Barefoot Strength Training? Here’s The Deal

Barefoot training may not be new, but it’s continuing to gain traction, and now especially in the lifting community. And for good reason. Going barefoot offers a number of benefits for stability, mobility, coordination, and balance, explains Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., and founder of Movement Vault. It differently activates your central nervous system, helps activate your glutes and core to improve balance and increased bodily awareness, and it strengthens the deep muscles in your foot which translates to improved strength of the ankles, knees, hips, and back, he says.

Close your eyes and imagine trying to squat snatch a loaded barbell. Now, imagine trying to snatch a barbell after having your hands bound in gloves for the last 12-20 hours. Now, imagine trying to power clean a loaded bar after having had your hands bound in casts for 12 hours a day since you were an infant. You can almost feel the numbness of your fingers against the bar, the weakness of your hands as they lather in chalk and attempt to grip the weight, can’t you?

An increasing number of weightlifting coaches are using this and similar metaphors for explaining the effect that cushioned footwear has on our feet. “If you wore gloves like that, you wouldn’t have the same ability to feel with your hands because you’d lose that connection to the environment. Simply put, you’d lose the sensory component that helps our body know where it is in space,” says Wickham.

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While we wear shoes to protect our feet — and with broken beer bottles, dog poop, and other litter covering most of city blocks, rightfully so — most of the shoes we wear are cushy and have a heel lift. This is an issue, Wickham says, because the job of the deep intrinsic muscles of our feet is to create the arched structure of our foot. When you use an artificial device like an insole or cushy shoe to create that arch, your body realizes that it doesn’t need those muscles to support you anymore, and they weaken, he adds. Just like how you can lose the strength in your quads or biceps if you stop lifting weights, the muscles in the feet can also atrophy with disuse, he explains.

“Moreover, even a 10 mm heel lift can have negative effects on the structure of our foot, and then, our whole bodies,” he explains. “It’s a bit like wearing a heal every day. Over time it shortens the calf muscles in the back of the leg. Shortened calf muscles leads to decreased ankle dorsiflexion, which overtime will affect your walking mechanics. Then, once our walking mechanics are affected, there is an entire chain reaction with how our knees and hips move.” Basically, because the human body is interconnected, any imbalance in the foot will impact the lower leg, which travels to the hip and pelvis, and then continues all the way up the thoracic spine and shoulder.

How To Get Started

After 20, 30, or 40 years of wearing shoes for more than 12 hours a day, beginning to embrace a barefoot life and barefoot training must happen gradually, because the small muscles in our feet are so weak that it can actually lead to injuries like shin splints, explains Wickham. We first have to undo the damage wearing cushy shoes has done before we can go barefoot on whim. The good news is that simply walking around barefoot more often can begin to strengthen the small muscles in the foot.

So, if you wear shoes at home, practice walking around barefoot. If you work in an environment where it would be appropriate for you to shed your shoes mid-day, do that, suggests Wickham. Once you have increased the amount of time you spend barefoot at home, or if you already spend your at-home hours sans-shoes, the next phase towards barefoot training is minimalist shoes.

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As the movement of barefoot training comes afoot, pared-down minimalist shoes that mimic the feeling of barefoot walking, running, and training are gaining traction. In addition to mimicking that barefoot feel and bringing you in closer contact to the ground, you’ll be more likely to strike the ground with your forefoot as you walk or run — as opposed to your heels as typical, cushier sneakers and shoes encourage — which actually reduces stress on your joints. If joint health isn’t your priority, calorie burn might be; because you’re recruiting the tiny muscles in your foot and leg that aren’t typically called into action when you move, you’ll get extra some extra calorie burn with every step. While Wickham recommends Merrell Vapor Gloves 3.0 and New Balance Minimus M10v1’s, Nike and Vibram also offer great minimalist shoes for transitioning into barefoot living and training.

Once you invest in a pair of minimalist shoes, Wickham suggests starting out wearing them 1-2 hours a day, then after a month, adding an additional hour. He says that the process of transitioning fully to a minimalist shoe should happen over the course of 6-12 months in order to properly strengthen those inner foot muscles back up. After that it’s time to get started training barefoot. Getting to a point of being able to walk and train barefoot takes time, but the benefits are undeniable.

Benefits of Training Barefoot

1. Better Proprioception

The main benefit of barefoot training is proprioception, says Wickham, which is an athlete’s ability to feel the ground. When you are doing strength training exercises that involve your legs, it’s important that you grip the ground with your toes, “like a monkey,” he jokes. Going shoeless can make it easier to “screw your feet into the ground” as many coaches instruct their athletes to do. Plus, athletes who are more in touch with the group and world around them will be less likely to trip outside of the gym, too.

2. More Power

When you deadlift a barbell, swing a kettlebell, or power clean dumbbells, you are lifting weight from the ground up, using the muscles from your legs, back, and core to fight gravity’s downward pull. As we pull and muscle the load upward, our feet are what anchor us to the ground, they are our direct force into the ground. Our feet are the only part of our bodies that touch the ground and transmit the force and strength we spend so much time developing in the gym, explains Wickham. When we wear cushioned shoes lifting, the force absorbed by the cushion is force lost. But if you are barefoot, that force is not lost and instead can be incorporated and used in the lift itself.

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3. Heavier Lifts

Many weightlifters and powerlifters will deadlift without wearing shoes because going barefoot while doing a hinge movement like the deadlift or kettlebell swing can help create improved foot feel on the ground, which helps to target the larger muscles in the hips that drive the movement.

4. Improved Muscle Alignment

Going barefoot improves and strengthens the neuromuscular pathways of the foot and leg, explains Wickham. These mold the muscle firing sequences from our feet to our brain and overtime actually affect the way we move through space.

5. Stronger base

There is heightened balance and stability required when running and moving without shoes, which leads his leads to strength improvements in the foot muscular and connective tissue.

But Don’t Dare To Bare ALL The Time

Going barefoot may be counterproductive for certain movements, for example squats, plyometric movements, and jumping rope. Many people have limited flexibility of the ankles, so going barefoot can make the squat mechanically worse and compromise the form, explains Wickham. While squatting is fine for athletes who do have the necessary range of motion, for others it’s unwise to put a barbell on their back without first working on ankle mobility, he adds.

Additionally, plyometric movements like the broad jump, squat jump, box jumps, and tuck jumps put a lot of stress on the foot’s tendons and ligaments. Without wearing shoes to absorb the shock, you could get hurt if your feet aren’t strong enough, warns Wickham. Jumping rope, too should be avoided while barefoot he notes, jumping rope can also put a lot of strain on the tendons and ligaments. But also, the wire-style jumping ropes can really hurt if you trip on them — that wire is no joke!

Oh, And First Find Out If It’s Allowed

Before you shed your shoes, find out whether or not you’re allowed to workout barefoot at your gym.

“I’m lucky in that I am often training alone in a gym that allows barefoot training. Some gyms and boxes simply don’t allow it because of the added risk of injury (i.e. weights and plates getting dropped on bare feet). But if you’re in a gym that allows barefoot training and going shoe-less isn’t dangerous (i.e the gym floor is clean and the space is relatively empty), athletes should try it. If it’s not allowed, minimalist shoes are definitely the way to go because they have minimal heel and cushion,” says Wickham.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @lisahaefnerphoto

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