You’ve probably seen it in your gym at least once — someone training in a pair of socks or, more shockingly still, entirely barefoot, flesh-to-floor style. It certainly looks odd at a glance, but it does beg the question. Is there a method to the madness here, or are shoeless lifters simply running afoul of good gym etiquette?
After all, performance-based athletic footwear was made for exactly that purpose — enhancing your performance in the weight room. Why, then, do some people eschew shoes entirely when they lift?
Although there are definite pros to keeping your shoes on (beyond the appeal of having a slick gym fit), there are some pretty strong arguments to be made in favor of training without them. Here’s the lowdown.
- Benefits of Lifting Weights Barefoot
- Drawbacks of Lifting Weights Barefoot
- Who Should Lift Weights Barefoot
- Who Shouldn’t Lift Weights Barefoot
- Barefoot vs. Minimalist Shoes
- Barefoot Running vs. Barefoot Lifting
- How To Start Lifting Weights Barefoot
- What the Science Says
Benefits of Lifting Weights Barefoot
Although training with shoes is the default method for almost every gym rat, there are some serious benefits to dropping the footwear in the name of better proprioception, more robust foot strength, and even improving your leverages for heavy lifting.
Proprioception is your ability to detect and coordinate your body in space, particularly without visual feedback. If you can’t check yourself in a mirror, the value of tactile cues such as foot pressure or connectivity to the ground skyrockets.
Most shoes will have varying degrees of cushion that may not perfectly accommodate the size and shape of your foot. These two factors alone may reduce your ability to get accurate feedback from your feet during lower body exercises such as squats, deadlifts, or split squats.
Taking your shoes off for lower body movements can help you feel more grounded and stable.
More Foot Strength
Foot strength can be trained a lot more efficiently without footwear. Removing the cushion and structural support from most training shoes places all of the balance, arch support, and force production demands back on the small muscles of your feet.
Training shoes often dull this challenge and can dampen the “fitness” of your feet.
Heavy lifting is a game of leverage. Deadlifts can be particularly affected by your choice of footwear. With the average cushioned training shoe not only providing an uneven lifting surface, but also subtly increasing the distance the bar needs to travel from the beginning of the movement until you stand up fully.
When you’re trying to produce maximal force and lift as heavy as possible, being as close as you can to the ground with as flat and consistent as surface as possible will make a big difference in your strength levels.
Drawbacks of Lifting Weights Barefoot
While lifting barefoot may be beneficial in some cases, it’s not a universally-applicable strategy. You may run into issues with gripping training surfaces, you’re more exposed to foreign objects or superficial foot injuries, and of course overuse issues.
The most obvious drawback of training barefoot is that shoes are naturally going to provide a better grip on most surfaces. Foot sweat, especially with hotter temperatures or training environments, can be particularly detrimental.
Certain exercises such as plyometrics also generally should be trained with proper footwear due to the risk of slipping and sliding as you leave and re-contact the ground.
Stray Foreign Objects
Hand in hand with risking sliding around due to reduced grip, there is also an increased risk of superficial foot injuries if you work out shoeless. Gyms are generally safe, but the odd edged surface or pointed object could easily lodge into your foot.
On a more obvious level, forsaking your footwear places your feet clearly in the path of a dropped weight plate or dumbbell.
Perhaps one of the most devastating issues that may arise training barefoot is the risk of incurring an overuse injury. Exposing your feet to such an increased demand if you’re used to the comfort of an athletic shoe is a recipe for a stress fracture, potentially sidelining your training. (1)
While some training shoes may be overly protective, going zero to 100 with barefoot training can be equally as risky.
Who Should Lift Weights Barefoot
Training barefoot makes a ton of sense for certain lifters or certain exercises. Strength athletes, hikers or rock climbers, and gymnasts come to mind as a few different groups that stand to benefit in particular.
Strength athletes, particularly powerlifters, performing squats and deadlifts can benefit from executing these lifts or certain prongs of their training barefoot. If you’re looking to maximize your leverage for deadlifting, removing your shoes and getting as close to the ground as you can may help you achieve a better starting position.
Having improved proprioception through the foot can help with force production and balance during squats or split squat variations. These small improvements in performance can add up in the long run, keeping your training (and your Total) on the rise.
Hiking and Climbing
Hikers and climbers place a huge demand on their feet already. Rough or rocky terrain can be extremely difficult on the feet, and trying to climb on uneven surfaces with small footholds requires a ton of lower extremity strength.
Exposing your feet to similar challenges can help build your musculature to be more resilient to the elements.
Gymnasts perform most, if not all, of their sport in minimalist footwear. Either in slippers or barefoot, gymnasts are notorious for having some of the most beat up feet in all of sports.
Exposing your feet to more moderate training stimulus through lifting weights barefoot can be synergistic with gymnastic training, ideally helping to slowly reinforce and adjust to the demands of the mats.
Who Shouldn’t Lift Weights Barefoot
While there are some groups that benefit, there are also some groups that clearly do not. Olympic lifters, strongmen, and bodybuilders have much less reason to worry about barefoot training.
Olympic lifters almost universally wear specialized footwear designed to enhance their performance on the platform. Olympic weightlifting shoes offer the same benefits to Olympic lifters that training barefoot would to a powerlifter looking to optimize their leverages.
Barefoot training runs completely counterintuitively to the needs of a power clean or a snatch. To perform well in weightlifting, you need a rock-solid shoe that also has an elevated heel wedge.
Strongmen also should likely shoe-up when considering how intense and dangerous their sport can be. While they are responsible for inhuman levels of force production, many of their events are dynamic and unpredictable in nature.
The return on investment of barefoot training for a strongman is likely overridden by the increased risk of injury. In many cases they will be literally running with heavy, cumbersome objects. Strongmen need secure, grippy shoes to work well on the field.
Bodybuilders may actually serve as “inbetweeners” here, benefiting in some cases or being completely irrelevant in others. While much of their training will take place on machines or otherwise stabilize implements, bodybuilders still train their legs with gusto.
Bodybuilders may experience a more intense mind-muscle connection on exercises like the leg press if they slip out of their shoes. However, most physique-oriented training can be accomplished just fine in (or out of) shoes.
Barefoot vs. Minimalist Shoes
There is a great intermediary between pillow-cushioned training shoes and going straight to barefoot training. Minimalist shoes remove most, if not all, extraneous cushioning and allow for a nearly barefoot experience while protecting your skin from a nasty gym floor.
Usually they will have an extremely thin rubber sole that accounts for many of the safety and grip issues that training fully barefoot may expose you to.
True to their name, minimalist shoes will lack significant arch or ankle support, which may not make them appropriate for all forms of physical activity. Regardless, they do serve as a viable middle ground if you’re not ready to commit to skin-to-floor contact.
How To Start Lifting Weights Barefoot
Diving straight into lifting weights barefoot can be a bit awkward. Taking the time to integrate it just as you would with any other modality can help you make the most gains with the least setbacks – so use an exposure period to build resilience, an acclimation period to build skill, and then enter continuous use.
Grade Your Exposure
If you’ve never trained barefoot before, it can be overwhelming on many of the small muscles of the foot. While you may think that lifting weights doesn’t put a huge strain on your feet, the stress of even walking barefoot can start to add up quickly if you’re not used to it.
To ensure you dip your feet (both proverbially and literally) into the practice in a sustainable way, think about using progressive overload. Begin by training barefoot on your upper-body or active recovery days to get used to it without the undue strain of performing leg day training.
Acclimate Over Time
Once you’ve found your footing with barefoot exercise, you can begin to include some shoeless training during your regular lower body workouts. Take care and go slowly, since many leg exercises require a lot of balance and force production directly through your feet.
Train legs once per week barefoot while keeping your upper body barefoot schedule and learn how to perform your old movement patterns with increased reliance upon proprioceptive feedback from the feet.
After a few weeks of graded exposure, you should be ready to train barefoot full-time without much worry about injury or overuse. At this stage, you should be just fine performing all your lifting without shoes, and may even be ready to begin some barefoot cardio if your program calls for it.
If this is the case, repeat the process of exposure, acclimation, and continuous use for the cardiovascular side of your training.
Barefoot Running vs. Barefoot Lifting
If you’re looking to fully commit to barefoot training, you should know the differences between running and lifting weights when it comes to forgoing footwear.
Running comes with a lot more repeated stress than lifting weights, which likely can expose you to increased risk of overuse injuries such as tendinopathies or stress fractures. (1)
Lifting weights barefoot is a lot more controlled, letting the muscles be overloaded with less risk of overshooting their capabilities and dramatically less strain being placed on the bones and ligaments when compared to high impact foot strikes. Proceed with a slow and controlled exposure if you intend to begin barefoot running.
What the Science Says
Although there is sound theory behind lifting weights barefoot, the science on the subject is surprisingly sparse. Deadlift performance, for instance, has shown to be minimally impacted by barefoot training when compared to more conventional shoe-based training. (2)(3)
The same can be said about the impact of training barefoot on squats. There is not an enormous amount of research currently, and most of it covers the impact of shoe choice.
There do seem to be some small differences in biomechanical measurements between barefoot squatting and more conventional shoe choices; however, the impact on long term performance outcomes is difficult to say. (4)
Lifting weights barefoot can absolutely be beneficial, especially if you’re looking to be more resilient to the wear and tear that your feet can go through. It can help you perform many of your lower body exercises more proficiently, and directly transfer to sports than require a strong and sturdy foot.
While there may be some contexts where it makes a bit less sense, finding a nice middle ground such as minimalist shoes can be a great start. Keeping your feet safe from superficial injury and grip issues and being a nice exposure point to full barefoot training. Start experimenting today — but prepare for some soreness in places you’ve never felt before!
1. Welck, M. J., Hayes, T., Pastides, P., Khan, W., & Rudge, B. (2017). Stress fractures of the foot and ankle. Injury, 48(8), 1722–1726.
2. Hammer, M. E., Meir, R. A., Whitting, J. W., & Crowley-McHattan, Z. J. (2018). Shod vs. Barefoot Effects on Force and Power Development During a Conventional Deadlift. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 32(6), 1525–1530.
3. Valenzuela, K. A., Walters, K. A., Avila, E. L., Camacho, A. S., Alvarado, F., & Bennett, H. J. (2021). Footwear Affects Conventional and Sumo Deadlift Performance. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 9(2), 27.
4. Southwell, D. J., Petersen, S. A., Beach, T. A., & Graham, R. B. (2016). The effects of squatting footwear on three-dimensional lower limb and spine kinetics. Journal of electromyography and kinesiology : official journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 31, 111–118.
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