The barefoot workout trend is nothing new, but past and recent research indicates there may be something to the claims. Scientists have been busy testing barefoot training conditions for everything from running programs to barbell squats. What they've found is there are some real benefits to consider.
Although there will always be a need for proper footgear (especially in a public gym), there is a time and place for training barefoot, no matter your sport or physical pastime. Here, we break down the benefits with the help of Onyx personal training coach Jesse Frank.
Meet the Expert
Jesse Frank is a NASM-certified personal trainer and massage therapist with more than 20 years in the fitness industry. Currently, he is a training coach for Onyx.
Why Do Some Trainers Prefer Barefoot Training?
"Good footwear is typically supportive and can allow for pain-free movement," says Frank. "This is especially true for people with flat feet or falling arches. The problem is that most people started wearing shoes at an early age before the muscles of the foot had a chance to fully develop."
Frank compares early shoe-wearing to having a cast on your arm: "It’s very supportive, but after just a few weeks, the arm loses muscle tone and strength. Unfortunately, the very thing we wear to support our weak feet is probably the very thing that caused this issue in the first place."
Removing the shoes may help strengthen the feet and encourage more natural human movement. For exercises like the squat, you need what is called a tripod foot. This cue means that you are gripping the floor with three contact points with each foot. Many people don't naturally do this since they are not used to moving their feet in this way.
Trainers or physical therapists may have you squat barefoot to observe your foot positioning and correct any improper stance issues.
The Benefits of Barefoot Training
Training with bare feet can help build foot strength. "Foot strength means the muscle in the foot will actually be able to support the shape of the arch while exercising and comes with a long list of benefits," says Frank. Among those benefits, he says, are:
- Natural arch support: Weak foot muscles can’t support the small bones of the foot in the proper, natural shape while moving or under a load. This collapse of the arch is also known as falling arches, and while they can be supported by specialized shoes and inserts, these don’t actually solve the problems—stronger foot muscles do.
- Improved stability: Falling arches are a primary cause of instability. This makes balancing on one leg difficult, impedes proper form when squatting and running, and can create problems further up the leg at the knee and hip. Stronger feet prevent falling arches.
- Better movement: Whether the aim is improved performance, aesthetics, or health, better exercise form will benefit your goals. Stronger feet can make for a stronger squat, faster run, or reduced pain.
- Reduced pain: Some people experience foot pain or have been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis. Strengthening the foot can be huge for reducing discomfort in the feet, legs, and body.
When Should You Work Out Barefoot?
Athletes of all kinds have discovered the benefits of barefoot training and have added this to their training programs. These include bodybuilders, powerlifters, runners, gymnasts, and yogis, according to Frank.
Try going barefoot when squatting and deadlifting. "A flat surface could be just the thing to improve form, plus no loss of power through the soft soles of running shoes," says Frank. "Start by going barefoot in just the warmup set before working up to being barefoot for heavier working sets." This may need to happen at home since most gyms don't allow barefoot training (and for good reason).
You can also try barefoot running drills on sand or a grassy field. This can greatly improve overall running form. "You’ll notice improved gait when running longer distances with shoes on," says Frank.
"Gymnastics, yoga, and Pilates are sports that require the athlete to perform barefoot and are the go-to methods to improve posture and movement," adds Frank. He stresses that this is no coincidence but is by design: Training balance, posture, and movement barefoot just makes sense.
Although there are several benefits to be realized from barefoot training, there are also some safety considerations. "Too much too soon can have the opposite effect and actually hurt the feet. Start slow and only for a few minutes," advises Frank.
He suggests starting with something as simple as walking around the house without shoes, timing how long you can stand on one leg, or running in place. "There are also foot-specific strength programs and stretches that are best done without shoes," he adds.
Frank warns that you should always make sure your feet are safe while practicing barefoot training. Shoes and athletic sneakers do have their place and should continue to be used under normal circumstances.
"Yes, wear running sneakers when running a marathon, or running in the streets to protect from glass and gravel and to cushion the feet against the hard concrete," he says. "Trail shoes should also be worn to improve grip and protect against rocks. Sport-specific shoes help protect against the excessive forces that can sprain ankles, tear ligaments, and strain muscles."
The Final Takeaway
There are many benefits to training barefoot, no matter your preferred method. You can improve your weightlifting performance and run more naturally, leading to gains in your sport or recreational activity. "To sum up, use barefoot training as a tool to help improve the feet so that when you are wearing shoes, you’ll move better, look better, and feel better," says Frank.
When you do train with shoes, be sure to use ones that support your natural footstrike and arches. Consult a trained professional that can help you get fitted correctly for best results.
Brown SE. Electromyographical analysis of barefoot squat: a clinical perspective. East Tennessee State University. Published online 2013.
de Villiers JE, Venter RE. Barefoot training improved ankle stability and agility in netball players. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 2014;9(3):485-495.