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You might not ever think of hitting the weight room without lacing up your shoes, but kicking them off altogether might be just what you need to recharge your workout. Barefoot training may not be new, but it’s finding more fans in the lifting community, and for good reason.
“Going barefoot offers a number of benefits for balance, mobility, and coordination,” says Nick Clayton, C.S.C.S., personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. “It provides feedback to your nervous system, helping to activate your glutes and core to improve stability. It also helps strengthen the deep muscles that stabilize the foot, which translates to improvements for the ankles, knees, hips, and back.”
The theory, barefoot advocates say, is that the closer contact your feet have with the ground, the more connected the rest of your body will feel. That’s especially true for the core, which is more activated when you’re walking around sans shoes. “You have much more core stability when you are barefoot,” explains Emily Splichal, D.P.M., a podiatrist and author of Barefoot Strong. “And the higher your core stability the more weight you can move during training.” Splichal recently helped create a training mat and insole, called Naboso (“barefoot” in her native Czech), designed to stimulate the small nerve endings along the bottom of the feet.
Before you kick off your shoes and pick up the weights, there are some considerations to keep in mind. For starters, going barefoot works better for certain activities.
“I’m a huge fan of barefoot training for single-leg exercises,” notes Jay Dicharry, P.T., director of the REP performance training center in Bend, OR. “Doing all of your single-leg training barefoot is a great way to improve the muscle coordination inside the foot and improve your ‘feel,’ or proprioception, as you move.” Almost any balancing move will get a boost when done barefoot, since the closer contact with the ground helps provide some added stability, he says.
Many weightlifters will also do their deadlifts without wearing shoes. “Going barefoot while doing a hinge movement like the deadlift can help create improved foot feel, which helps to target the larger muscles in the hips that drive the movement,” adds Dicharry.
Going barefoot may be counterproductive, however, during squat movements. “Many people have limited flexibility at the ankles; so being barefoot can make this mechanically worse during a squat and compromise your form,” says Dicharry. (That’s one reason many lifting shoes feature a higher heel.) “If you do have enough range of motion, it’s fine to squat barefoot, but otherwise this is one move I’d avoid.”
You may also want to avoid doing jumping or plyometric moves without your shoes on, especially if you have low arches or poor foot strength. “Training barefoot puts a lot of stress on the foot’s tendons and ligaments,” says Clayton. “That’s important when you’re doing plyometrics or jumping movements, since you won’t have shoes to offer any shock absorption. If your feet aren’t strong, you could get hurt.” Try shoring up your feet or slipping on your favorite pair of footwear before you start moving.
To get the most out of your sneaker-free time, it can help to practice a few fundamental mechanics, advises Splichal. Here are three key ways she recommends to maximize foot feel:
Find your balance
Stand with feet staggered, with bodyweight mostly over the front “foot tripod,” or the center of your foot between your first and fifth toes and your heel. Lift your toes, spreading them out, then lower them to the floor. Bend your front knee slightly, engaging your core. Push your big toe down, feeling the connection between your foot and core. Release and repeat. Switch sides. Try to maintain this sensation with any barefoot exercise that you do.
Activate your pelvic floor
“A lot of barefoot training is what’s called foot to core sequencing,” says Splichal. “And before you can take advantage of this connection, you have to make sure your pelvic floor is engaged.” Lie faceup on floor, tucking rib cage down and slightly tucking pelvis up. Consider the base of your pelvis to be a diamond with the top being 12 o’clock, the bottom 6 o’clock, and the two sides 3 and 6 o’clock. Isometrically draw the top and bottom together, then the sides. Hold one count, then release. Repeat pattern a few times, then try activating this movement during your lifts.
Strengthen your arches
If you tend to have low arches, try building strength throughout your foot. Stand with feet about hip-distance apart. Imagine there is a piece of paper underneath each foot. Think about this paper pulling your feet away from each other (without actually moving your feet). At the same time, says Splichal, think about rotating your thigh outward, engaging your glutes.