand-cleaning route.
Depending on how frequently and when you use your toe separators your cleaning frequency will vary from others. For example, on weeks when I’m running and training more, I’ll clean mine more frequently due to using them when my feet are hotter and sweatier.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q:What do toe separators do?
Q:How do you clean toe separators?
Toe separators can be a useful tool for lifters and athletes that want to expose their toes to different ranges of motion and potentially widen their toes over time.
I think of toe separators like different types of footwear and supportive strength gear. They’re tools that can be useful for promoting well-rounded performance in the gym and in life in general.
If you have additional questions about toe separators, drop a comment below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).
1. Park, C., & Chang, M. (2019). Forefoot disorders and conservative treatment. Yeungnam University Journal Of Medicine, 36(2), 92-98.
2. Ying, J., Xu, Y., István, B., & Ren, F. (2021). Adjusted Indirect and Mixed Comparisons of Conservative Treatments for Hallux Valgus: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 18(7), 3841.