Is barefoot training right for you?

The tyranny of comfort

These days there seems to be a arms race from athletic shoe companies as to who can pack the most cushioning into their shoes.

While this type of artificial cushioning and comfort may be useful for runners, who log hundreds of miles on unforgiving pavement it is probably a little bit of overkill for the rest of us.

Especially when it comes to working out at the gym.

Part of the problem with all of this excessive cushioning is the fact that it decreases our stability and the amount of force we can transfer to the ground when lifting a heavy barbell.

Not only that, but the raised heel found on most running shoes can shift the body’s weight more toward the toes, which can alter our natural movement pattern.

Finally, very few mass-produced shoes are designed for an individual’s unique build or can accommodate for overpronation, supination, limited range of motion, muscle imbalances, or past injuries.

Benefits of barefoot training

Barefoot training, on the other hand, allows you to reinforce correct biomechanics for your individualized body without having to compensate for the artificial support of traditional running shoes.

Training barefoot also provides you with a firm foundation that allows you to push directly off the ground rather than having a portion of that force dissipated into cushioning of the shoe.

Finally, training barefoot may also improve your ability to balance by strengthening the small stabilizer muscles in your foot in addition to the many tendons and ligaments that support the foot and ankle.

Barefoot is not really bare feet

When I’m talking about “barefoot” training, what I’m actually talking about is training in socks versus shoes. If you’ve ever walked into a gym or one of those indoor kid play areas that smells like sweaty feet, you’d realize that socks are definitely the way to go.

Socks give you 90% of the freedom of being barefoot in exchange for not having to deal with a bunch of gross bacteria and funguses on the gym floor. To me, this is well worth potentially ripping up a few pairs of socks from wear and tear.

The only downside I have found to training in socks is that you will inevitably experience a stubbed toe or two from running into a weight rack, bench, or dumbbell.

Home gym use only

Unfortunately, due to liability concerns, the vast majority of commercial gyms require their members to wear shoes, so training in socks is not an option. This is another reason why if you have the money and space to set up your own home gym, it’s well worth the investment.

Gym shoe alternatives

If your gym doesn’t allow for barefoot training, the next best option is to look for a pair of flat (zero heel) shoes with minimal cushioning that will still provide you with a firm foundation.

Traditionally, bodybuilders have turned to the old school Converse Chuck Taylors because of the flat heel and general lack of cushioning.

Now maybe it’s because I wrestled in high school and got used to wearing them, but I have always preferred to wear wrestling shoes in the gym rather than Chucks because of their flat heel, virtually no cushioning, and the fact that they are a lot more flexible and comfortable to wear.

Some people don’t like the fact that most wrestling shoes are high tops, so if that’s the case, you might want to look into a pair of minimalist running shoes. There are a lot of options out there, but whatever ones you choose, just make sure that they are not those weird 5-toed barefoot running shoes, which are not actually shoes, but simply an abomination.

Not just the fact they are incredibly stupid looking, but also because they will somehow end up smelling worse than your actual feet and people at the gym will actively avoid you.

You might be asking at this point, why not just buy a pair of “weightlifting” shoes and be done with it?

What are weightlifting shoes?

Weightlifting shoes are a specialized shoe that have a wide base, minimal cushioning, and a raised heel.

The problem is that although weightlifting shoes are excellent for some exercises (such as squats) that doesn’t mean they are the right shoe to wear for your entire workout.

In other words, they are more of a specialized tool. Kind of like wearing a lifting belt at the gym.

A lifting belt is a great tool to have when you are lifting maximum loads either from the floor (deadlift) or on your back (back squat). The thick leather belt helps you to maintain your intra-abdominal pressure to support your lower back during these maximal lifts.

However, despite what you may see at your gym, you don’t need (and probably shouldn’t) wear a lifting belt for your entire workout. In fact, if you wear a lifting belt constantly, it can be detrimental to developing the necessary core strength to lift correctly and prevent injury.

The same holds true for specialized weightlifting shoes. Because of the shoe’s unique raised heel and wide base they may be great for squatting, however, you may not be able to achieve proper lifting technique for other types of exercises (such as the deadlift).

Barefoot cardio?

Whenever I talk about barefoot training, people always ask me about what I do when it comes to using cardio machines.

Honestly, if you are on the elliptical, rower, or bike, I don’t really think it matters what type of shoes you have on and whatever you happen to be wearing from your workout is probably fine.

If you are hitting the treadmill, however, you may want to exchange those clunky Chuck Taylors or high top wrestling shoes for a different type of shoe.

If you do a lot of running outside of the gym, you are probably better off just sticking to your regular running shoes when you use the treadmill because changing shoes can affect your gait and potentially lead to injury.

However, if you don’t do a lot of running outside of the gym, you may want to consider switching to a more minimalist running shoe to help strengthen the many small stabilizer muscles in your foot.

I don’t do a lot of roadwork anymore. The majority of my running these days is either on a rubberized track, intervals up grassy hills, or on a treadmill which is why I wear minimalist (zero heel) shoes for most of my running.

Barefoot running

Much like barefoot lifting, you are not actually running with bare feet.

Barefoot running is running with a minimalist shoe (I.e. zero heel, wider foot box, with minimal cushioning), which allows your foot more flexibility and forces the more than 100 muscles in your foot to adapt and strengthen.

The biggest problem most people encounter with barefoot running is that they do too much too soon.

You can’t simply throw on a pair of minimalist running shoes and do your regular running workout, because all of those tiny neglected muscles in your feet won’t be ready after having been protected for so long by the heavily cushioned modern running shoes.

Instead, you need to start gradually. I typically suggest that people new to barefoot running start by simply walking slowly for a week or two in order to “wake up” and begin strengthening those previously ignored muscles in their feet.

From there, you can begin to jog slowly, allowing your body to learn the new running motion. Eventually, you’ll discover that your body begins to move differently without the artificial support of a traditional running shoe.

The bottom line…

Barefoot training allows your body to move and distribute force the way your body was designed to work without the artificial support and constraints of modern training/running shoes.

Although barefoot training (in socks) may be ideal if you workout in a home gym, most commercial gyms require that members wear some type of shoes while working out.

The best options would shoes that have flat soles (no heel), a firm foundation, and little cushioning. Traditionally, this has been the Converse Chuck Taylors, not because they are so perfectly awesome, but mostly because they are one of the only gym shoes still being made that isn’t filled with pillows of gel and air to cushion your tender feet.

The other option would be a minimalist type shoe like a wrestling shoe or a zero heel barefoot running shoe, which is usually little more than a thin piece of rubber surrounded by just enough fabric to hold it securely on your foot.

Weightlifting shoes are a specialized shoe with a wide base and a raised heel that allows for more stability and increased ankle flexibility for certain exercises like the back squat, but may not be the best all-around option for an entire workout.

When transitioning to any type of barefoot training or running, however, it is crucial that you begin gradually and slowly build up the duration and intensity of your workouts in order to give the more than 100 muscles in your feet time to adapt and strengthen.

References:

Whitting JW, Meir RA, Crowley-McHattan ZJ, Holding RC. Influence of Footwear Type on Barbell Back Squat Using 50, 70, and 90% of One Repetition Maximum: A Biomechanical Analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Apr;30(4):1085-92.

Sato K, Fortenbaugh D, Hydock DS. Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):28-33.

Fuglsang EI, Telling AS, Sørensen H. Effect of Ankle Mobility and Segment Ratios on Trunk Lean in the Barbell Back Squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Nov;31(11):3024-3033.

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