Barefoot training has become increasingly popular in recent years with research showing several potential benefits, simply from removing our shoes!
However, unlike most things, this is nothing new.
In fact, until the last century we would predominantly exercise and go about our daily activities with little or no support/shoes.
Specifically for bodybuilding, iconic legends such as Arnold used to promote and train barefoot.
So, what are the benefits and why may you want to consider ditching the training shoes and hitting the squat rack without them?
Let’s find out!
An Overview of Barefoot Training
Thinking logically, our feet are the only human body part that touches the ground on a regular basis. Most movements occur from the feet and they are also responsible for producing force in more complex movements such as squatting or standing up, running, jumping etc.
From an evolutionary standpoint, we are born and have evolved without shoes. Until recently, although we may have used some form of thin support for our sole (such as a sandal), we never had the in-depth and supportive structure that most shoes now provide.
While it may seem like a good thing, some experts believe that the development of over protective and supportive shoes are actually a confounding reason so many runners and athletes become injured.
For weight lifting, training or at least performing some mobility work and accessory work barefoot could improve your foot and ankle stability, flexibility, and overall muscular recruitment and gains. Remember, your foot is linked to your whole connective chain and encompasses over 100 muscles (or over 20% of all the muscles in the body).
If you find yourself struggling with mobility, raising your heels as you squat or falling backwards, this may be partly due to lack of ankle stability and mobility.
One of the best ways you can immediately see the benefits of barefoot training is to perform two exercises. First, a set of walking lunges, and then a set of static lunges with and without shoes.
Perform the first set with shoes and pay attention to your foot, ankle and lower leg muscles. After a short rest, do another set without any shoes or socks on, and repeat this for the second exercise.
Notice how your whole lower leg (even your entire leg) is having to contract and stabilize throughout the movement, all of which you would normally miss out on when your shoe is taking over and doing the stabilization for you.
The Pros & Cons of Barefoot Training
Like with everything, there tends to be pros & cons of barefoot training. So, the context of the training session and individual is crucially important.
- May help to improve overall foot, ankle, and even whole body biomechanics.
- Often improves your body’s natural ‘gait’ and walking pattern.
- Improves strength and stability of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments which helps us move more efficiently and reduces injury risk.
- Improves the health of our Achilles tendon (which often causes injuries, especially in sport) and lower limb muscles such as the calf and tibia.
- Helps improve our whole body’s coordination and balance - more muscles and proprioceptors fire up when we train barefoot.
- Aids in general foot health and drastically reduces conditions such as Achilles shortening, athlete’s foot, ingrown nails and more.
- May not be suitable for modern day running on rough and hard surfaces such as roads.
- An adaptation period is needed. In previous centuries we would grow up without shoes and slowly adapt; however, you can’t now just ditch the shoes one day and think you can walk and run all day without shoes. Like everything, you must progress slowly.
- May place more pressure on the Achilles and calf during the initial period.
- Causes you to change your walking and running biomechanics to a more natural position (which is good); however, this again requires an adaptation period and may cause a reduction in performance in the short term.
Barefoot Training & The Gym
For any bodybuilder or gym/fitness enthusiast, there may be some great benefits from adopting some barefoot training in your regimen.
Of course, the main benefits focus around whole body standing and lower body exercises, with little benefit being provided from hitting the bench press barefoot.
However, for any full body movement such as overhead press, deadlifts, squats, bent over row, barefoot training may quickly improve your body’s biomechanics, improve your technique, and help reduce injury over the long term.
The best example comes back to the squat, which most people perform with poor ankle mobility and foot stability, causing their torso to come down, forward, and over exaggerate hip flexion.
Well, barefoot training can be a great counter to this common squatting issue, helping improve the lower hips and in turn, improving knee and hip mechanics (which also have a contributing factor to our spine mobility).
Of course, this will cause a long-term improvement in joint health, increased power and strength, muscular recruitment, and ultimately allow you to control your own squat, changing the technique and hip flexion to suit your training goal. Maybe Arnold was onto something after all?
As discussed, barefoot training in the gym should be conducted in a sensible manner and gradually built in. Start off with some bodyweight warm up exercises and lighter back squats with the bar. Once comfortable, slowly progress as usual up to your normal 10 rep max in a safe and effective manner.
Should You Only Train Barefoot?
As always, some common sense and context is needed to answer this question.
Barefoot training certainly has some benefits for our joints, biomechanics, and possibly our performance and muscle gains. However, this doesn’t mean you should go from zero to 100 overnight and trash every pair of gym trainers.
As pointed out in this article, there’s probably less benefit from training barefoot when you perform upper body workouts and ultimately, those shoes may make all the difference if you accidentally drop a dumbbell or weight plate on your toe!
However, for lower body it’s certainly something you could consider, even if you only start off with using it for warm-up sets and biomechanics work.
Give it a go and see how your training benefits.
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