Considering dipping your toes in the (somewhat murky) waters of working out barefoot? The decision to lift shod or shoeless can be a confusing one, thanks to an abundance of conflicting messages about what’s best for our feet and everything else that’s connected to them.
So, we hit up experts to get their thoughts on the benefits and risks of barefoot training. Here’s what you need to know before you ditch your shoes.
The Case for Working Out Barefoot
For all their virtues—protection, comfort, and, of course, style—shoes are messing up the way we move, according to some experts. From a mechanical perspective, footwear alters the natural position of the feet, and shoes restrict how much your feet and toes spread out, which is crucial to stability, particularly when lifting weights. Even relatively “flat” footwear, like cross-trainers and running shoes, tend to have an elevated heel. Grayson Wickham, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, tells Bicycling that a heel lift as small as 15 millimeters can have a long-term influence on your movement and mobility.
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“When you change the dynamics of the movement at the foot, that’s going to change everything above it. We call that regional interdependence—basically, every joint works just as well as the next joint. If you change the dynamics at the foot, then the knee has to compensate, the hip has to compensate, and even though it’s a small compensation with the heel lift, it changes things up above all the way up to the shoulders,” he says. The potential long-term effects include muscle imbalances and mobility issues.
In addition to changing the way the feet move, shoes also present a sensory barrier. “The skin on the bottom of the feet has thousands of nerves that are very important to how the body stabilizes and how we generate deep core pelvic floor strength and stability, which translates to glute strength and even upper body strength,” explains Emily Splichal, D.P.M., functional podiatrist and the founder of Naboso Technology. “It’s very hard to access that sensory stimulation with shoes on your feet.”
Like nearly every other part of the body, the small nerves on the bottom of the feet, known as mechanoreceptors, operate on a “use it or lose it” basis. “Your body is really efficient and only wants to use the resources that it needs to use. So, essentially, what happens is over years and decades, your sensory receptors just don’t work as well,” Wickham says. “You’re just not able to feel the ground as much, and you’re not getting in as much information from the ground that you should be. That can decrease your performance, whether it’s in the gym, running, or just walking down the street.”
The Benefits of Working Out Barefoot
While barefoot weightlifting won’t undo all of our shoe-based issues (like it or not, the shoe is an essential wardrobe item), it offers plenty of benefits, especially for active individuals who want to improve their overall strength, balance, and performance.
Improved Mobility and Movement Patterns
Removing your shoes helps restore the natural range of motion for the foot and ankle, which has a ripple effect along the kinetic chain. “I tend to use barefoot exercises when my goal is to improve the alignment of the knee and hip during the double-leg squat and single-leg squat,” says Mathew Welch, M.S., C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
But don’t expect immediate results. “It’s not an instant thing where you decide to go barefoot and squat, and all of a sudden your mobility is magically better from not wearing shoes,” Wickham says. “But, over time, it will help in the process of improving your mobility.”
The irony of thick-soled shoes marketed as “stability” shoes is that they can often detract from your stability, particularly when performing typical strength-training exercises. “If you think about trying to perform a squat in a sneaker with a cushioned heel, that’s essentially trying to squat on a piece of foam,” Wickham says. Read: Not so stable. Without a barrier between your feet and the ground, on the other hand, you can focus more on the lift and less on maintaining your balance.
The mechanoreceptors on the bottom of the feet, specifically those sensitive to texture, skin stretch, and vibration, help drive proprioception, or body awareness. Knowing where your body is in relation to its surroundings is a critical part of strength training. For example, the mechanoreceptors in your feet may help you sense that you’re leaning too far back during an overhead press or dropping your left knee inward during a squat.
“Anytime you’re able to have better information coming into the system, it’s going to lead to better movement because you’re able to make changes and adjust your body position and your joint position based on that information,” Wickham says.
Unsurprisingly, barefoot training will make your feet stronger. “By removing the support from a conventional training shoe, the smaller muscles of your feet will have to work harder for balance and arch support, which makes them stronger,” says Hilary Granat, P.T., D.P.T., M.S., doctor of physical therapy with C.O.R.E. Physical Therapy in Washington, D.C.
There’s also a sensory component that leads to strength, explains Splichal. “Just bringing in sensory stimulation can drive muscle contractions [in the feet]. So that is a way to strengthen the feet. Simply working out without shoes on will inherently strengthen those foot muscles,” she says.
Also, without strong feet, it’s impossible to develop strength in the legs, glutes, or core. “It’s kind of like jumping off of a surfboard versus the dock. You can’t create muscular strength off of an unstable structure,” Splichal says.
Barefoot training may also have long-term effects on ankle stability. In one study published by the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, researchers found that 20 female athletes who underwent eight weeks of barefoot training showed significant improvements in ankle stability and agility. The control group, which participated in the same program with shoes, experienced no significant improvements.
How to Start Barefoot Weightlifting
As with anything new, it’s best to take a gradual approach to working out barefoot. “The biggest issue I see is that people jump all in with going barefoot or wearing a minimalist shoe for too long too soon,” Granat says. “Feet that are used to being in shoes all day can lose their mobility, and going barefoot suddenly without building up slowly can cause increased stress and lead to pain or injury. Your feet and ankles will take some time to build the strength that is needed to handle barefoot training,” she says. Try starting with just a barefoot warmup, then slowly increase the amount of time you exercise shoeless.
You may also want to first find your footing through bodyweight workouts before trying to lift weights. “You want to try to connect to the functionality of controlling your own body’s weight while barefoot,” Splichal says. Once you’re comfortable with bodyweight movements, she recommends incorporating functional fitness tools, like kettlebells, sandbags, and suspension trainers.
When to Keep Your Shoes On for Strength Training
Barefoot training benefits aside, there are times when it’s best to keep your shoes on while lifting weights.
At the Gym
Most health clubs require appropriate footwear for safety purposes, and with good reason. Shoes offer protection against sharp surfaces and heavy objects as well as bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on shared exercise mats and locker room floors.
If you have permission to train barefoot (smaller, specialized gyms may be more lenient), do so with caution. A thin pair of socks, while technically a sensory barrier, may be an appropriate compromise. And make sure you and the people around you are following safety protocols. The only thing worse than stubbing your toe on a misplaced dumbbell is dropping a weight plate on your foot.
When You’re Injured
If you’re already dealing with an injury or active foot pain, it’s a good idea to hold off on working out barefoot until you’re feeling better and have been cleared by a doctor. Ditching your shoes may just worsen the pain or lengthen your recovery time. “You may need additional support from a traditional shoe to allow the tissues to heal until you get stronger,” Granat says.
During an Olympic Lifting Session
Because traditional Olympic lifts (specifically, the barbell snatch and clean and jerk) are both heavy and explosive, most experts recommend wearing shoes that offer support and shock absorption. “These lifts are typically performed in more rigid shoes, with a heel elevation, to allow the lifter the correct posture to stay balanced over the bar and receive the bar in the proper catch position,” Welch says. “Due to the technical demands and impact forces that could be encountered with Olympic lifting, it is better to opt for a true weightlifting shoe or CrossFit-style athletic sneaker.” Running shoes have a much softer and less stable surface than training-specific shoes, so skip those.
However, if you’re an Olympic lifter who wants to incorporate more barefoot training into your routine, Splichal recommends doing your warmup shoeless. “Typically, I’ll have people do their lighter lifts and lift preparation barefoot, and then they do the rest of the lifts that are heavier with whatever shoes they normally would wear,” she says.
When Doing Plyometric Exercises
Whether or not you should perform plyometric movements (thinking jumping squats, box jumps, and lateral bounding) barefoot is a bit more controversial. “I don’t recommend jumping activities or plyometric training without shoes on,” Granat says. “These types of movements put additional stress on your ligaments and tendons, so a cross-trainer type shoe would be better in absorbing the shock and decreasing injury [risk].”
However, Splichal believes it depends on one’s inherent foot strength. “If they have baseline foot strength and foot stability and they can very rapidly contract their feet,” then barefoot plyometrics training is acceptable. “But most people don’t have that,” she adds.
3 Barefoot Exercises for Stronger Feet
Looking to add some feet-specific moves to your barefoot training regimen? Below are three of Granat’s favorite drills for strengthening the toes, arches, and intrinsic foot muscles. Perform these between sets or incorporate them into your mobility practice.
1. Toe Lifts
Start seated. Place foot flat on floor. Lift just big toe, then place it flat on the floor. Lift remaining four toes, then place them flat on the floor. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Next, lift all toes. One by one, slowly place toes back on floor. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Then switch sides. Repeat full sequence on opposite foot.
2. Toe Splays
Start seated. Place foot flat on floor. Lift toes off floor and spread them as wide as possible. Hold for 5 seconds, then release and rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then switch sides.
3. Arch Strengthening
Start standing. Imagine there is a piece of paper beneath foot and someone is trying to pull it out from under you. Hold the paper in place by pushing toes into the ground and lifting arch. Hold for 5 seconds, then release and rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Then switch sides.