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Being Barefoot: Helpful or Harmful?

Most of us have seen people lifting in the gym barefoot and wondered why they were doing that. Some of us may have thought it was gross or silly. But these people may be on to something.

Your feet have over 100 bones, tendons, and ligaments. You have 26 different bones, 20 different muscles, and 33 joints just in your feet (Cabral). And the feet are the starting point that allows the rest of our body to move appropriately. Dr. Dicharry, P.T. and director of the SPEED Performance Clinic and Motion Analysis Lab at University of Virginia, said it best, "Your feet are the first thing that hits the ground, and if they work, then things simply work well up the chain." We train every other part of the body but how often do you focus on training your feet, the starting point of most other movements?

Benefits of Being Barefoot

Movement correction.

One of the greatest things barefoot training can help with is finding correct foot pressure in your squat. The foot pressure should be in a tripod with the heel, ball of big toe, and ball of pinky toe exerting equal pressure during a squat. Yet, how many of us have been told to “drive the weight through the heels” when we squat?

If you find you’re having issues with finding the proper foot pressure during lifts, training barefoot may be advantageous as it will naturally cue your body into proper positioning.

Balance and Foot Strength

Training barefoot or just walking around without highly cushioned shoes on can help strengthen the 20 muscles and 33 different joints throughout the feet. You will naturally strengthen foot stabilizer muscles which helps with balance, an important biomotor ability that tends to decline as we age. Being barefoot also improves your proprioception, or awareness of your body’s positioning and movement. Improved proprioception can help you better understand your movement patterns and thus, improve your overall movement and lifts when you do have shoes on.

Increases flexibility/mobility.

Doing exercises like pushups and lunges barefoot allows for full flexion of your toes that isn’t possible in shoes. It will also stretch the plantar tendon, providing relief for people with stiff arches or plantars fasciitis.

Mind-body connection.

Being barefoot forces you to be more focused, diligent, and mindful as you move. You have to think about the exercise more since you’re uncomfortable without shoes. Not to mention, you also have to be more focused, so that you don’t drop a weight on your toes.

Increases confidence.

This one seems silly, but you will realize you don’t need fancy shoes to move well. You have the ability to move well naturally, and it’s not a shoe’s responsibility to do this for you. It’s just a matter of training the movement patterns.

So does this mean I should try my next workout barefoot?

With all the benefits of being/training barefoot, this does not mean that you should go about your next workout without shoes as you would with shoes. Just as your feet need time to adjust in a new pair of shoes, your feet need time to adjust to being barefoot, as they are used to the traditional support they’ve received in the form of shoes. You’ve trained with shoes for years, so it will take time for your body to adapt to being barefoot. You wouldn’t expect a high school football player to be able to throw the ball as far as a professional football player, just as you shouldn’t expect your feet to be able to support you lifting the same amount of weight or moving in the same exact way that you typically do with shoes on.

Take your shoes off and start with just doing your warm up barefoot. Start with body weight, and build to light weight as your feet get stronger. You could also do tempo reps barefoot. For example, tempo squats would look like 3-5 seconds on the way down and then come back up at normal speed. Training barefoot is all about proprioception and developing foot strength, not about hitting PR’s.

What if I can’t or don’t want to train barefoot?

If training barefoot isn’t feasible, or just is not something you wish to do, there are other options for strengthening your feet and gaining the advantages of being barefoot.

  • Take your shoes off whenever you are at home. Think about everywhere you step in your shoes and then think about how you’re tracking whatever is on the bottom of your shoes around your house. Gross.

  • Carve out a day in your week where you do a bodyweight workout. Just go outside to a park and do some pushups, some lunges, some squats. Just move around barefoot. It will not only strengthen your feet but also help to break up the monotony of your typical workout routine.

Walk around barefoot, especially outside. Let’s be honest, how good does walking in the grass feel? Walking around barefoot is natural toe yoga. It will strengthen your feet and can help clear your mind as you are forced to focus on navigating uneven surfaces and avoiding sharp rocks.

If you'd like to learn more about footwear (or lack thereof) or if you have been having foot/ankle pain, reach out to us today by emailing! We would love to help you get out of pain and get back to doing the things you love to do!

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