The Truth About Barefoot Strength Training
- Faulty foot and ankle mechanics impact muscle function, mechanics, and joint health throughout the entire body.
- Most shoes act as a crutch, thus contributing to foot and ankle dysfunction.
- Barefoot and minimalist training is the ideal way to train and move, but your body must be properly prepared first.
- If you're unable to perform a majority of your activities in barefoot or minimalist conditions, then you have foot and ankle deficiencies.
- Improving foot and ankle function will do wonders for movement mechanics, particularly in the hips and lower torso.
- The feet and ankles are best trained with a variety of exercises that focus on stabilization and balance.
Feet Effect Everything
- Improved proprioception and kinesthetic awareness are big words for what we take for granted about movement in general. Learning how to tap into our lower extremities evolutionary feedback mechanism can altogether prevent injuries and increase in muscle strength but it starts by getting barefoot and digging in.
- Our bodies are one huge feedback loop of information to and from the brain. Connecting our feet into the group and utilizing the natural spiral effects of muscle tension to center the joint are excellent ways to tap into improved movement. Starting off slow with short exposures to “mindful” training allows you to make steady and safe steps towards barefoot training.
- Getting to a solid point of any real appreciable foot stability takes time and progression or maybe is it regression? Nonetheless we all need to start somewhere so let’s get to work and learn a thing or two about ourselves.
Improving positional awareness through barefoot training can protect your body by decrease the chances of developing a lower extremity injury and at the same time improve your muscle strength and athletic performance. Our gifted feet provide a wealth of information about joint positions, muscle tension and most importantly the ground. Improving performance from the ground up is how we have developed but now after years of wearing shoes, we can’t just go cold turkey. A gradual step down approach from padded shoes to minimalist shoes to finally being barefoot is what is recommended.
Let’s cover some of the science and then dig our toes into what we really need to know about barefoot weight training and how it can help you be your best.
Barefoot training may not be new, but it’s continuing to gain traction, and now especially in the lifting community. And for good reason. Going barefoot offers a number of benefits for stability, mobility, coordination, and balance, explains Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., and founder of Movement Vault. It differently activates your central nervous system, helps activate your glutes and core to improve balance and increased bodily awareness, and it strengthens the deep muscles in your foot which translates to improved strength of the ankles, knees, hips, and back, he says.
Close your eyes and imagine trying to squat snatch a loaded barbell. Now, imagine trying to snatch a barbell after having your hands bound in gloves for the last 12-20 hours. Now, imagine trying to power clean a loaded bar after having had your hands bound in casts for 12 hours a day since you were an infant. You can almost feel the numbness of your fingers against the bar, the weakness of your hands as they lather in chalk and attempt to grip the weight, can’t you?
An increasing number of weightlifting coaches are using this and similar metaphors for explaining the effect that cushioned footwear has on our feet. “If you wore gloves like that, you wouldn’t have the same ability to feel with your hands because you’d lose that connection to the environment. Simply put, you’d lose the sensory component that helps our body know where it is in space,” says Wickham.
The feet, ankles, and toes need to be trained like any other body part. In fact, you could argue they require even greater emphasis considering most individuals wear shoes that limit, constrict, and bind their feet into unnatural positions, ultimately promoting dysfunction of the lower extremity.
The Best Shock Absorbers Money Can't Buy
Skeletal muscles not only produce force, they also act as a means for absorbing force, essentially acting as shock absorbers. When skeletal muscles aren't activating properly, much of this stress is transferred to tendons, ligaments, joints, and surrounding connective tissue.
The feet are no different. With over 100 various muscles, the feet and ankles encompass 15-20% of all the muscles in the body.
In reality, the feet and ankles are meant to withstand incredibly high forces and should provide more in terms of shock absorption than perhaps any other body part.
Unfortunately, humans begin to gradually lose this ability once we start wearing shoes. Over time, the feet, ankles, and toes become inhibited. Gradually, the force-absorbing responsibilities of the feet are re-assigned to the latest in trendy footwear technology.
Besides minimizing the ability to withstand intense ground reactive forces, the body gradually begins sending fewer and fewer signals to the feet, leading to distortions in proprioception and loss of innervation all the way up the kinetic chain.
Ultimately, this produces foot and ankle dysfunction that leads to dysfunctional movement patterns throughout the entire body, head to toe, or in this case, toe to head.
Evolution Gave Us All That We Need and Nothing More
Our bodies are one huge feedback loop of information to and from the brain. Connecting our feet into the ground and utilizing the natural spiral effects of muscle tension to center the joint are excellent ways to tap into improved movement.
With the lower extremities this means “rooting” into the ground.
Time for an Experiment
Take off your shoes. Stand up.
Feel the ground out and notice how relaxed the foot, lateral leg muscles, and low back muscles are.
Now tension your glutes (come one squeeze them like you have a $100 bill in there, and there aight no one that’s going to take it).
Feel how the tension drives the arch up, so that the tripod of the foot (The first metatarsal head, fifth head, and heel) are in contact with the ground.
Start to now center your knee cap over your last three toes. Essentially, externally rotate your femurs outward to emphasize the recruitment of the lateral chain.
Finally set in the core by bracing, and externally rotate the arms to retraction and depress the scapula.
The posterior chain is set.
Simply stated, using this tensioning postural cue throughout the day can re-enforce how the foot is tied into the rest of the body. What is interesting here is the potential correlation between glute weakness/motor control and uncoordinated flat arches in the feet.
As such a chicken and egg scenario is created.
Do shoes lead to weak feet that decrease the proper input required for greater glute recruitment or do weak glutes lead to dropped arches that then require arch support to maintain proper knee alignment (reduced knee valgus or compensated varus)?
Nonetheless we need to start somewhere so here is an ironed out approach
Common Deficiencies in the Ankles and Feet
1. Ankle and Foot Pronation
A majority of individuals display a valgus foot collapse (inward collapse of the foot) or ankle pronation.
This is often accompanied by one or more of the following, including prominent medial malleoli (protrusion of the inside ankle bone); over-pronation of the feet, flat feet, fallen arches; overlapping toes; prominent scaphoid or navicular bone (protruding inner arch) bunions; and hallux valgus (inward collapse of the big toe).
Significant flaring in either direction (external or internal rotation) is also commonly associated with the above issues.
Besides impairing various aspects of performance and health, these tendencies can lead to a host of other related problems including ACL tears, low back injuries, knee pain, osteoarthritis, and various injuries to the lower extremity.
2. Ankle and Foot Supination
On the opposite, less-common end of the spectrum lies the supinated foot, a syndrome more commonly seen in bow-legged individuals. These people tend to place greater stress on the outer or lateral portion of the foot.
Ankle supination tends to be associated with inflammation throughout the outer ankles, shins, and hips including the IT band. Although the problems are typically less severe than those seen in ankle pronators, these individuals can be susceptible to ankle sprains and chronic foot discomfort.
Fortunately, the cure for these various issues is the same: Strengthen the ankles by forcing them to assume proper alignment.
Proper Foot Mechanics
The "three point of contact rule" is a good place to start here. That just means the foot should ideally contact the floor in the following places:
- Heel or calcaneus.
- The lateral upper portion of the foot or outer ball of the foot in line with the 5th metatarsal, baby toe area.
- Near the proximal phalange, or more commonly, the big toe.
Benefits of Training Barefoot
1. Better Proprioception
The main benefit of barefoot training is proprioception, says Wickham, which is an athlete’s ability to feel the ground. When you are doing strength training exercises that involve your legs, it’s important that you grip the ground with your toes, “like a monkey,” he jokes. Going shoeless can make it easier to “screw your feet into the ground” as many coaches instruct their athletes to do. Plus, athletes who are more in touch with the group and world around them will be less likely to trip outside of the gym, too.
2. More Power
When you deadlift a barbell, swing a kettlebell, or power clean dumbbells, you are lifting weight from the ground up, using the muscles from your legs, back, and core to fight gravity’s downward pull. As we pull and muscle the load upward, our feet are what anchor us to the ground, they are our direct force into the ground. Our feet are the only part of our bodies that touch the ground and transmit the force and strength we spend so much time developing in the gym, explains Wickham. When we wear cushioned shoes lifting, the force absorbed by the cushion is force lost. But if you are barefoot, that force is not lost and instead can be incorporated and used in the lift itself.
3. Heavier Lifts
Many weightlifters and powerlifters will deadlift without wearing shoes because going barefoot while doing a hinge movement like the deadlift or kettlebell swing can help create improved foot feel on the ground, which helps to target the larger muscles in the hips that drive the movement.
4. Improved Muscle Alignment
Going barefoot improves and strengthens the neuromuscular pathways of the foot and leg, explains Wickham. These mold the muscle firing sequences from our feet to our brain and overtime actually affect the way we move through space.
5. Stronger Base
There is heightened balance and stability required when running and moving without shoes, which leads his leads to strength improvements in the foot muscular and connective tissue.
But Don’t Dare To Bare ALL the Time
Going barefoot may be counterproductive for certain movements, for example squats, plyometric movements, and jumping rope. Many people have limited flexibility of the ankles, so going barefoot can make the squat mechanically worse and compromise the form, explains Wickham. While squatting is fine for athletes who do have the necessary range of motion, for others it’s unwise to put a barbell on their back without first working on ankle mobility, he adds.
Additionally, plyometric movements like the broad jump, squat jump, box jumps, and tuck jumps put a lot of stress on the foot’s tendons and ligaments. Without wearing shoes to absorb the shock, you could get hurt if your feet aren’t strong enough, warns Wickham. Jumping rope, too should be avoided while barefoot he notes, jumping rope can also put a lot of strain on the tendons and ligaments. But also, the wire-style jumping ropes can really hurt if you trip on them — that wire is no joke!
Oh, and First Find Out If It Is Allowed
Before you shed your shoes, find out whether or not you’re allowed to workout barefoot at your gym.
“I’m lucky in that I am often training alone in a gym that allows barefoot training. Some gyms and boxes don’t allow it because of the added risk of injury (i.e. weights and plates getting dropped on bare feet). But if you’re in a gym that allows barefoot training and going shoe-less isn’t dangerous (i.e., the gym floor is clean and the space is relatively empty), athletes should try it. If it’s not allowed, minimalist shoes are definitely the way to go because they have minimal heel and cushion,” says Wickham.
Fail, Rinse, Repeat!
Get bigger, stronger, faster, and more confident! DOMINATE your workouts!
Article originally adapted on barbend.com on 11/26/2019